Celestial Horses

Works by Aslam Shaikh
29th July 2011

The Divine Steed


Ah, steeds, steeds, what steeds! Has the whirlwind a home in your manes? Is there a sensitive ear, alert as a flame, in your every fiber? Hearing the familiar song from above, all in one accord you strain your bronze chests and, hooves barely touching the ground, turn into straight lines cleaving the air, and all inspired by God it rushes on! ~Nikolai V. Gogol, Dead Souls, 1842.


The Celestial Horse; a strident figure keeping ajar the brim of the horizon, the very sky reflecting the light of this noble steed’s celestial charioteer. The Horse has figured in South Asian symbolism since the early Rig Vedic period. The Aswhini twins who would collectively steer the chariots of the Goddess Dawn, Usha emblazons on this azure canvas the warp and weft of the tapestry of light that the effulgent and all encompassing deity would weave within the loom of darkness with rays sparked off the mains of the pristine white stallions pulling these chariots through the solar winds, yielding only to her divine countenance. In the evening the dark Shyavak stallion of the firmament bringing the day to a close and thus the cyclical rotations of the Great Goddess never cease, enacting the motion of the Goddess pair, dusk-hued Shyavi Devi and the auburn Arushi Devi of this most ancient of Vedas. From this all-encompassing radiance to the Aswamedha of the Mahabharata we find the very triumph of an upright and just moral core over the whims and fancies of egocentric existence. The vibrant vermilion juxtaposed with the white of sacramental ash to the sandalwood ochres are as indicative of the feeling-tone of each individual subject as they are a testament to the cultural heritage of their most noble of masters.

Aslam Shaikh’s approach to the canvas is bold and strident. He brings it to life in all it’s grandeur in a maelstrom of brushstrokes that reflect the impassioned frenzy that issues fourth in his preparation of the canvas and final execution of the work. The finer nuances being built through layer upon layer of impasto work with a finesse that is uniquely his own. He seems to capture the presence of accidental light in the composition that bleeds in from outside the frame, of a bonfire or the flames that had possibly engulfed the battle-field through the garland of luminescence that encapsulates the subjects enabling and catalyzing a synthesis of the sheer kinetic energy imbued in each of his compositional elements in these largely open compositions from an impressionistic gaze while others capture the shadows cast by the contours of the horses, even the sinuous muscles captured in deft precision set to the utter neutrality of the applied monochrome palate.

The heroes of yore were more often than not featured on horseback and the equestrian sports had also evolved as training for the battlefield so that both horse and master may flow with ease in to the alacrity of the attack when the moment strikes. Chatrapati Shivaji was a maverick of his times and the imagery associated with this great figure always places him firmly atop the noble steed. He by every account was a man of tawny complexion, fairer than the majority of his own people with sharp eyes that would dart back and fourth when assessing a situation, He was of medium to shorter stature but this didn’t pre-dispose him to a diminutive stance, on the contrary he had a majestic and commanding presence which many attribute to the blessings of the Goddess Shivai, the presiding deity at Shivneri fort where he was born and who he was in fact named after. Many would construe that a fervor of Hindu Nationalism served as the impetus for his efforts toward expressing and executing his need to carve out a state for himself in an otherwise Mughal dominated land but this is actually an issue that is quite contentiously posited as a construct of our times and current political climate. Shivaji himself had involved a Sidi Ibrahim as one in a trusted inner circle who colluded to defeat the mighty Afzal Khan, a man who would by every account have towered over Shivaji in physical stature but the most carefully poised tactics of war can retell the story of David and Goliath ad-infinitum. In his expanse Shivaji would annex Mughal kingdoms, most famously that of Bijapur which had earlier separated themselves from the center in Delhi and Hindu kingdoms of rival Maratha clans alike and evidence shows that in his polity there was an air of secularism where each member of his kingdom, be they Hindu or Muslim were treated fairly and equally so as to placate the pullulating masses who would have belonged respectively to either Mughal or Martha kingdoms in previous times.

At the coronation of Shivaji He bowed only to his mother Jijabai and his guru, Ramdas. Abandoned by her husband Jijabai shifted her attentions to grooming Shivaji to be the conqueror that we know. They say behind every great man there is a great woman, a wife and confidant but in fact there are many great women behind one great man, a mother not the least of which should be counted as such. After witnessing the coronation that was carried out with the guidance of the courts of Amber and Mewar in Rajasthan who also resisted Mughal occupation in the tradition of crowning an autonomous sovereign Jijabai passed exactly twelve days hence. This shift in to a more liberal society than that of the court of the despotic Aurangzeb was a prelude to our secular identity as a nation that was in a Mughal context expressed through the sentiments of the great ruler Akbar and his short lived religion, Din-e-Illahi, the message of which lives on to this day and on a grassroots level simultaneously imbued in the Bhakti and Sufi movements of yore.

The horses of Aslam Shaikh’s new body of work are awe inspiring in that each of the subjects in the composition are given a unique mood and trajectory in a depiction of movement through angularities that rupture the limited dimensionality of the canvas and offset while simultaneously maintaining it’s balance. These panels are symbolic of the paradigm shifts that have since time immemorial been intrinsic to the fabric of the dynamic and vibrant legacies of the world within various cultural paradigms.

The most intrinsic and vital image of the Bhagavad Gita is of Lord Krishna as the charioteer of Arjuna, his beloved disciple with the five white horses steering them toward victory over evil. The deeper meaning behind this is entrenched in a subtle symbolism that would elude those who view the subject with a superficial and fleeting gaze.  The corporeal self is exemplified by the chariot and Arjuna is the materialization of the manifest soul, the Jiv-Atma. Lord Krishna is the Param-Atma, the supreme and steadfast will that carves from undifferentiated matter ones destiny and the horses represent the sense organs that are vital in this process of engaging with the world around oneself.

Hazrat Inayat Khan the great Sufi mystic involved himself in the process of deciphering the deeper codes that are imbued in the lore of various traditions. He tells of how the Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) saw the horse as one of the most esteemed of possessions worth bringing in to ones sphere of activity and that the proper maintenance of a horse is tantamount to providing alms to the poor. He speaks of how in the Ramayana lord Rama’s son Lahu goes in pursuit of the ideal horse Kalanki for the ensuing battle. In the view of Hazrat Inayat Khan the horse is symbolic of our mental faculties. Taming the mind is a similar process to rearing a horse. The horse is the embodiment of vitality and spirited, unbridled passion. This strength of purpose according to him is necessarily born to the wild but to harness that power is to channel the feral life force that runs through our spines, one vertebrae at a time in to the succinct and proper affairs of men. The way the great thinkers and entrepreneurs of our times are exemplified by an eccentric tenacity that is channeled in such a way that would captivate the billions is tantamount to this fact.

The horse is a universal symbol of heroism and vibrancy, in Western Asia as much so as in South Asian traditions. Swift as a gust from afar that would lead the warrior of yore either in to victory or defeat for the stamina of the horse on which one rode would determine one’s tenure on the battlefield. The Arabian strain is the prime example of the eternal noble steed.  The majesty of the distinct breed, the Arab equine race of horse is reflected in the stance of these majestic figures that are depicted by Aslam Shaikh in a style reminiscent of that of the impressionists while illuminating a framework of exactitude in precision that can only come about through a mastery of portraiture. It is said in Quaranic lore that the horse was created when the mighty Lord Allah summoned up the southern winds and commanded them to condense themselves whereby a creature may be issued fourth. Thus the southern wind complied and Jibreel collected a handful of that elemental matter of which were born a dark-bay and dark-chestnut horse. In Islamic Lore, during the ‘Jung-E-Badar’ even the angels are said to have joined the battle at the behest of their Lord, riding dual toned horses who’s hooves never touched the ground as if treading on a silken gust from Heaven, were lead by Archangel Jibreel armed for combat who was a top of a mighty steed that diminished all opposition. These horses of Arabia seem to have an otherworldly aura that emanates from their core, captured on canvas almost as if they were an astral projection. In the most sincere expression of the sheer religiosity that is possessed in the heart of an artist these are the horses of the angels that invite their most holy of counterparts from the paradise of Heaven to return to them as would a child call to a loving mother that he’s been separated from. These visions existing, as would a passing whisper from the lips of spectral beings of angelic stock, speaking of good tidings for all mankind of things to come that float ephemerally through any quarter that would house these creatures of divine sanction.




Director, Triveda Fine Arts Pvt. Ltd.



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