Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 April 2008
Issue No. 893
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Anna wa Rabi

Anna Boghiguian on Tagore and turn-of-the-century Indian-Egyptian ties would not disappoint, discovers Gamal Nkrumah

Rabi -- my Lord; Rabi Tagore. What a fortuitous homonym.

Click to view caption
One of Boghiguian's paintings

Anna is a personal friend. She is fond of Anwar El-Sadat, and I am more inclined to consider Gamal Abdel-Nasser my hero. Yet, we are in total agreement that Egypt and India share much in common, and we are both captivated by the subcontinent and its plethora of cultures. Boghiguian, one of Egypt's leading artists, is devoting her next exhibition to the memory of the years when Egypt and India laboured under the yoke of British rule. She is mad as hell when she thinks she has reason to be. She is fascinated by India, and by the greatest of the subcontinent's artistic luminaries -- Rabindranath Tagore, the "Myriad-Minded Man".

Anna Boghiguian becomes foil to the primped-perfect vacuousness of Cairene life. Forgive me, from now on she is no longer Anna, she is Boghiguian. This is a time of composition.

Nobody can accuse Boghiguian of being too pusillanimous, or so it seems in her lighter moments. Her works are bold and bohemian. Most Egyptians are ambivalent at best about India, not so with Boghiguian. Tagore was the subject of a reality document. A certain amount of speculation surrounds Boghiguian's work. There are bid rumours and whispers in these paintings. You can see clearly that the walls have ears.

Boghiguian, a Boadicea of the Cairene cultural scene, is not making squillions. Boghiguian's paintings are the 21st century perspectives presented in 20th century costumes. The inspiration for her exhibition was a visit she paid to the Jorasanko district of north Calcutta where the Tagore family mansion is located, today it is a museum. Any visit to the Thakur Bari, the Tagore House, is an experience of immense ramifications. On canvas, she explored the relationship between Tagore and the celebrated Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi, between Egypt and India through the interactions between the two men.

"Tagore was deeply moved by the death of his friend Ahmed Shawqi," Boghiguian told Al-Ahram Weekly. He sent a moving eulogy to mourn his friend. Haunting images of the two men, their friends and acquaintances emerge on the canvas. Spectacles of belle epoch, princely staircases, palaces galore, musical instruments both Indian and Egyptian, everyone clothed in rich and bold colours. Crimson tarboushes (the fez worn by Egyptian men in those days), velvety curtains emblazoned with purples, russets and rose.

"The palaces of Calcutta have a certain splendour and unparalleled grandeur. In a strange sort of way they are reminiscent of those of Egypt," Boghiguian muses.

She concedes that the setting is very different. The humid and damp sub-tropical surroundings of Calcutta and its luxurious verdant environs sharply contrast with the stark heat and dust of arid Cairo. Yet, both Calcutta and Cairo are colossal and bustling cities. On a visit to Calcutta, a marble palace and two sphinxes caught Boghiguian's eye.

The sphinxes conjured up multitudinous images in her mind. Sphinxes in Calcutta? Back in Cairo, Boghiguian went straight to Ahmed Shawqi's Museum. As if in sequential order, personalities from the past emerge on the colourful canvases. Saad Zaghlul, the leader of the 1919 Revolution of Egypt knew Tagore, and the then-young musician Mohamed Abdul-Wahab, bespectacled, oval-faced, with delicate almost dainty fingers playing the oud grace many of Boghiguian's sketches.

So Tagore, Ahmed Shawqi, Saad Zaghlul and Mohamed Abdul-Wahab -- I get the picture. "Nehru was a child of Gandhi and Tagore," she says. "I cannot say the same of Nasser: he didn't follow in the footsteps of Saad Zaghlul," Boghiguian says in a huff. She lights another cigarette.

She coughs violently. These wheezes were compulsive.

The chain-smoking Egyptian artist of Armenian extraction puts together a jumbled mix -- Cinema Metro, Mother Theresa, Calcutta, Cairo, the "muddy colours" of the City of the Dead, Alexandria in the brightest of shocking pinks, and last but not least the eerily evocative image of a leprous Indian woman, an untouchable.

Tagore was not a Communist, and neither is Anna Boghiguian. However, Tagore was acutely conscious and critical of what he termed the "abnormal caste consciousness" of India. The paintings of Boghiguian mainly feature palaces and people, but not just any people. People of substance -- people who have left an indelible mark in poem, on canvas, in politics and in song. "Both Tagore and Ahmed Shawqi put music to their poems."

Poems privately painted and little circulated during his lifetime were the hallmark of Cavafy, another of Boghiguian's favourite subjects. He, too, stands next to Tagore. Boghiguian's works lend an air of verisimilitude to the sad historical reality.

Her haunting depictions of Tagore, almost always bedecked in blue and once or twice in green, are ghost-like. "Blue is his colour, or at least that is how I see Tagore, in the bluest blue," Anna notes. She pauses presumably for dramatic effect. No, she didn't use his self-portraits as her inspiration. "They are brilliant, absolutely stunning. But, I preferred to use his photographs from the Internet. I didn't want to replicate his perception of himself, however enticing. I preferred to paint him the way I see him," she stared blankly at one of her paintings of Tagore among his Egyptian friends. So does she prefer Tagore the painter or Tagore the poet? "I cannot compare. I just love Tagore, painter and poet," she says nonchalantly.

Incongruous details, incidental details and much more tumble off the canvas. Anna's depictions of Tagore among his Egyptian friends and admirers are enchanting. The paintings of Boghiguian are generally strikingly sombre, but her Tagore paintings are brightly coloured and intense. "Luminous and florescent," Anna insists.

All, that is, except one in which she envisages a 1911 poem by Cavafy entitled The Battle of Actium which depicts the victory of Mark Anthony over Octavian. Indeed, Cavafy features in some of the paintings of Boghiguian celebrating Tagore in Egypt.

It beggars the belief that a subcontinent as culturally rich and varied as India could be encapsulated in a painting. And, there is not a single painting on display that would not warrant a glance at.

Tagore set up the Institute for Rural Reconstruction, which he renamed Shriketan, or Abode of Wealth. He was a nationalist and an artist. "National self-respect is making us turn our faces backwards to our country and demand that in all religious, social, and even personal matters we do not move one step against the Master's will. National self-respect is ordering us to perform an impossible task: to keep one of our eyes open and the other one closed in sleep," Tagore told a Calcutta audience in 1917. And if you do not believe him, just look at Boghiguian's exhibition.

Bengal is a world apart. In Tagore's day, it was composed of both the Indian state of West Bengal as well as the modern independent nation-state of Bangladesh. The two Bengals combined have a total population of about 300 million. Yet there was something much deeper to Bengal than just numbers. There is a proud culture, Muslim and Hindu, and many other facets.

It all sounds a little studied. Tagore stands slightly apart, his eyes peering into space and a halo of white hair and the flowing snow-white beard. Egypt's poet Ahmed Shawqi stands by, and so does Saad Zaghlul. That in a nutshell is what the exhibition is about.

What delightful chaos. True, Ahmed Shawqi was a friend of Cavafy's. And, the Battle of Actium, is surely a symbol of colonialisation: the loss of Egypt's independence. I am gagging for a gasper. But, Quranic writings by Tagore?

"Tagore and Ahmed Shawqi wrote a poem together celebrating ...," her mind wanders off.

Anna Boghiguian in previous incarnations must have been Bengali. In Giza, Tagore, Ahmed Shawqi and Mark Anthony and Saad Zaghlul all stare at each other in utter amazement and incongruity. Boghiguian does not describe herself as a political activist, she is after all an artist. Her work, though, is politically provocative.

Whether it is the disturbing sight of a leprous woman or a Sadhu in deep meditation, draped in the Indian tricolour. She bends over and lifts up a khaki shirt to mimic the look of the leper she painted. Boghiguian without warning launches into a narration of the history of Egypt and India. It was instructive and ultimately uplifting.

Back to Tagore, bedecked in blue. One painting after another shows him in the same cool cobalt blue. The most important clue is the blue -- the most spiritual colour.

Precise historical reconstruction of the long life spans of Tagore and Abdul-Wahab and Zaghlul on canvas was illusory. Historical credibility aside, there is a powerful message.

The paintings metaphorically express the natural affinity between India and Egypt. The Safar Khan gallery, Zamalek is hosting Boghiguian's exhibition next week.

These paintings strike home directly. Her works are evocative of an age bygone, giving voice to sentiments that many had been too reticent to evoke.

They are forceful and not about foibles and inadequacies. Both weedy and weird. They provide an intense sense of intellectual pleasure. And that's something to which I'm not ashamed to admit. Some display an almost wilful desire not to be liked.

Not much chance of that, though. Nor are they merely academic. But the roots go even deeper.

Thirdworldism, Afro-Asian solidarity, is not a spent force. Boghiguian wishes to luxuriate in political culture -- moulding brilliance to her creations. But they allow these political and artistic figures to live on in the collective memories of both India and Egypt, but especially the latter.

This reflects, nay it embodies, the zeitgeist.

These paintings are not merely imaginary creations of an anonymous artist. But Boghiguian is fiercely humble. Neither is she self-congratulatory. "I have no illusion that my works will be displayed in the Guggenheim," Boghiguian snorts, shrugging her shoulders as if in disgust.

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