Abdur Rahim Nagori, free thinker, out-spoken activist and the “first and most radical socio-political painter”, in Pakistan died on January 14, 2011 at the age of 70. One hears artists, visionaries, poets and thinkers described as “ahead of their time,” often. It is a tidy explanation for why an extraordinary talent was not identified and celebrated within the lifetime of the person. However, it is not these gifted individuals who were ahead of their time but the rest of society who were not recognising the time for what it really was. Abdur Rahim Nagori, was a man fully aware of the times, and armed with the philosophies of writers and thinkers as diverse as Al-Ghazali, Diogenes, Goethe, coupled with his formidable talent as a painter he chose to make society see the injustices and travesties that were taking place before their very eyes.
The first anti-militarism and violence exhibition Pakistan had ever seen was of Nagori’s works in 1982. This was censored and then banned by the martial law regime. In 1983 then, Nagori held an anti-martial law exhibition which was sponsored by the Pakistan Union of Journalists. Every subsequent exhibition too was anti-establishment. His life-long fight against what he saw as injustice was due to his acute sensitivity to the suffering and misery of others; he simply could not bear the plight of minorities or the oppression of civil society in any way, even if this took the form of a lack of support for art education. “Like a modern day Cassandra, Nagori points out political failings, economic disparity and social injustice meted out to the silent majority…” Marjorie Hussain has said of him.
His most poignant exhibition took place in 1986 where he exposed 62 different national events which shook the conscience of the nation, and in 1988, in a series of 40 paintings he created new symbols of an alphabet based on bomb blasts, crime, dacoities, guns, heroin, Ojhri, the kalashnikov, rape – the horrors of preceding years.
In a biography of him titled, “ Nagori; Voice of Conscience,” , the writer while making a case to create biographies of artists quotes Gustave Courbet letter to Napoleon III politely declining the ‘Legion of Honour’:..Permit me then, Your Excellency, to decline the honour you have thought to give me. I am fifty-years-old and have always lived free; let me finish free. When I am dead they will have to say of me: he never belonged to any school, to any church, to any institution, to any academy, above all not to any regime, unless it were the regime of liberty..” After his death, these words now seem to hold a strange echo of perhaps what Nagori himself might have said, for he was a man truly dedicated to the cause of freedom without being fettered by the constraints on any one way of being.
Perhaps it was the influence of his father who despite having an orthodox religious background, and being a Hajji himself, “was a secularist/humanist before the terminology was in vogue.” Nagori was taught the Quran at a madrassah, and English by a retired Hindu magistrate. He often recalled jaunts in the jungle of Gir, for his father worked for the forest department. His father would sometimes leave him in the company of sadhus, brahmins/pundits. This is where he acquired knowledge of the Hindi language, and Hindu mythology; themes of which have often occurred in his oeuvre over the years. His palette has also been ascribed to his early exposure to nature; the colours speaking of the Gul Mohar, Amaltas, Keshudi and Flame of the Forest, all of which grew in his house.
Nagori was a complex and passionate man who on the one hand had said he could not understand the logic behind an artist suffering for his art, and yet suffer for his art he did, on many levels. In fact, he had very clear ideas about suffering, having lived through a debilitating injury early on in life, losing eight years of education. In his biography, when talking of this he says: “Goethe told us that our own pain teaches us to share the suffering of our fellow creatures, and Philoctetes, the Greek archer in Sophocles’s play, exclaimed, ‘When pain takes hold of me I know that I am human”. He goes on to quote Paul Klee, “I create in order not to cry,” stating that sentiments such as these lent richness and significance to both his work and life.
It is difficult to stare into a Nagori canvas, and not be moved by his singular mysterious, imaginative genius. There is a painting of his bathed half in his signature blood red, half black, and in the centre Jinnah and Gandhi are standing side by side, with Gandhi’s arm around Jinnah’s shoulder. Schism is depicted in the painting through a jagged line running through it. Other symbols from mythology lurk in the painting, talking of the Hindu-Muslim rupture, but the faces of Jinnah and Gandhi are smiling.
Today, the nation still suffers from schism, rupture and irreconcilable differences. What Nagori witnessed throughout his lifetime and painted about still exists in even more hideous shapes and forms, but it is a painting like that that reminds us of who we are, where we come from and what can be. No, A.R. Nagori was not ahead of his time, but exactly on time and with the times, it is the rest of us who were behind the times. Perhaps what Nagori did not bargain for was that the horrors would only grow at an exponential rate. Those “alphabets,” that he created as a language of violence have now become branded on our psyches. He was a man of vision, and instead of there being less of a need for men like him, there has never been a greater need. A.R. Nagori’s passing than is a terrible loss for a nation at sea in an unending storm, on a ship where men and women of vision are thrown overboard or made mute not unlike like many of the figures in his formidable body of paintings.