A maestro dips into nostalgia


February 25, 2021

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Photographer Arif Mahmood’s Pestonjee, Silver Linings leave one in sweet melancholy


As the pandemic makes us nostalgic, longing for the yesteryears when times were simpler, a studio-light setup and a little brown bench in front of a dimly lit Arif Mahmood photo helps in turning the bitter yearning into a sweet melancholy. This is precisely what makes Mahmood the maestro.

Article by Tehreem M Alam |The Tribune

Often associated with black and white photography, the Karachi-born artist has made two more additions to his poetic series of photographs – Pestonjee and Silver Linings.

The first is a photo essay chronicling the life of an aged Parsi living in Karachi, from 2013 to 2020, while the latter is a compilation of 32 years of work on the Sufi trail, from 1988 to 2020.


The romance of nostalgia

The majestic scale of Mahmood’s work is hard to wrap one’s head around. Dimly lit, yet pristine, Mahmood’s Pestonjee makes the onlookers yearn for the past. The photo book titled ‘P.S Pestonjee’ is a compilation of nostalgic prints, at times blurry; mocking the façade of ephemerality, for the snapshots have what it takes to be timeless.

Introducing Pestonjee, Mahmood says he is an old man who he started photographing in 2013. “I started shooting Pestonjee in 2013, and after a year of shooting frequently, I asked him if I could do a book on him. He lived in an old house, in an old area near Soldier Bazar. The romance of nostalgia is what stirred me,” said Arif Mahmood.

Mahmood was inspired by Pestonjee’s spirit. He draws a parallel between his father and Pestonjee. “In 2016, my dad fell seriously ill. He passed away in 2019. While in contrast, Pestonjee – who was a year older than my dad – was walking around, alive and well. This inspired me greatly,” he said while talking to The Express Tribune.

However, with the compilation of this series of picturesque moments, Mahmood’s photos also mark a fierce appearance of loneliness.

On a photo titled ‘Monument of Love’ Mahmood remarks a ‘confession’ and writes, “It was evening time, the winter light had just started to pour into his hiding space area which I had been visiting for the past five years or so. I hadn’t seen this decorative piece before in his living/sitting room before. Maybe it was meant to be seen today by me. A symbol of love. A basic desire of all humans, to be loved and cared for. I have this feeling that he might have desired this feeling from another all his life. He was a lonely man heading towards his nineties with only an indifferent nephew in the States.”

Besides nostalgia, there is also an inherent romance of solitude in Pestonjee. The onlookers are exiled from the present just by viewing Mahmood’s work as it draws parallels between the artistic and intellectual impulses of aestheticism.

A spiritual journey

As is well known, Mahmood has been collecting photos of shrines and mosques since the beginning of his career as a photo-journalist. In Silver Linings, he explores the limitlessness of the Sufi experience. “This compilation consists of my work from 1988 to 2020. It is my life as a photographer, and, maybe, my main retrospective,” he writes in the prelude of the monograph.

Mahmood’s Silver Linings is an introspective journey that he took after the death of his mother, who was a seasoned traveller of the mystical path. Presenting the monograph as an ode to his mother, Mahmood writes that the first time he visited Sehwan was with his mother, in 1998.

With his long-standing interest in the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, the photographs in this series are almost haunting. Mahmood focuses a lens on the paradox of despair and hope and produces snapshots that are a mixture of wistfulness and submission.

“This was purely my life of faith. The search for solace through the path of the wise. And the wise mostly taught how to cherish life and live through its bounties and recognise the beauty in all this intricacy. To feel a holy presence inside you, to experience God through the world you were thrown into.”

While the monograph is fairly simple, it opens doors we don’t normally enter from and allows us to wander into places of beauty.

The Canvas Gallery will house Mahmood’s Pestonjee and Silver Linings till March 4, 2021.