A Mixed-media take on the Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam


A book of Verse beneath the bough,
A Jug of wine, a loaf of Bread
And Thou beside me singing in the Wilderness
Oh Wilderness were Paradise enow!

Last week I chanced upon my dad's copy of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Unlike the sumptuous versions available online (some of them for free download), dad's copy was a small, hard-bound version, bought with his first salary, some time in the 1950s (I am guessing).

For some we loved, the loveliest and the best
That Time and Fate of all their Vintage prest,
Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before
And one by one, crept silently to Rest
 

When we were little, he liked to read it to us - dad was the kind of man who read bedtime stories to his kids and enjoyed them as much as we did. When he had run out of stories, he just pulled whatever book was handy, off the bookshelves and continued reading aloud. By then we were nodding off, but the rhythm and rhymes remained entrenched in the subconscious.

The Worldly hope men set their hearts upon
Turns ashes - or it prospers and anon, 
Like Snow upon the Desert's Dusty Face
Lighting a little Hour or Two is gone.

So many years later, his favorite verses leapt out of the pages, which are now falling apart. I decided to turn them into an artwork.

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop
The Leaves of Life keep dropping One by One

In view of honoring the fact that Omar Khayyam was a medieval Persian poet, I decided to try a modern take on a palimpset. Given the relevance and poignancy of the verses across time and cultures.

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A palimpset is a manuscript or piece of writing material  on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing. In ancient and medieval times, paper and writing materials were prohibitively expensive and were made to last. Consequently, many palimpsets were made from vellum (ie calf skin) and were scrubbed for re-use with milk and oat bran. Despite this, the marks of previous generations of writers could not be totally obliterated and persisted like faded memories.

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When you and I behind the Veil are past
O, but the long, long while the World shall last
Which of Our Coming & departure heeds
As the Seas' self should heed a pebble cast. 

I wrote down the six selected verses in different colored water-color pencils, and washed out each iteration after completing it. Each version was written either over or overlapping the previous one. The last few takes were written in sepia calligraphy pen, permanent ink and gold gel pens respectively. This became the background of my artwork.

At the same time, I washed a tracing paper sheet with water, dropped various coloured inks on to it and allowed them to run into each other as they dried. When dry, I shredded the paper and attached swatches of it to the background sheet with white gesso.

Once the arrangement had dried, I made a quick outline of a face across it, using permanent black marker. I aimed for simplicity rather than realism.

For me this artwork will always evoke memories of my dad, some of his favorite poetry, a relaxing sunny afternoon with my art materials and a feeling of continuity with what has been, what is and what is still to be...


Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way 
To fly - and Lo! The Bird is on the Wing.

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