The Creator, the Creation, and the Nukta

When artists and poets observe the world around them for inspiration, they are in the unique position of being a creator, the audience, and the creation itself. And while the true meaning of any artistic creation may only be known to the artists themselves, we, the audience, can only try to understand the essence, just as artists try to understand the world they observe.

Just like a painting, each aspect of the universe is a piece of art. Each person and each community of people experience it in a unique manner. For those who see the world through only one reality, the experience is like looking through a clear glass window-pane, but for those with the privilege of exposure to multiple world views, the experience can be like looking into a brilliant multi-faceted diamond.

In this essay, I present a personal view of one aspect of reality. A reality presented by one of Pakistan’s most prolific artists, the late Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi. Sadequain was a follower of the Sufi mystic beliefs of the Indian sub-continent. For a better appreciation of Sadequain’s art, it is important to understand a few basic concepts of Sufi mysticism. This, I believe, can be summed up in two couplets from the poetry of the 18th century mystic, Baba Bulleh Shah:

Can the Truth ever remain concealed?
When All is contained within a dot?


ع [ain] and غ [ghain] are almost identical,
The noise is created by the dot

This dot, this nukta, the everything, and the nothing, is one of the most vital social constructs of Pakistani culture. It is the concept that forms the basis of both philosophical and spiritual thought throughout the region. It is the soul of local music and dance, literature and art.

In the Sufi mystic tradition, the dot and the ‘noise’ it generates, refers to the Creator, the universe and all the life it contains. Also, included within this concept is the idea that creation was separated from the Creator at the time of birth and that there is an innate desire on the part of creation to return to its source. And, in order to facilitate this reunion, one must first develop the ability to recognize the Creator.

Another belief is that the Creator is quintessentially love and exists in everything. This belief allows for the search to begin anywhere using any or all of the physical senses to discover it. Through music, dance, poetry, and art, Sufi mystics have constructed a reality which symbolizes the relationship between themselves and the Creator, and the journey to reunion. This concept provides a distinct framework through which they form a personal connection and also through which they provide assistance to those seeking direction. The most popular narrative is that of a lover waiting to be reunited with the beloved. Gender in mystic poetry is extremely flexible. And it’s for this reason we often hear male poets and singers using the grammatical forms of language identified with female speakers. Urdu and Punjabi like many other Indo-European languages, use verb and adjective inflections to identify the gender of both the speaker and the one being addressed. So regardless of whether it is the voice of a pleading male lover or the voice of a woman beseeching her beloved to return, it is not the physical form, but the underlying desires which carry the essence of the meaning.

Last, but definitely not least, is the mystics’ rationale for our very existence. According to them, the real reason why the Creator is present within us is so that when we discover the Truth, it becomes possible for the Truth or ‘Haq’ (which is another name for the Creator) to discover itself in a more tangible way. It is that desire of the Truth, to be known to itself, which motivates its creation to search for it. In other words, the little piece of Truth that exists within us is in a permanent search for the Ultimate Truth.

Mystic literature and art is abundant with symbolic images and metaphors. I have already mentioned the dot, the nukta, which symbolizes creation. Water or a fountain symbolizes the source of true knowledge, knowledge of the Divine. The image of wine is used to represent spiritual knowledge, a wine-seller is the spiritual guide, and a tavern is where the wine of Divine love intoxicates the pilgrim. Veils hinder the soul’s reunion with the Creator; they are the challenges put in place to test our love for the Truth. A lamp or light of any kind represents spiritual illumination in the heart; it must, however, be free of all imperfections, so, like a mirror, it can reflect the pure light of the Creator. Fire symbolizes the burning desire for reunion. The long hair of the beloved is symbolic of the diversity of the universe, which also veils the face of the Truth from its creation. The strands of hair represent the countless aspects of creation. This particular symbol enables one to comprehend both the diversity in the unity, and the unity in the diversity of the universe.

These images, among many others, have been used to express thoughts on everything from divinity and the Truth, to the grey world of politics and governments. Often times, the various strands of these narratives in the visual and literary arts of Pakistan are so intricately intertwined, that the essence of each poem or work of art can be understood from the perspective of either the secular or the divine, because everything is, after all, included in the same nukta.

In addition to being one of Pakistan’s most well-known artists, Sadequain was also a calligrapher and a poet; he used both words and images in his search for the truth. Included in his many works of art, are illustrations of the poetry of three major poets of the region: Mirza Asad Ullah Khan Ghalib, Allama Iqbal, and Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Here I focus on the illustrations Sadequain created for poetry by Ghalib, not because he comes first, chronologically, among the three poets, but because his nom de plume, Ghalib, begins with the letter غ, the letter with the nukta, the one that makes the noise. Ghalib himself was undoubtedly one of the ‘noisiest’ poets of his time. He enjoyed being a rebel, and on occasion, got himself in trouble with the law.

A 19th century poet and protégé of the last Mughal emperor of the Indian sub-continent, Ghalib created his body of poetic works in the Urdu language during the British occupation of his homeland. The British colonizers had little to no interest in the development of the native languages or literature of the region, and Ghalib longed for the generous patronage he had enjoyed under the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. He wrote in the traditional poetic form, a mystical romantic genre of poetry, called ghazal. The meaning of the word, ghazal is ‘talking to the beloved’, a form quite appropriate for mystic thought. Ghalib’s poetry addresses the harsh political realities of his time. I believe it’s for this very reason that his poetry was felt so deeply by the people of the region and greatly influenced a number of artists especially after the partition of the Indian sub-continent. Not surprisingly, Ghalib’s poetry is still very popular in the current socio-political climate of Pakistan.

The first of Sadequain’s paintings shows a woman with a head of cascading curly hair, a leaf in her hand, and the sun behind her. Since we know that Sadequain was heavily influenced by mystic thought, and we also know some of the symbolic metaphors used to express that thought, we can read a little deeper into the illustration. One interpretation could be that it is a vision of the light of Truth filtering through a veil that separates the Creator and the creation, the gift of life being presented from behind the veil, in the form of a leaf, and all the mysteries of life folded into the abundant curly hair.

And the poetic couplet which this painting illustrates is as follows:

The secret of the magnitude of Your form would be revealed

If the curls of Your tresses could be unraveled

The image and the words clearly belong together.

In another of Sadequain’s paintings, we see at the top what could be an eye , or an eclipsed sun with blackened rays on the outer edges. Below it is an abstract form made up of cluttered lines. Ghalib’s poetry which is illustrated here, reads something like this:

The frown behind the veil is so deep

It has formed a crease in the fabric

Could this be a commentary on the relationship between the beloved and the lover, between the Creator and the creation? The beloved is clearly upset with the creation, so much so, that the signs of anger are visible from behind in the veil; the veil which symbolizes all things in the universe.

The feelings in this relationship are never one-sided. It is a relationship of love and both parties are entitled to feel strong emotions. In the next painting we see the feelings of frustration felt by the lover.

How long do I put my heartache into words before approaching my Beloved?
My fingers are bleeding, and my pen worn out.

The lover, too, has the right to complain. Ghalib and Sadequain were not the only ones to loudly voice their dissatisfaction with the state of affairs of their socio-political environment to the Creator, their beloved. Allama Iqbal, the National poet of Pakistan wrote a poem entitled, Shikwa, or The Complaint. And that is exactly what it is, a long list of complaints directed to the Creator about the miserable condition of the Muslim world in the early 20th century.

The next painting shows the state of those who have been blessed with all that creation has to offer. We see long wavy tresses of a woman cascading over the shoulders of the young man on the right. His crown is an industrial building. The scepter carries the logo of a Mercedes car. In his right hand is a circular shaped object, a coin perhaps? Despite all the riches in his possession, he is clearly not a happy and content king, but a very miserable joker.

The poetry by Ghalib itself is as ironic as the imagery in the painting:

Restful slumber, peaceful mind, and tranquil nights belong to him
On whose shoulders Your curly tresses fall

The message could be that accumulating worldly ‘things’ does not necessarily make one happy, and should not be the ultimate goal in life. The ultimate goal is to discover the Truth which can only be found through self refection, by looking in the mirror. The mirror, however, keeps getting crowded with ‘pretty’ things, shallow, meaningless things. What is needed is not superficial beauty, but a philosophical mind.

Careless beauty seeks to be recognized
But the mirror is looking for philosophical direction – to the Light

The search for the Truth leads seekers to enlightenment. The realization of the Truth invariably leads to frustration. Frustration with the feeling of being imprisoned in this universe of things that separates us from our Creator, a feeling expressed so well in this painting.

I sit here in the cage with my wings open
If only the door of the cage was open

This feeling of restriction, however, is not meant to be the ultimate state of enlightenment. I would like to conclude with one of my favorite paintings by Sadequain. This, to my mind reflects the ultimate state of enlightenment.

What we have here is a young man mesmerized by a rotating wine glass. The young man’s left arm and right leg form a rectangle around a wine glass, which appears to be full of people. Ghalib’s words are:

Your existence colors the rotating wine glass
One glance into the mirror, and I am amazed at myself

How does one read this painting? We know that wine symbolizes spiritual knowledge of the divine. The contents of the wine glass, therefore, are essentially the source of this knowledge. By placing people in the wine glass, Sadequain appears to indicate the importance of the role of humankind in our search for the Divine. The young man is studying creation in an attempt to access spiritual knowledge and to ultimately discover the Truth. At the same time, he is looking into a mirror, a mirror which Sadequain has created using the young man’s own limbs: his right leg and left arm. This seems to indicate that the young man is looking at himself in a mirror, created of himself – self-reflection, perhaps? So, now, within himself, the young man can see within the whole of humankind – the presence and the colors of the creator. In one glance, he realizes that the Creator, and the creation (including himself) are all One. The union is complete. There is no point of separation. This is the dot where everything converges, where everything becomes one. This is the Nukta.

3 Responses to “Writing Inspired by Art”

  1. August 7, 2012 at 12:25 pm

    Even though acquiring worldly possessions is not the ultimate goal, not providing material comfort for dependents and others in need of them could be considered a level of selfishness…


  2. 2 selmatufail
    August 7, 2012 at 4:04 pm

    That’s true. Responsibilities towards one’s fellow beings/loved ones should always be a priority; it’s when the desire for material comforts become an end in itself that our personal growth could become limited. I believe that there is so much more to our existence than our physical self – so much (currently) inaccessible information stored in our DNA…


  3. 3 Q. M. Sidd
    October 5, 2016 at 8:03 am

    Excellently written… Thought provoking. Taking one angle, one point and deliberating it with such depth is remarkable.


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