Khadim Ali discusses the Shahnameh’s significance

5:32 | Published on November 18, 2013 | 230 Views

Artist Khadim Ali discusses his cultural and familial heritage, giving historical context for a story that will be read from the Persian epic poem Shahnameh (Book of kings). Ali talks about his membership of the Hazara, a minority ethnic group in Afghanistan, and recounts his family’s move to India. He describes the Afghan culture of storytelling, and details the importance of the book’s hero, Rustam. Finally, he reveals how the Shahnameh’s illustrations inspired his practice of miniature painting. Watch Part 2 of this Mind's Eye with Khadim Ali series.

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Hi everyone, I’m Khadim Ali. I am an artist. I am a miniature painter. I belong to a minority group, Hazaras, in Afghanistan. The Hazaras make up 19 per cent of the population of Afghanistan. And Hazaras have been massacred through genocide over the years, over the centuries, because they are Shi’a Muslims. This also makes them a minority among the Sunni Muslims. The first genocide of Hazara started in 1890s, when Amir Abdur Rahman, the king of Afghanistan, killed more than 62 per cent of Hazaras. And it was then that lots of Hazaras fled Afghanistan and moved to the countries around Afghanistan. Also, it was when my grandparents escaped Afghanistan. They went into India at that time. After the partition of Pakistan and India, they moved to Pakistan, at the border of Afghanistan, with the hope that someday Afghanistan would be free land and they would be able to go back and claim their land—which never happened.

When my grandparents moved to India in the 1890s, they had two books with them—one was, because they were Muslim, they were carrying the Quran; the other book was The Book of kings. The Afghan culture was very much into storytelling, because Afghanistan is very mountainous and the weather is very harsh. They have only three months of agriculture, and the other nine months they entertain themselves with stories, with poems, and things like that. So the book Shahnameh was written in 1010 AD, in the court of Mahmud Ghaznavid in the province of Ghazni in Afghanistan. The book contains sixty thousand verses. The hero is called Rustam and symbolizes the bright side of humanity. The dark side of humanity is symbolized by a demon in the book. But my grandfather was a singer of Shahnameh. So, I grew up at the border of Pakistan with my grandparents, where lots of other Hazaras were coming, and gathering at his place, and listening to Shahnameh. My grandfather was singing the Shahnameh to them, and it was a great source of entertainment for them. But when he died, no one carried on.

In that book, in the story of Shahnameh, the hero Rustam gets killed, betrayed by his friend. He got killed by his own friend. What survived in the story were those demons. It reminded me a story of another Sufi who was traveling in the 12th century from Iran into India. This Sufi, who was a poet, was called Sheikh Sa’adi. He arrives in a very cold town near the border of India. And he goes to this soup kitchen to get a free meal, but some barking dogs attack him. He wants to pick up stones to fight the dogs, but all the stones are locked into the frozen rainwater. So he holds his hands up in to heaven and asks God, “What city is this?” or, “What town is this that all your stones are locked, and all your beasts are free?”

So, from then onward, I felt like the Rustam was killed, and all of the demons are free here. And they’re calling themselves Rustam. And then I started painting demons. And I kept painting demons, painting demons. I’m painting them in my medium called miniature painting—that’s my style of painting. In The Book of kings, the illustrations of the stories are done in miniature painting. So my first encounter with miniature painting was when I saw the illustrations of the stories in The Book of kings, when my grandfather was singing that, and I was looking at the illustrations.

Miniature painting was first started in Central Asia as the illustration of the stories in the book. It is miniature because they were small illustrations in the books. And the first school of miniature painting was established in the 16th century, in one of the Western cities of Afghanistan. But when the Uzbeks attacked Afghanistan, all of these miniatures, they escaped into Iran. So from then onward, Afghanistan was deprived of its own art medium.

In 1998, I went to Iran, and I did some painting courses there. And in 1999, I got a scholarship at National College of Arts in Lahore. They were offering a degree in miniature painting. I found it very [much] like a lotto—nothing can be better than doing miniature painting as my major, because I grew up with miniature painting, looking at miniature painting.