Towards the beginning of January, I decided to pay a short visit to New York city. A political event was taking place – a rally by one of the political parties promising to bring justice to the fatherland- and I wanted to hear what they were offering myself. It was an interesting experience, and with freshly-made biryani being served, there was little to complain about. I went to bed that night thinking about what the enthusiasm and energy I had witnessed at the rally would mean for the fatherland, which is going through perhaps its most tumultuous period yet. As Dickens once said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
The next day, I had set aside time for visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I set out early, making sure to savour what was a pleasant, sunny winter morning. The museum is located inside Central Park, on the upper east side. I got off from the subway around 86th street and began to walk along the Park’s wall towards the museum. The City puts forward one its best sides on weekend mornings. It certainly looked like it was going to be a busy day for the park. Visitors thronged its entrance. People were enjoying themselves, a little spring in their stride, laughter in their conversation. It had an effect on me. Setting aside my own thoughts (the one’s which usually occupy a young man’s mind), I also relaxed, and let my hand graze the Park’s concrete wall as I made my way further down 5th Avenue. To my left the Avenue was lined with apartment buildings, the cornerstone ones were particularly gorgeous. I wondered what sort of people lived in them. At least a few doctors, going by the golden plaques on the outside.
The Museum looked good. A row of fountains outside was flowing full throttle. I noticed my friend waiting for me at the top of its steps, and made my way up. Warm greetings were exchanged. Two sons of South-Asian soil, a fair distance away from the bustling city of Karachi, where we were both students. I was handed a metal pin – ticket to the Museum – and given a short introduction about what was to come next as we walked into the large hall inside.
We were there to see the Met’s new Islamic Art galleries, concisely named “New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.” Quips aside, as soon as we entered the first hall, I realized that a lot of hard work had gone into the exhibition. Each exhibition room is full of rich treasures from the various Islamic empires that have graced the world. Exquisite calligraphy, delicate ceramics, intricate woodwork, and fine carpets are on display. Unlike other galleries that I have visited, this particular one manages to capture the grandeur of the art. Pieces are displayed in a manner that conveyed a good sense of their size and scale. Great attention has also been given to how the items are showcased, and the gallery has tried to shape the environment so that the art is part of it. For example, many of the rooms contain windows made in jaali style – commonly found in traditional Pakistani and Indian homes.
One of the spaces I liked best was the Moroccan court, which comes up as one moves through the gallery. It was designed by craftsmen from Fez, who were brought in for the exercise. The court uses glazed tiles, in blue and green, which partly cover its walls, and has a small fountain at its end. It is a nice place to take a break for a few minutes, and take in the wealth of artifacts on display. As I was taking one on my visit, I realized a key factor which differentiates Islamic Art from other traditions. By and large, Islam discourages replication and depiction of the human form. This is not so in other religions, and this is evidenced in their art, which includes an abundance of male and female figures. These are often menacing, expressing pain or anguish of some sort. In comparison, Islamic Art is usually devoid of the human form, often working with the environment to recreate the gardens and flowing water of paradise. In doing so, it conveys a sense of tranquility that is not found elsewhere. My friend concurred.
Moving on, the next exhibit of great interest was The Damascus Room, which is a reception chamber from an upper-class Damascus home. It is done in the style of Imperial Ottoman architecture. The chamber is lined with dark-wood paneling, on which calligraphic inscriptions are made. Wall insets allow space for showcasing ceramics. The chamber contains two levels, one of them is raised and lined with rectangular cushions along the sides. The lower level contains a small fountain, which bubbles merrily.
The final exhibit which was very impressive was a room with a 16th-century Spanish ceiling. The wooden ceiling contains geometric patterns, and is done in a colourful combination of red and dark blue. Along the walls of the room are displayed carpets, of Turkish and Iranian origin.
It was late afternoon before we knew it, and my trip had come to an end. There is much more to see at the Met, but let’s save that for another time.