Introduction by Natasha Ginwala
An ink drawing entitled Hieroglyphics I: Koi ashiq kisi mehbooba se 1 (1995) unfolds Lala Rukh’s secret language, a constellation of calligraphic form, Minimalism, and symbolic writing. Borrowing her title from Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem about an encounter between a lover and his beloved, Lala speaks of longing and estrangement in equal measure. I wish to read this drawing mobilized as a “scene,” recollecting Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse (1978), in which he writes: “You see the first thing we love is a scene. … it is the scene which seems to be seen best for the first time: a curtain parts: what had not yet ever been seen is discovered in its entirety, and then devoured by the eyes … the scene consecrates the object I am going to love.”1 The idea of the scene encapsulates a spoken utterance and an intention of fulfillment. As Barthes further outlines—the lover’s time acquires a suspended quality, caught up in the task of waiting.
In Lala’s drawing, this scripting of a scene creates tumultuous flows beyond the clasp of understanding. It is necessary to wait until meaning is unfastened by reflecting on writing as a field of projection2—a place where desire and remembrance can merge and, at times, clash. The scene is enacted in the work as a sequence, making present in time the elements that accrue: the moonlight and ocean surface as a collective sight. In Hieroglyphics III: Roshniyon ka Shahar (2005), her qalam charts the bright specks of silver and dotted shadows, refractive peaks, and the dazzling yet elusive bending of light, while transforming the horizon of a metropolis. The landscape of Karachi is considered here through its dense, illuminated pattern—drawing as cartography.
Lala learned calligraphy under a master practitioner while she was head of the Master’s program in Visual Art at the National College of Arts, Lahore; entering a new paradigm of apprenticed learning while simultaneously training a generation of artists. This complex art requires the artist to engage in meticulous rehearsal, performing writing with instruments in the vein of a musician. The term used in Hindustani music for the regular honing of expertise through strict practice regimes is Riyaaz. Observing Lala’s “Hieroglyphics”—a series that spans over a decade—I think of her Riyaaz as the slow buildup of a coded alphabet of her own making.
The artist’s father, Hayat Ahmad Khan, initiated the All Pakistan Music Conference with a set of friends, bringing together eminent and lesser-known musicians across a range of schools and styles. This forum, held at an amphitheater in Lahore’s historic Bagh-e-Jinnah (Lawrence Gardens), with free concerts for the public which often continue into the night, has been a refuge for the musical community since 1959—grounding plurality and developing aural cultures in the city.3 Lala has not only participated in organizing these concerts but has also been archiving its legacy.
Her own work at times operates with the intuitive pull of a sonic grammar; one feels compelled to hold an ear to the painting as it translates the percussive system of taal and the tonal gradient of ragas into pictographs. Rhythm counts and melodic structures are expressed in unexpected symbolic gradients or scales. Take for example, Hieroglyphics V: Qat-jhaptaal (2008), made on carbon paper, about which Lala remarks: “Here, I am looking at both the qat and the taal, the basic unit of calligraphy and of rhythmic patterns.” A language of graphic scores is thus applied through her embodied learning of decorative handwriting, yet the signs perform as conceptual portraiture, construing a “likeness” that may never be straightforwardly read.
Notational schemes also enter into stretches of landscape. Lala’s work invokes the human body and the shifting limits of the earth, conflating expansion and restraint, stillness and movement. Nightscape II (2011) is an optical challenge, embracing the night sky as ally—a terrain to roam freely—and darkness as a lexicon to be deciphered. Looking at a three-dimensional map of dark matter in the universe, I felt an affinity with the “Nightscapes” series in the graphic lines that provide hints of shimmer, and then become almost nothing.
While Lala’s studio practice has developed in closely guarded seclusion, she is keenly aware of the radical potential of collectivity by way of her life in activism, as a member of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF)—one of South Asia’s most significant platforms for women’s rights and feminisms of the Global South. Her contributions lie not only in staging protests, public meetings, and workshops but also in defining the graphic vocabulary of the women’s movement across Pakistan as spearheaded in the efforts of WAF and other organizations since the 1980s.
In the early poster calling for equal rights titled Masaawi Haqooq (1983–84), a veiled woman is portrayed shackled, recalling the anti-women laws and Islamization process instituted during the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq. A later poster highlighting crimes against women collages newspaper reports to expose the extent of violence witnessed by women across generations and class groups. Lala deploys a photo-collage technique in a brilliantly designed calendar for the year 1985, showing a group of women demonstrators projected onto its grids as if paving a shared path, joined by a time of being-in-common that echoes solidarity as well as the minutiae of struggle located in the day-to-day. The WAF also engaged leading feminists, such as the Moroccan sociologist Fatema Mernissi, whose thinking around gender dynamics, the veil, and what she has called “the fabrication of false traditions” was influential on the movement.4 Her writing on the veil is evoked by another protest poster disclosing an act of chador burning, a controversial yet necessarily rebellious action that, Lala explains, “took place during a demonstration held to condemn the killing of two sisters in Karachi, known as the Masoom Sisters’ case. It was created for a small organization called Simorgh Women’s Resource and Publication Centre toward their first Muslim Women’s Conference [in Lahore].”
During a recent conversation at her home in Lahore, Lala discussed how her backyard was converted into a screen-printing workshop for the circulation of WAF materials, while also serving as a gathering place for activist groups and training sessions. Later, she developed a screen-printing manual in English and Urdu, titled In Our Own Backyard, and traveled across the Indian subcontinent to mobilize this printing knowledge as a self-organized medium for the dissemination of radical ideas and campaigns led by activist organizations, labor initiatives, and grassroots communities for women’s empowerment.5
The first of the “Mirror Image” series was created in 1997, after Lala was invited to respond to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in northern India during a rally by Hindu extremists on December 6, 1992. The episode stirred mass riots in India as well as Pakistan, resulting in the desecration of temple sites in Lahore as a gesture of retaliation across the border. The artist witnessed these incidents of escalating hostility and chose to pair images, borrowed from newspapers, of sacred complexes under threat in Ayodhya and Lahore. She proceeded to black out the details while converting these found visuals into abstract studies on graph paper—plotting the unknowable edges of structural violence through self-conscious erasure. When terror is bound up with the accelerated circulation of images, and a desensitizing iconophilia, perhaps this mode of subtraction can offer an imaginative tool to shape an appeal for civility and justice. “Mirror Image” resounds as a commentary on the impenetrable nature of the communal aggression and waves of nationalism that continue to characterize relations in South Asia, and today’s world at large.
1 Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978), p. 192.
2 Lala Rukh, interview by Mariah Lookman, in Sharjah Biennial 12: The Past, the Present, the Possible, exh. cat. Sharjah Art Foundation (Sharjah, 2015).
3 E-mail correspondence with the author, May 2016.
4 Fatema Mernissi, The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1991), p. 9.
5 This passage is excerpted from my essay, “Lala: Lines of Agency,” Marg 68, no.1 (September 2016). It is included here with the permission of the publishers.