By Aamer Hussein
The woman, brown haired, fine lines around brown eyes in a face that’s smiled a lot. Brush in hand, body in a stained painter’s smock, turning away from the window. Tree shapes through the glass, branches outlined against a grey afternoon sky. Bare branches of tall trees. At the lower left corner you sense the presence of a canvas you can’t see. The colours are mild, like the back of a fallen leaf.
That’s the first miniature.
In the second painting, the same scene, with a slight shift to the left. You see the large canvas she’s been painting. It’s a seascape. Glinting water, platinum on blue; perhaps an estuary. Boats with red and white striped sails.
There’s a slight smile on her face.
The third painting is of a window. You see the sea through white gauze curtains.
The first two miniatures are called Marya, Painting.
The third is called Boats in Karachi.
The exhibition takes place in an old palace by the sea. From one of the windows, you see a scene similar to one depicted in the painting.
From the exhibition catalogue:
Marya Mahmud was born in Rome in 1917. She studied art privately. She met the historian Mazhar Mahmud in 1937, probably in Paris or Berlin. They were married in a religious ceremony a year later and travelled all over India during the last years of the Raj. Marya began to paint scenes as she saw them. Professor Mahmud was an ardent nationalist and Marya, an anti-Fascist in her native country, matched his fervour in her adopted land. In 1946, a year before Independence, they moved to Lahore where under the influence of Chughtai she began to paint scenes from legends and from history. In 1947, the Mahmuds moved to Karachi where Marya entered the most prolific period of her painting.
The fourth miniature is of a woman’s naked back; the canvas cuts her figure off just below her hips. She’s lifting her hair off her neck with one hand; the other hand holds up a mirror. She’s obviously balancing on one foot, as the other is raised, its heel grazing a buttock. You can see her profile in shadow. It’s the woman from the tree paintings.
Through the window, the sea’s a deep blue field, even though it’s night. You can see a white waxing moon in the night sky. Stars are reflected in the waves. They look like yellow fish.
In the fifth, again a slight shift in perspective: seascape, window, woman and a canvas in view. It’s a painting of the woman taking a pause from painting trees.
The two paintings are called Missing the Sea 1 and Missing the Sea 2.
Between two sequences of paintings there are walls, festooned with photographs. Marya, young, before she changed her name; she was still called Maria Maddalena Serra. Marya on her wedding day with her husband, both in traditional bridal dress. Marya, in some Indian city, in a sari. Marya painting, cooking, on a bicycle, on a march, at a reception, meeting the Shah of Iran, meeting Nasser, Nehru. Marya, older, in Europe. There are photographs of the houses Marya lived in: Karachi, Rome, London, Cambridge.
From a review of the exhibition:
Marya’s Oxford-educated husband, the renowned historian Mazhar Mahmud, wrote a controversial book in 1959. It was called Aspects of Myth and Legend in Islamic Society. In it he questioned the literal existence of angels, saying the Quranic word for angels didn’t denote supernatural creatures with wings but only spiritual impulses trans-mitted to man from divine sources. The iconography of angels in later Islam was inherited from the churches and from Zoroastrian sources.
Lucifer, too: in the Holy Book he was a jinn who refused to bow to the newborn Adam, and was exiled from the Kingdom. But as he left he asked God to let him tempt mankind and give them the test of faith. Thus in some medieval legends and poems the Devil becomes God’s faithful creature, a fallen angel, banished from heaven for the sin of pride, whose mission is to sift bad men from good and select the best for God. In some of the great poet Iqbal’s poems, Lucifer is both adversary and admirer. But in the Book the Devil is not the Great Enemy. He’s only a whisperer and a tempter, a creature of fire, not of the light that angels are made of; a character with no power of his own and possessed of only the power that men invest in him.