Pathway to the Inner Sanctum
THE JOURNEY WITHIN
by Aasim Akhtar
another year is gone
a traveller’s shade on my head,
straw sandals at my feet
– Basho (1685)
For more than three decades, Noorjehan Bilgrami has pursued a singular path as apprentice to the greatest South Asian masters of traditional textiles, in search of the quintessence of the spirit and the mastery of ancestral techniques in order to develop the fullest freedom of expression. The resulting works powerfully demonstrate the self-discipline and strong will of a woman who from the earliest days has always blazed her own trail. Her journey to enter a pure, global relationship with the universe through painting has equally demanded the highest standard of self-preparation and situates the space within which she paints as a fragment of the universe, a matrix infinitely toying with reality’s forms.
First comes the paper (rice paper, kozo, gampi, wasli), the background upon which Noorjehan materialises her own void as a fragment of universe ready to receive a mark. Composed of layer on layer of pigments and natural dyes and minerals in vibration, of light waves of cinnabar red, lichen, Cistercian white, woven as a veil of fluctuating presences and absences, revealing the sensitive and explicit pattern of living tissue, the eye can follow the breath’s wandering flow through the maze and links of its many meridians. This background, which Noorjehan calls the “Great Subtle”, the “Mysterious”, a dissolving of the self into an intensely alive vacuity, is an essential preliminary to the ultimate form that will take shape upon it.
In Noorjehan’s painting, the internal contradiction conveys its singularity: there is a relationship between form and content that runs counter to what is usual in painting. Instantaneous time of gesture – “Lightening steers the universe” quoting Heraclitus – makes the work coagulate into the slash of a scar, the wonderment that refuses anything that is not such a sign. Noorjehan’s brush strokes, on the other hand, only exist by layering the previous time that they reveal. By obliterating the surface, they underline the slow, minutious preparation, the subtle shades that are masked by the breadth of the monochrome field. The slow maturation of a painting, which only achieves validity when the sign is affixed, is in a certain way the reflection of the inner void.
“A painting,” says Noorjehan, “is only the beginning of a journey.” It is also the end. The circle comes back on itself without ever closing: no painting is ever an end to painting. When Sengai did his unforgettable ink painting linking the infinity of the circle to the triangle and the square, he revealed “the ten thousand things” that are the entire universe.
In characteristically succinct statem