Rhythms of Freedom

By Munir Saami
Dawn: Sunday, 25 Apr, 2010

Sadequain is among those rare artists in history who adopted painting as well as poetry as their medium of creative expression.

In the western arts only a few prominent names can be mentioned who were painters as well as poets of high repute. These include William Blake who was a mystical romantic poet and an engraver of great fame, and Dante Rosseti was also a recognized poet and a master painter. Both hailed from England.

Pablo Picasso composed poems which were published under the title The Burial of the Count of Orgaz and Other Poems around the mid-1930s. Interestingly, it is said that when Picasso was composing poems he was experiencing a mental block towards painting.

Among the painters of the Eastern and Middle Eastern tradition, Sohrab Sepehri of contemporary Iran was an accomplished poet and painter.

Sadequain is the only iconic painter of South Asia who could also claim a name in the domain of serious verse. Renowned Indian artist M. F. Hussain has composed some poems that have been included in his autobiography; these may be considered as lighter poems which may not be at par with the genre of rubaii that Sadequain chose.

To fully comprehend Sadequain’s poetry we need to be sufficiently familiar with the poetry and philosophic traditions of Persia, India and the Middle East. To grasp the metaphors and meanings that he wove in his verse we need to reflect upon the thoughts and art of Mani, Behzad, Sarmad, Khayaam, Mansoor Hallaj and other mystics, poets and painters.

We cannot fathom the depths of Sadequain’s poetic imagery unless we know the principles of struggle at Karbala that Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), stood for and acquired martyrdom for.

Sadequain respected and derived his inspiration from great Urdu poets that include Mir Taqi Mir, Ghalib, Mir Anis, Josh Malihabadi and Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Canadian scholar Northrop Frye, who is considered among the great critics of English literature, has theorized about two major themes in literature. He identifies these as the Myths of Concern and the Myths of Freedom.

The Myths of Freedom are the narratives that talk about liberty, equality, dissidence, resistance, exercise of fundamental human rights and breaking of chains that Rousseau has so elaborately discussed in his Social Contract. It is interesting to note that Frye’s major work on the above two themes began when he visited Pakistan for a conference in 1972, and it was included in Critical Path which encompasses the ideas of writers, artists and society.

Modern Urdu poetry has also adopted the Myths of Freedom under the influence of the Progressive Writers’ Association in India and Pakistan. It is the metaphors of resistance, dissidence, struggle against religious hypocrisy and freedom from tyranny that are the common themes in the poetry of Majaz, Makhdoom, Sahir, Josh and Faiz. The same can also be detected in the inspiration of Mir Taqi Mir, Ghalib and Mir Anis long before the advent of the Progressive Writers’ Movement in India.

Sadequain chose rubaii for expressing his poetic thoughts. In Urdu poetry rubaii is the form of poetry that consists of four lines of a very precise metre. It is considered to be a difficult classical metre and very few Urdu poets have adopted it and even fewer have excelled in it. Mir Anis, Mirza Dabir and Josh Malihabadi may be considered among the masters of rubaii.

While composing his rubaiis — or rubaiyaat, which is the plural of rubaii — Sadequain has adopted various themes that reflect upon the motifs in his poetry, his imagery and philosophy as a painter. He has arranged these in multiple sections of his poetry collection. All of these reflect the Myths of Freedom that were alluded to earlier.

I will share some examples of his rubaiis that specifically target the hypocrisy of religious orthodoxy that influences all religions equally. While reading Sadequain’s rubaiis, we are able to conjure up images that are universal in all religions.

In one rubaii he writes:

A religious scholar was lecturing on morality, keeping a religious book before him awhile, when I split his prayer rug and discovered a nude picture hidden underneath.

In another he says:

Religious scholars are debating the religious laws in their room. A beautiful girl has come to visit me and I have hidden her behind the bookshelf of religious manuscripts

At another occasion he speaks to the religious leaders and declares:

All of you are afraid of Allah, and ready to die for your faith. In these hypocritical times, I am the only one who is proud of his heresy

Sadequain’s daring challenge to the hypocritical practices at the pulpit can be witnessed in this rubaii:

The infidel is not weak in his heresy. He does not fool anyone in the name of faith.

In my opinion a true infidel is much better than a Muslim who tells lies and deceives others

We find many examples of Sadequain’s challenges to hypocrisy of religious orthodoxy spread throughout his poetry. He has followed the examples of many daring saints, poets and philosophers of Islam who gave up their luxuries and lives to uphold the truth.

Sadequain hailed from a region that is currently engulfed in religious and sectarian strife, as well as communal violence and bloodshed in the name of faith and religion. It was in this very region that Sadequain and his other contemporaries opposed bigotry and injustice not too long ago.

He not only led by example but also paved the way for others so that the struggles for resistance against tyranny, freedom from religious intolerance and professing of free expression could continue and succeed.

The following sums up his passion and spirit:

Carrying my own head in my hands, I flutter like the flag of victory. I go to the hanging ground with such happiness, as if I am going to meet my beloved

Sadequain’s poetry, along with his paintings, requires and deserves serious and focused scholarship that will explore the deeper meanings that he strived for throughout his works. Such scholarship will lead to mutual understanding and pluralism that is the requirement of our times and a necessity for mutual global coexistence.

This article was read on the occasion of the launch of a deluxe edition of Rubaiyaat-i- Sadequain at Canada’s Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.