The Indian Ring-Necked Parakeet has been a bird of importance in the Indian mythology and folklore. Its bright, green feathers; strong, red, curved bill; and an upright stance make it an attractive subject included in folk paintings or embroidered over ages by girls on pillow covers and sheets.
Even in modern times, the parrot finds its space in contemporary painting as a recurring symbol. In three exhibitions in the city this spring, the bird gets a fair share on the canvas, with painters taking delight in painting the colourful creature to express varied emotions. The bird that has a long life, sometimes as long as 80 years, has always been a favourite pet in households and much doted upon because it has the capacity to repeat the human language and is often addressed lovingly as ‘Mithu Mian’.
A woman painter, who held an exhibition recently, had the parrot juxtaposed with the feminine form in many of her paintings. When asked what she was conveying by the repeated use of the image of the green-hued bird, her answer was: “The cage becomes a symbol of human bondage and for a woman, a parrot has long been the only creature she could talk to and share her sorrows with.”
Her reply brought to my memory an old widowed aunt who always had a pair of parrots for pets and she would ask them every now and then: “Mithu Mian choori khaani hai?” The birds would parrot back the offer for sugared bread, and as children we would be thrilled to hear them say so, and offer them green chillies, for it was said that parrots spoke quickly when they were fed on peppers.
Another touching parrot tale that I recall from family lore is of an old uncle and aunt who lived in Sanjauli in Shimla. They were migrants from Pakistan likeli the rest of us. A parrot was the centre of the household and there was a special story attached to it: When the couple fled with their children the brutal rioting that broke at their hometown Jhelum in the blood-drenched August of 1947, the parrot was left behind in its cage. The couple was desolate without their dear darling of a pet. Seeing their misery, a brave male cousin went all the way back after the Partition and found the parrot safe in its cage in the home occupied by new inhabitants, and brought it back to the great joy of the family.
This month, two delightful parrot paintings that I came across were painted by artists from India and Pakistan. Madan Lal of Chandigarh has made repeated use of the parrot form to bring home urban cacophony and one is reminded of the parrots screeching as they would come home to rest in the evenings in the trees in Sector 8. The other painting, by Saba Khan of Lahore, shows parrots in a row chanting from a book held before them on a wooden stand used most often to place religious text. It is a telling comment on the education and information patterns of the subcontinent where chanting should continue, but no thinking please!
The latter painting has gone viral on social media and much can be read through it in the context of the student protests in the country. So painting parrots can drive home many messages. Long live the green-feathered avian!