The most immediately noticeable element in Saba Hasan’s works are the undulating surfaces, which when stood up vertically or spread out on the ground; resemble geological formations that reveal the layered creation of the earth or the channels of waters. It is as if she is mapping the body-mind-soul connection between the most organic of all creations: the earth. Earth, Gaia, Prithvi, Prakriti all are the source and the receptacle of human action and also of its transitory nature; for all that is created must also decay/fade away/die. It is no wonder that she uses materials such as clay, plaster, cement, rocks and pebbles, paper pulp, leaves that are all derived from the original source, the earth itself.
Figurative and realistic forms cannot express the complexity of the human condition or the magnitude of the act of creation: of an object, an image, a thought, or indeed an emotion. Thus the abstraction in her paintings is not derived from an absolute natural or lived environment, which seeks the core of a figure or landscape, or an object. It is an abstraction that explores the realm of ideas and emotions, a distillation of her heartbeats and thoughts in her head. This allows her the opportunity to express multiple meanings informed by intellect and feelings. Saba seeks to reach the core at an emotional, intuitive level through her paintings and installations. The essential interests her, not reason, because each nuance of her work, each smudge, crack, undulation or nail shelters so many meanings, related to the essential spirit that cannot be realised through rationality.
The visceral element is as important to Saba as is the ultimate product because it is borne of the experience of creation. The process of creating each work allows her to reach the core of its fundamental nature. She has a very tactile, seasoned approach to her work, with a lot of experimentation and deliberation that is guided not by the finished aesthetic but by the feel of the material per se. Each work is made of painstakingly achieved layers: of cement and plaster mixed with binding agents that are allowed to dry naturally, revealing the cracks, bubbles and wrinkles. Sometime the surfaces are exposed to the natural elements such as rain and sun to allow for natural weathering, engaging with and revealing the passage of time. On these, organic substances such as leaves, shells, sand and pebbles are mixed that give each work its individual character. Nails, ropes, printed and handwritten bits of paper are either superimposed or worked into the base. For the last four five years her works incorporate more organic elements as she explores the essence in her works. Any colour in the primarily monochromatic works also comes from natural sources, grey from soot, and browns from tea, the stains of which give the surfaces depth and a sense of age.
One visual element that has remained constant in her art has been the use of fragments of text, both as an image and also for its inherent significance. The word is an indicator of a human voice, a presence in her otherwise silent, white, raw world. She uses text for its lyrical beauty, and the world of knowledge embedded in the written world, a repository of history and lived traditions. The sinuous structure also replaces line in the paintings, just as the textures simulate form. The initial use of English has given way to Urdu: Urdu used by her mother in the letters she wrote, and in printed texts such as the diwans of the poets and novels of writers such as Ismat Chugtai. Urdu allows her to access her personal history and through it form a connection with the soil and nation. Her parents were part of the National Movement and chose to stay back in India after the Partition, for they felt this was the only land to which they belonged. Urdu represents a remembered life form, a bridge with the past, and with it evokes the memory of softness of maternal embrace. And also a sense of loss, both personal as well as cultural. The use of Urdu does not suggest a fundamentalism or hyper nationalism either, but heightened awareness of two worlds, the past and present. For Saba the language and the script both are signifiers of our sub continental post-colonial identity, which is counter-positioned to the west centric world.
The richness of the written traditions has inspired her to experiment with three- dimensional works and installations. One of her installations is made up of nine rahels, book stands, cradled on each of which is a book wrapped in cloth. The identity of the book is concealed; it could be a diary, or anthology or folk tales or a book by one of her favourite authors such as Mahashweta Devi. Rahels as objects are used by both Hindus and Muslims to keep their sacred books. Other sculptural-installations are also made out of books that have been dipped in plaster, burnt, torn, embalmed, burnt, cut out and stripped as if mummified, fossilised or petrified. Each is a particular text with specific and personal meanings attached to it, but the deliberate concealment again leaves the art work open to viewer’s imagination.
As an artist Saba relates to the abstraction in J Swaminathan and Somnath Hore who connected to the society and the world around them through their art. One may also view her work in conjunction with that of Zarina Hashmi, given their restrained styles and predilection for using Urdu as text-image. Nasreen Mohammadi is another artist whose monochromatic stark minimalism finds echoes in Saba Hasan, but the latter gives her works a body that is inhabited by emotions and ideas.
Her work is moving more towards the conceptual realm, predicated on philosophical and metaphysical questions. The lack of colour and familiar form, is an exploration of the very complex issue of absence, indeed of absence as a presence. Her own experience of loss and the disturbance of cultural and natural environment also leads to a dialogue in an effort to understand it. As one ventures into the unknown a relationship with the enigma of existence and beyond develops; concealment is a way of engaging with this enigma, as revelation remains elusive. Saba Hasan uses textures and subtle colours to nurture this relationship with the unknown, the abstract and the absent.
Dr. Seema Bawa