Tahira: The Artist

The significance of Tahira’s paintings.

Famous Pakistani female painters.

Zubeida Agha.

Zubeida Agha was born in 1922, in Faisalabad, Pakistan. She is described as “A Pioneer of Modern Art in Pakistan” 1 as she was the first painter to introduce modernist art to Pakistan. Agha studied Philosophy and Political Science at Kinniard College, in Lahore. However, she realised that this is not what she wanted to do and took on painting at BC Sanyal studio. Yet she seeked

Urban Landscape, 1982.

to do something original, rather than the conventional painting she was taught at the studio. Once she met Mario Perlingieri, a student of Picasso’s, she began to find her own way of painting. It was 1949, when she had her first ever solo exhibition in Karachi, and changed how people viewed Pakistani art.


Anna Molka Ahmed.

Born in 1917, Ahmed was a painter of the fine arts. She converted to Islam when she was 18 years old, and studied painting, sculpture and design in London’s St. Martin School of Arts. In the 1940s, she moved to Lahore and began to teach fine art at the University of

Beggar Woman.

Punjab. She is known to be the first Pakistani art teacher, to make her students paint outdoors, and focus on the landscapes and people. Ahmed worked throughout her life to promote fine art in Pakistan, and make it a prominent subject in Universities.

These two infamous Pakistani painters contributed immensely to the arts in Pakistan, and still today their respected names are recognised. Two female painters who, regardless of the negative attitudes a South Asian woman would face for working, at the time, carried on with their passions.

Tahira’s creativity.

We have seen Tahira’s role as a wife who lives in a patriarchal world, but what about her artistic role as a painter? Before she was married, Tahira’s mother told Shehzad and his family, that they should allow Tahira to continue her painting, to which they agree. Tahira is a passionate painter, who uses it to express herself as a woman who experiences many changes in life.

Tahira describes ‘the sheer sensuous pleasure of wielding brush and mixing oil and pigment’.2 The alliteration: ‘sheer sensuous’, portrays how she finds satisfaction and happiness in completing a painting. It captures Tahira’s enjoyment, and how painting is her happy place away from her marital problems.

She uses her painting to mourn the death of her brother Waseem, and best friend Andaleep, by painting them in a happy setting. Tahira exclaims how, after completing this artwork, she ‘cried for the first time since their deaths’.3 The fact that her painting is a way for her to remember them, links to David Aberbach who states that through creative work:

‘The artist may confront and attempt to master the trauma on his own terms and, in so doing, complete the work of mourning’.4

Creative artwork and writing, can help one to release their emotions, and grieve over a loss. Tahira cries after the painting is finished, as her creativity has allowed her to let out suppressed feelings, over the loss of her dear friend, and beloved brother.

Struggling to paint.

Indeed, Tahira’s painting liberates her. However, she faces a constant battle with struggling to allow her creativity to flourish. After motherhood and giving birth to both her children, Tahira finds it difficult to reinstate her painting ability:

‘She heard her children and wished she could join them. The thought surprised her. She had wanted for so long to be able to do this. She had even resented her own children, she thought with prickling guilt, as if her inability to paint were their fault’.5

Whilst trying to concentrate in her room, Tahira displays mixed emotions. Whilst she longs to play with her children, she blames them for being the reason as to why she is unable to paint. She repeats this feeling when she says that after her pregnancies, she ‘wouldn’t even draw because I was unhappy’.6 Perhaps this is a sign of post-partum depression, as she is constantly sad and has no energy to paint, or to be with them.

The Empty Room.

Mirza Ghalib

However, once she overcomes this, Tahira creates a series of paintings and titles it ‘The Empty Room’. Sound familiar? Well it’s the name of the book! Now what is symbolic about these paintings is that: ‘each of the painting would have an open book, and each book would have some script, a signature, lines from different novels, short stories or poems visible on the open pages’.7 As well as having a desire for art, Tahira adores literature and incorporates both her passions into one series. In one painting she includes poetry by the famous Pakistani poet, Mirza Ghalib:

‘When there was nothing there was God, had there been nothing there would have been God’.

This line adopts religious imagery to discuss the existence of God. Ghalib says how before anything on this earth, there was God, and even if nothing existed, God still exists. The second line reads:

‘Existence took me under, but had I not existed what would it have mattered?’.9 

Ghalib states that his being alive, has ‘took him under’, so it has worsened him. This denotes that humans in themselves have caused harm in the world and are accountable for it. Yet, the second half suggests that even if he was not alive and did not exist, there would have been no consequences for his behaviour, not even with God existing. He is almost challenging God’s authority. The poem may be significant for Tahira as she is questioning her existence in life, which involves God. This questioning may be down to the hardships she faces, which is why she incorporates it into her painting.

The character of Tahira is an interesting one, through which we as readers are provided with another side of Pakistani culture, it’s art. The novel takes you through a journey, and almost becomes a bildungsroman novel as Tahira grows as a Pakistani woman in the 70s.

[1] Rabbya Naseer, “Zubeida Agha,” Aware.

[2] Abbas, The Empty Room, 199.

[3] Ibid., 319.

[4] David Aberbach, Surviving trauma: loss, literature and psychoanalysis (London: New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 3.

[5] Abbas, The Empty Room, 185.

[6]Ibid., 168.

[7] Ibid., 254.

[8] Ibid., 256.

[9] Ibid., 256.