I Saw it Once in the Indus Valley Civilization".
The sense of dejavu invoked in the title I Saw it Once in the Indus Valley Civilization' is palpable. Standing before Munawar Ali Syed's extraordinary fixating sculpture/installation in the Sadequain Gallery Frere Hall one can't help but feel 'I think I may have seen this before'. Not the fiberglass water buffalo resting on a pile of 3000 books no. But perhaps it is the deploying of livestock as metaphor or narrative device that provokes such a sense of familiarity. It is a gesture we know and are somewhat accustomed to. In fact just a few days after seeing the installation at ArtFest I attended a talk at the Karachi Literature Festival where Mohammed Hanif read out an excerpt from a speech in which he reminisced about bathing his headmaster's 'bhains' (water buffalo) as an extracurricular activity back in his school days.
Upon seeing Munawar's piece I myself had been reminded not of Indus seals or Harappan tablets but of a more recent text by Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi. In a short story titled Nyadosh the Incredible Cow" Mahasweta Devi narrated the antics of a rather unique cow her family had raised when she was a child a non-vegetarian cow with a penchant for devouring hilsa fish and children's school books. Next I thought of Subimal Misra also a Bengali writer who in his short story titled "The Cow is a Kind of Quadrangular Creature" wrote of cows who hate democracy bring about military coups call for increases in the manufacturing of armaments and declare as dangerous those among them who tried to read books or thought contrarily."
The associations are abundant and the final one I made that day was Manan Ahmed's brilliant piece on the Chapati Mystery blog I am a Bhains". This text was a response to a 2010 New York Times article by Daniyal Mueenuddin in which he related the suffering of flood-ravaged South Punjab through the not-tired-at-all narrative device of a you guessed it a cow. In Ahmed's piece a dejected bhains responds to Mueenuddin's choice of livestock with an impassioned defense of its own right to represent.
I mean come on I am here. Me. Use Me. Punjab is unexplainable unknowable unthinkable without Me. Speak about me think about me hear my voice.
Yes the associations are abundant and the motifs we saw in those tablets and seals have been utilized and deployed many many times since and perhaps we have placed an unfair burden on our livestock to represent people nations and politics. But Munawar Ali Syed's Bhains-as-Sindh is not Daniyal Mueenuddin's dying carcass of a cow-as-South Punjab. Nor does it have the docility of Hanif's bhains who silently acquiesces to being bathed by her owner's students. It is a glorious life-sized matte black almost god-like creature. It has all the grandeur of the cows on the Harappan tablets every fold of its skin laboriously carved and its pose fearsome resembling a lion awoken from its sleep. The image of this bhains is so arresting so awe-inspiring that for a fleeting moment one must forget about metaphors stop seeking to make associations for how could this fiberglass tribute be about anything but bhains-ness its beauty rendering even the 3000 books it rests upon irrelevant.
Like Manan Ahmed's proud and indignant bhains it seems to simultaneously boast the ability claim its entitlement to represent and in so doing expose the absurdity of it. And the title I Saw it Once in the Indus Valley Civilization' seems like a joke erasing rendering invisible the history of the image's reproduction the metaphor's reiteration. Everything in between those Harappan tablets and Munawar Ali Syed's sculpture is no more. So simultaneously alongside the feeling that we may have seen this before there is also a strong strong sense that we have never seen anything quite like it.