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Saba Hasan: Dialectical Visual Expression

Suneet Chopra

Contemporary Indian Art has often been uncritically described as eclectic. This description is purely a formal one. In truth, the elements of different styles, symbols and even colours have a dialectical relation with each other, rooted both in our social life as well as our cultural and historical links.

Not many artists have the rich store of such intellectual raw material as Saba Hasan has, a deep emotional link with the flow of the Arabic cursive script, Persian miniatures and colours associated with the painting traditions of our tribal art, Buddhist wall paintings and international Modernism of the West.

Saba Hasan, ’14 Mosques and a Dargah’, Miniature in mixed media and oil paint on board, 10.5 x8 inches, 2020

But this is not divorced from history, not only of the past but also of the present, as her titles of these miniatures from the Old Testament and Shaheen Bagh suggest. While referring to the camaraderie of women often shown together in miniatures in this painting the artist is alluding to the democratic protest led by Muslim women against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Saba Hasan, ‘Waiting for Jibreel – 3’, Miniature in mixed media and oil paint on board, 10×8 inches, 2020

Ibn Mariam here could equally signify a Kashmiri mother waiting for her disappeared son to return. The work 14 mosques and a Dargah refers to the muslim places of worship attacked during the East Delhi riots earlier this year but it also exists by itself as the artists rendition of a vivid spiritual dominion.

Saba Hasan, ‘Maryam waiting for her son’, Miniature in mixed media and oil paint on board, 10.5×8 inches, 2020

Saba’s works, whichever genre they may belong to, encompass these multitudes and carry with them that element of the first strike. It can be a smudge of charcoal, a dash of colour in a layered space of different tones of white and off white. It can be colour emerging from layered applications of different tones or it can be a flash of light in a web of shadow.

Saba Hasan, ‘Rebuilding our Homes’, Miniature in mixed media and oil paint on board, 13 x11 inches, 2020

For the discerning eye these formal characteristics give one the feeling of the light at the end of a tunnel, which provides a visual arousal of hope even in the darkest of surroundings. This element of hope is reflected in the powerful undercurrents that characterise her work evoking a profound sense of empathy with the human condition.

But her art is not poster making. It has an interplay between different styles, and colours with a powerful level of expressionism in white swathes of action painting. So the process takes on the role of the harmonizer in her works giving an element of post modernism to the visual presence in what is essentially a modernist exercise in a traditional oriental miniature format.

Her use of linearity, spatial compositions , textures, the interplay of light and shade creates a canvas so varied that ultimately it draws the viewer to the essence of art that is the content around which different formal edifices are constructed making each work of art a material entity in itself.

Saba Hasan, ‘Women gathered in Shaheen Bagh’, Miniature in mixed media and oil paint on board, 12×7 inches, 2020

This is the most important quality of good art where the artist uses her own freedom of expression and allows the viewer to do the same for himself or herself to unravel the mysteries of her artistic endeavour. These miniatures painted in a time of constant introspection are an engrossing experience for viewers to start individual journeys with to ponder over and enjoy bearing current history in mind.

Suneet Chopra is a writer and art critic.

Saba Hasan is a multidisciplinary artist. She has worked on book installations, photographs, paintings, videos and sound since 1998. Her work was showcased at the 55th Venice Biennale at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, as part of the Imago Mundi Collection (2013). She also received the Raza National Award for painting in 2005.