12 December 2014

Turning apples into oranges and anguish into smile

A couple of days ago I was discussing poetry with a Turkish friend.  She asked me if I had read a poem by Nazim Hikmet about painting happiness. I had not. She quickly translated the first few lines and emailed it to me. 

"Can you paint happiness Abidin
but without the easy way out
not the rosy cheeked mother breastfeeding her child
or the red apples on a white cloth
nor the jolly fish darting aquarium bubbles;
can you paint happiness
the kind without lies?”

The idea is old of course and speaks to the ancient debates about the purpose of art and the true calling of the artist which will remain unresolved.  No one, Hikmet included, can commission the artist to paint this or that. It is the artist’s decision.  And here, before I am misinterpreted, let me add that we are talking about people who take their art seriously and who are not influenced by ‘market realities’ and the play of demand and supply when it comes to choice of subject, material or style. 

Nazim’s concern is simply and elegantly put.  He wants the artist to depict for us those tender things that reside just below the surface called ‘appearance’ or that which is lost in the clutter of the everyday.  Perhaps.  I don’t know.  I assume.  Anyway, it made me recall the oft-quoted and ill-employed lines from John Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, ‘Beauty is truth and truth beauty; that’s all ye know on earth and all ye need to know’.

How does one paint happiness, ‘the kind without lies’, I wondered.  On Sunday evening, I found out.

I went to watch a street theatre performance in Moratuwa.  It was organized to commemorate the birth anniversary of the late Gamini Haththotuwegama, widely recognized as the pioneer exponent of this form of theatre.  It was exactly one month after he passed away.  It was a trans-generational affair with members of the original troupe performing with the present lot, old favourites infused (as has always been the case) with present-day reference, slang, prop and cultural allusions. 

There was naturally a tinge of nostalgia that hovered over the players and the performance given the significance of the event.  That quality was enhanced by the vocal and physical presence of the master’s son Rajith.  Rajith would I know dismiss all this as unimportant as he should and he wouldn’t be wrong.  On the other hand, he alone possesses his father’s voice and in this sense it was ‘complete’.  The father was present in son, chosen genre and the excellence of performance.

Back to happiness.  People and human relations are not red apples (or mangoes) on a white table cloth; nor are they ‘aquariumed’ specimen swishing this way and that to be gazed on and painted by the random passerby.  They are not one-dimensional and are never made of either black or white but both as well as a multiplicity of other colours and shades.  The story of a single human being is an epic.  The story of social process is an untenable proposition in that it is never amenable to reference in the singular; there are millions of stories and millions of version, all cluttered by the grind of the diurnal and the paint of ideology and political prerogative. 

It is not easy to paint human being.  It is not easy to find the colours that do justice to the human condition in all its complexity.  Indeed it is hard to pick and slice and describe it without injuring that which was chosen for dissection. 

The performance, divested of nostalgia, to my mind was an expression of what Hikmet demanded of Abidin.  It was ‘happiness without lies’.  ‘Happiness’ not because that which was commented on through word, action and rhythm was about a world without blemish, a world warranting salutation and celebration. It was a ‘true’ depiction and it rang true because the colours were believable. 

Social comment suffers in delivery because it is often painted in harsh colours and is devoid of humour and wit, whereas people regardless of what kinds of drudgery they suffer are not humourless and not one-dimensional in response or being. 

The critical edge that I saw in the performance was the fact that the script while being ruthless in criticizing the status quo of a number of things still endowed the ‘sufferer’ with the power to laugh at the oppressor and oppression, injustice and its perpetrator, not in a revengeful way, but an almost paternalistic manner.  More than this, the ‘sufferer’ also laughs at himself.  This is one of the most endearing human qualities and I think this is what allows us to believe in and work towards a different social order. 

I do not know what Abidin said to Hikmet. I do not know the rest of the poem and what else Hikmet asked Abidin.  I have never seen Abidin’s paintings.  But I think, had Hikmet lived in Sri Lanka and had known ‘Hatha’, he would have written a different poem. Or perhaps added an extra verse to the ‘Abidin poem’. Something like this:

Come Abidin,
Let us to the pearl of the Indian Ocean
The tear of all tears
Blood soaked and benign.
There, I have heard
Lives a painter
Who turns apple into orange
Draws it out of table, table-cloth and frame
To feed revolution;
Who disguises scream as laughter
Anguish as resolve
And tickles himself to death
So he can live forever.

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com.