Saba Ahmed meets artist Laila Rahman

Laila Rahman lives and works in a home that exudes artistic splendour. Massive coffee table books on art and architecture meet my eye along with artefacts that would make the most well-stocked galleries look threadbare. “I have a passion for collecting nice things,”  says Laila. Nice? More like exquisite.

‘I think small is really small and big is really big, this in-between size just annoyed the hell out of me!’

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Gardener porcelain

The artist’s spectacular selection of Gardner porcelain finds its place in the centre of her home in a special, purpose-built wall—a nook of sorts, designed by Laila herself. “In every Pathan household, you’ll probably grow up around a Gardner or two,” she says. Francis Gardner was an English entrepreneur who teamed up with Johann Miller, an expert porcelain workman, to set up the first Gardner Factory in 1766 located in a small village outside Moscow. The Gardner Factory manufactured porcelain for everyday use along with rarer and more exquisite commissioned pieces. Gardner porcelain was particularly coveted by European and Russian nobility. It has travelled eastward and westward and has now attained the status of antiquity. “I like to collect the rarer pieces, and to my displeasure, they mostly end up shipped off to wealthy collectors in Dubai!” laughs Laila.

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At heart a printmaker, Laila has over the years pursued different styles and sources of inspiration. With an academic background that spans literature to fine art, Laila is alumnus to an illustrious list of schools including Slade School of Fine Arts and St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, both in London. Her most recent venture is a group show called Origins featuring her and ten other printmakers. The show features prints that speak to their cultural identities. Laila tells me how she had reached an impasse with her submission while the deadline loomed. She was annoyed too by the stipulated size of the works. “A miserable 11″ x 15″,” she adds, “I think small is really small and big is really big, this in-between size just annoyed the hell out of me!” It was a chance meeting with her cousin and literary institution Shaista Sirajuddin at a bookstore in Lahore that Laila encountered Vikram Seth’s “A Rivered Earth.”At the end of the book were poems about the seven elements. Finally, Laila had found her inspiration! “These liberté just made prints in my mind.”

 ‘The marigold is a little-regarded flower but how
happy everyone is to see it’

Raja Rasalu

Known for her work with literature and art, Laila was approached by Simurgh Publications in 2006 to illustrate a book. When Laila read the stories in the book, she says, “I was quite enchanted by them because they had completely slipped me by.” The book is a collection of stories about Raja Rasalu, a fictional hero in a string of folk tales. Rasalu is an exiled prince of Sialkot who, subsequent to his exile, wanders all over Punjab and has various adventures as a young man. An Englishwoman called Flora Annie Steele first printed the tales around the time of Kipling. Since then, there has been this edition. “So,” she says, “I am justly quite proud to be a part of it”. As what happens mostly with myths, they can become elaborate. “There is a maina and a tota and a hedgehog and a ghora, all sorts of animals that are speaking and giving direction, almost like a Greek chorus!” The text features Urdu and Punjabi couplets along with the English translations. Laila developed a series of tiny drawings to help tell the story. “They intersperse the stories, like exclamations marks,” says Laila. She explains how this is similar to the miniature tradition of painting.

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About the paintings in the book, Laila says, “It was a real love affair of coming back to colour.” Prior to this, as a printmaker, Laila had been mostly using blue, black and sepia. “Even my painting was becoming monochromatic.” she says, “The content was melancholy and didn’t lend itself to a brighter palette.” But for Raja Rasalu, her palette brightened up. The marigold in the book for example, embodies the Punjab: “Because it is gaudy and riotous and it grows anywhere. It’s so bold and unabashed; it’s a little-regarded flower but how happy everyone is to see it,” she says. How beautifully and aptly put, I think.

‘There is a maina and a tota and a hedgehog and a ghora, all sorts of animals that are speaking and giving direction, almost like in a Greek chorus!’

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Laila’s studio is purpose built. Beams of light flow in from the ceiling into the nook in which stand massive canvases, Laila’s works-in-progress. It’s earthy and bohemian, where re-appropriated household objects and quaint furniture mingle. The rest of Laila’s home, is meticulously-arranged from wondrous objects from all over the world. It’s the thrill of hunting down something rare that gets Laila going. “I love chancing upon somebody who wants to part with something or picking it up at some flea market,” she says. “I can associate the cup of tea I had while negotiating for a particular object and, for me, those memories become embedded in the object itself.”

As I leave her home, I am struck by Laila’s appreciation of all things refined and beautiful. But the objects that adorn her home are beautiful precisely because they are sources of inspiration. The paintings and artefacts are, then, living, breathing history.

Good Times

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