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Paintings inspired by Verses of Omar Khayyam

Artist's Background
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Here you will find Sisir Datta’s 23 superb Paintings based on the Verses of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat. The arrangement, composition, perspective and treatment of his paintings are unique. 23 of his 75 Oil on Canvas are exhibited here – from Paintings-I to Paintings-V. Omar Khayyam’s Verses (relevant to the paintings) are displayed just above the Paintings. Size of the Paintings too is mentioned therein. Every original Painting has the relevant Verses cut or engraved on brass plates, which are screwed onto the bottom of the frame.


The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is among the few masterpieces translated into most languages that include English, French, German, Italian, Russian, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, and Urdu.


In 1859 Edward J. Fitzgerald undertook the most famous translation of the Rubaiyat from Pharsee into English. It appears that in many of his translations, he has combined a few of the Rubaiyat to compose one, and sometimes it is difficult to trace and correspond the original to the translated version. However, he has tried his utmost to adhere to the spirit of the original poetry.


The Rubaiyat

A Message for Today

By Sisir Datta


One of my earliest memories is of a place that fascinated me. It was not marked by any spectacular monument, but I would slip there secretly whenever there was an opportunity to do so. It was a patch of green surrounded by trees, different varieties of them, tall, short, round thin, with foliage of different shades of green, leaves of different designs, sheltering numerous birds small and big which hopped or flew from branch to branch, whistling, humming, chirping. Nearby flowed a canal. Occasionally a boat passed by, its oars making noisy splashes.


It was not far away from our house in Chittagong. My playmates and my brothers and sisters to visited the meadow, but they went away long before sunset, for it was said that with the approach of dusk the meadow became the haunt of ghosts.

I would tarry there quite long after sundown, with the keen desire to steal glimpses of a ghost or two, but they never obliged me. I would lie down under one of the trees and gaze at the sky and listen to the voices of birds and the rustling of leaves. One by one stars would twinkle and through the leaves and clouds. One by one. And then in thousands.


Indeed I had fallen in love with that solitude. My mother was aware of my rendezvous with the twilight. She would send our servant with a hurricane-lamp to fetch me. Muttering God’s name to ward off the spirits, he would discover me and curse me for daredevilry.


Then came the storms. The Second World War. Famine. The Partition of Bengal.


My beloved meadow was lost to me. I was exposed to human suffering. Death, bloodshed and violence stared me in the face. Then I knew what fear was. I was anxious for the safety of my friends and the dear ones. And for myself too.


In the meantime unknown to others, I had lost my religion.


The war was on. I understood that the Germans and the British were fighting in their own lands. But why should some British soldiers descend on Chittagong? The only friend whose information I could trust was a Muslim boy. He seemed to know everything including the fact that the soldiers were fair-skinned and they swam naked with fair girls and that they had invented chewing gum, a far superior cousin of the toffee we knew.


And once I observed him chewing this marvel. He had got it through a valuable contact that worked in the barracks. He gaped and showed the stuff hanging like icicles from his teeth. It held the promise of a hitherto unknown taste; one could chew it on and one for an unspecified length of time.


I begged for one. But he no extra piece. I implored him to part with a little of what was already in his mouth. He was moved and he obliged me. Though the taste did not quite thrill me, I was very proud that I had had a rare experience. But my friend shouted, “You have sinned. You are no longer a Hindu!”


Suddenly I realized the gravity of my blunder. I had eaten from a Muslim’s mouth. Should my aunt hear of it, she would make me gargle with water mixed with cow-dung and drink it too. Only then could I touch anything at home.


I prayed to my friend to keep it a secret. He promised to do so.


I waited to see what would happen to me now that I had lost my religion. Nothing happened.


The incident was significant to me because it provoked me to search for many things. It began with a search for religion – what it is – whether one can really lose it or gain it. I found that I was encircled by darkness – the darkness of ignorance. I yearned for light. I visited places, which I would have never visited ordinarily – or should not have. The same applied to my reading of books – and perusal of different art forms – paintings, photographs, sculptures and films. My quest had expanded. It was no longer the meaning of religion alone, but the very meaning of life that intrigued me. I struggled to know it.


Simultaneously I was struggling on another front – for survival, even though I did not know the justification for it. I had become an artist. It would be more true to say that I was an artist. I had begun to use my faculty for my livelihood.


Time rolled on. I left my youth behind. I would not say, like Disraeli, that youth was a blunder, manhood a struggle and old age a regret. For me both youth and manhood have been struggles and the approaching old age, I don’t think I have to proclaim it with regret.


Is it because I realized the meaning of life? No. It is because I have re-discovered the green meadow of my childhood – the meadow I had taken to be lost. It surfaced in my memory, lush green as it used to be.


I was amazed. How could it persist in me when I had lost a lot of apparently valuable things?


All I can say is, although the meadow has not answered all my questions, it has revealed its own meaning to me and I believe that it can sustain me for the rest of my life – and sustain my art too.


The meadow was the clean innocence of my childhood – on which the Creator’s love shone in tenderness as well as splendour. I have felt that I have no need of any artificial light. The living touch of the Creator – reawakened in me – is enough. Behind the meadow is its Creator – the supreme artist – with his unerring strokes.


And who am I?


The question itself assumed a different tone. I need not find a mental answer for it. I am one of the strokes that went to make the meadow. I am also the meadow.


This awakening – or awareness – has meant much to me. I see men – great ones among them – in the light of my meadow – the clear light of providence that shone on my childhood when my eyes had not learnt to see through pride and prejudice.


Soon I met Omar – when a manuscript was placed in my hands with Omar’s verses juxtaposed with rejoinders, also in verses. I was asked to illustrate and design the book on Omar Khayyam verses.


Wine and Women! Why aren’t there bars celebrating his name all over the world? Surely, the theme is easy and attractive; several artists have contributed to the merry world of Omar Khayyam. However, deep within me I found the theme uninspiring.


But I had accepted the project, and so had to work on it. I began reading the verses, at first in a lighter mood and then with deeper concentration. An unexpected process set within myself: the ideas I had at first formed about the verses soon crumbled. Verses that sounded easy grew more and more challenging. I pondered over them for hours; confused and perplexed.


But I could not leave them. Rather they would not leave me.


And then came the open-sesame catchword to the mystery that was Omar Khayyam. A single word of his was the key. I was overwhelmed. Silently I said, “Omar! Forgive me and forgive the world for our failure to comprehend your profundity!”


The word was the very first word of the series of verses: “Awake!”


I found in the 75 verses a message to the world – the world of his time and of times to come – a message hidden in a wondrous play of words – a message that could have come only from a seer.


Only a seer has authority to command us to wake up, to tell us about the fragile nature of life and yet the great possibility every moment of life holds out for us. Time is not to be squandered away.


It made me brood over the half century of active life behind me – active for money or fame; how my actions directed towards meeting my needs had become, unconsciously, a race for greed.


Nine hundred years ago Omar the sage, Omar the poet, knew that I would do so – and had left a message for me.


I remembered my meadow – the dwelling of my soul in implicit silence and at a phase of my life when I had imbibed no education, had no religion, and was innocent of the demands made by civilization. I was with the sunlight and birds and leaves and flowers. And, yes, Omar was by my side, unrecognized by me.


In reading Omar now, I realize how my ego had cut me off from that serene world of Nature, how it had veiled my eyes with a darkness that prompted me to look for logic and reason in everything, but hid the truth that the one thing that sustained us was bereft of logic and reason – and that was Love. Love Divine. Religion or the civilization of mankind is not only meaningless but takes destructive shape if we miss this TRUTH.


If my paintings have enhanced the effect of Omar’s verses, I should rest content. And, if even one painting out of the 75 proves a passage for the viewers to the hidden aspect of Omar’s vision, I will feel rewarded.


Sisir Datta


[Editor’s note: Mr. Sisir Datta is an artist of repute. He wrote the above for his book, with the same title, published in the year 1992. Particulars about him are mentioned on the webpage Artist’s Background.

31st August 2005]

Omar Khayyam

(Ref: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1999-2000)

Poet Omar Khayyam (b. on May 18th 1048 and d. December 4th, 1131) received a good education in the sciences and philosophy in his native Neyshabur (Nishapur) and in Balkh and then went to Samarkand, where he completed an important treatise on algebra. He made such a name for himself that he was invited by Sultan Malik-Shah to undertake the astronomical observations necessary for the reform of the calendar. He was also commissioned to build an observatory in the city of Esfahan in collaboration with other astronomers. After the death of his patron in 1092, Omar went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Returning to Neyshabur he taught and served the court from time to time by predicting events to come. Philosophy, jurisprudence, history, mathematics, medicine, and astronomy are among the subjects mastered by this brilliant man. Unfortunately, few of his prose writings survive; these include a few brief tracts on metaphysics and a treatise on Euclid.


Omar's fame in the West rests upon the collection of roba'iyat, or "quatrains," attributed to him. (A quatrain is a piece of verse complete in four rhymed lines, although in Omar's roba'iyat the third line usually does not rhyme.) Omar's poetry had attracted comparatively little attention until they inspired Edward Fitzgerald to write his celebrated The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, containing such now-famous phrases as "A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou," "Take the Cash, and let the Credit go," and "The Flower that once has blown forever dies." These quatrains have been translated into almost every major language and are largely responsible for colouring European ideas about Persian poetry.


Each of Omar's quatrains was originally composed on a particular occasion and forms a complete poem in itself. It was Fitzgerald who conceived the idea of combining a series of these roba'iyat into a continuous elegy that had an intellectual unity and consistency lacking in the disconnected originals. Fitzgerald's ingenious and felicitous paraphrasing gave his translations a memorable verve and succinctness.


A close reading of the authentic verses reveals Omar as a man of deep thought, troubled by the questions of the nature of reality and the eternal, the impermanence and uncertainty of life, and man's relationship to God. Omar doubts the existence of divine providence and the afterlife, derides religious certainty, and is disturbed by man's frailty and ignorance. Finding no acceptable answers to his perplexities, he chooses to put his faith instead in a joyful appreciation of the fleeting and sensuous beauties of the material world. The idyllic nature of the modest pleasures he celebrates, however, cannot dispel his honest and straightforward brooding over fundamental metaphysical questions.


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Edward Fitzgerald

(Translator of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat)

A scholar, Fitzgerald (1809-83), spent most of his life living in seclusion in Suffolk. His masterpiece, a translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, appeared anonymously in 1859 and passed unnoticed until Dante Gabriel Rossetti made it famous. Revised editions followed in 1868, 1872, and 1879. Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat has long been one of the most popular English poems. Although actually a paraphrase rather than a translation of a poem by the 11th-century Persian poet Omar Khayyam, it retains the spirit of the original in its poignant expression of a philosophy counselling man to live life to the fullest while he can. Among Fitzgerald’s other works are Euphranor (1851), a Platonic dialogue, and Polonius (1852), a collection of aphorisms.

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