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Master-servant relationship

Sweeping and serving blissfully

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Pakistani artist Salman Toor has named his exhibition 'The Happy Servant'. Because, he says, there's no such thing.

They remain invisible and silent, working in drawing rooms and kitchens, polishing the silver, clearing the dishes, sweeping the floor. Their employers long used to calling them 'servants' may now refer to them as 'domestic help' but the relationship between the two remains deeply unequal. And it is this master-servant relationship that is the theme of Salman Toor's ongoing exhibition The Happy Servant at the Aicon Gallery in New York.

At first glance, Toor's pictures invoke the idealised portraits of pastoral workers and aristocrats in renaissance art. But they also hint playfully at certain social quirks prevalent among the wealthy. The painting titled The Happy Servant depicts Salman's family cook smiling as he holds a tray. Behind him, partygoers revel in their own affluent bubble. On the tray are glasses, grapes, and a porcelain figurine of an eighteenth-century European youth, who, for some reason, is quite popular in upper-middle class Pakistani homes. "I chose the title, The Happy Servant, because there is no such thing," says Toor. "I wanted the contradiction inherent in the paintings to be reflected in the title. "

The paintings on display are vivid, witty, and adept in their use of fantasy and reality. They reference films, commercials, popular culture, and European art. In Decent Couple, for instance, one can spot the likeness of Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol. In the Happy Sweeper, a sweeper is blissfully at work, sweeping away leaves and debris in a classical scene. "I used the idea of the servant as a tool to explore the relationship between kitschy commercial imagery and high art, " says Toor. "I found it exciting that beautiful paintings of servant romances and colourful poverty end up in a drawing room where similar situations would perhaps take place. "

The soft-spoken, 30-year-old Toor, who divides his time between New York and Lahore, belongs to the new generation of Pakistani writers and artists making waves globally. The books of Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Mohammed Hanif, Nadeem Aslam and Kamila Shamsie have resonated deeply in a world trying to understand that volatile strip on the map. Earlier this year, Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi's blood-red, paint-splattered installation at the New York Metropolitan Museum Rooftop Garden depicting his response to the violence perpetuated not just in his country, but also around the world, garnered critical acclaim.

Toor himself has been well received both in Pakistan and New York where his US solo debut show is getting quickly sold out. His paintings are priced between $2000 and $8, 500. After getting his bachelor's in Fine Art from Ohio Wesleyan University, Toor went on get his MFA in painting from the Pratt Institute, New York. His previous shows include those at the Piazza del Anfiteatro, Lucca, Italy, Stueben Gallery, New York, and the Alhambra Arts Council Gallery, Lahore. He says he's looking forward to showing his works in India in the near future.

His subjects, in their bid to escape from reality take cues from blockbusters and bestsellers, much like their sahibs and memsahibs do. In The Driver and the Maid, the characters break away from their mundane reality to reinvent themselves. As they play hero-heroine in their own private fantasy, a troupe of dancers coordinates its steps, Bollywood style, in the background. It reminds you, all at once, of Yashraj melodramas, film posters and Mills & Boon covers.

The artist says that was playing with the idea of the dream factory in Mumbai. "The Bollywood group dance is attractive to me because of its complete and absurd escape from the context in which it exists, especially in the movies from the seventies, " he says of the motif in his paintings. "The cook, the gardener, the villager, driver and maid all momentarily abandon their place in the social hierarchy and synchronise pelvic thrusts before promptly returning to their lives with their same ease. "

While composing his portraits, Toor draws from the commercials that dot Pakistan - from the way models strike poses in fairness-cream ads and on billboards for shopping malls and luxury housing complexes, the new markers of status. His subjects, in their idyllic oil-on-canvas tableaux, recall renaissance portraiture. They appear elated while carrying on their tedious tasks, but in the background lie clues to the darker social reality in countries like Pakistan and India, of the entrenched hierarchies and social divides. More so in recent times where the rise of the newly wealthy has been matched by the decline of those already mired in poverty. "It's not a moralistic critique, " Toor says, "but a more complicated relationship with class. It's got bite, even if it's a tad suicidal. I try to find beauty beyond the bounds of good taste, which is why I'm inspired by commercial sources like local advertisements."

The exhibition is on until June 29 at the Aicon Gallery, New York

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