Heritage: Going, going, gone?

Published September 22, 2013

It was meant to inspire us, but seeing Sadequain’s ceiling mural at the Frere Hall, Karachi now evokes only feelings of deep sadness and helplessness. The painting explains the mysteries of Arz-o-Samawaat (The earth and the heavens) and narrates the story of man’s efforts to understand the universe around him. The work is exceptionally striking, an obvious masterpiece that defies the imagination. However, one feels distressed seeing the level of degradation the mural has suffered.

Sadequain worked feverishly on the ceiling from the late 1986 to the beginning of 1987 before he passed away on Feb 10, 1987 without finishing it. The ceiling mural passed into inept hands and over the years it suffered on two major counts i.e. missing pieces and degradation.

The setting of the panels was a complex art and Sadequain had wanted the side panels to be at an angle to the corners so they could meet undisturbed. The panels were set against the sloping wall and a ledge that protrudes from the sides hides the bottom of the panels. A grave mistake indeed for it obstructs symbols like the mangoes and fish at the feet of the Greek gods, a representation of the twin symbols of his native town Amroha.

There is a blue border between the side panels and main ceiling that had to be filled to compensate faulty setting which hides from the view a foot of work from all sides. Currently, the ceiling mural suffers from an even bigger danger: a leaking roof which threatens to cause irreparable damage to the masterpiece, a piece of art the likes of which Pakistan and the world may never see again.

The medium of hardwood panels and oil pastels used in the Frere Hall ceiling work is a departure from Sadequain’s usual modus operandi. Hardwood is a medium that requires careful handling. Instead of being put up to counter possible damage, the panels were pasted directly on the ceiling surface which left them vulnerable to the contraction and expansion of brick surfaces in cool and hot temperatures respectively. This will cause the hardwood to bend and sway and soon cause further damage to the work.

This negligence is symptomatic of the Frere Hall management; in fact two of his paintings, ‘Aajao Africa’ and ‘Hum Jo Tareek Rahon Main Maray Gaye’ from the Faiz Ahmed Faiz series were stolen from the Frere Hall soon after his death. Then in May 2008, four paintings of Sadequain were again stolen from the Gallery Sadequain at Frere Hall. ‘Bol Kay Lab Azad Hain Tere’ from the Faiz series was among the paintings stolen in 2008.

Almost 200 mounted prints that the Fuji Film Corporation had gifted Sadequain were also victim of the prevailing neglect. On a visit to the Frere Hall after Sadequain’s death one could see them lying around, already damaged beyond repair. The Lahore Museum ceiling has also been neglected. The paintings were on canvas and poorly placed which has caused the panels to sag perceptibly, nearly falling apart in places.

It is an established practice all over the world that art pieces which cannot be protected directly in frames, works such as murals, frescos or friezes, are placed in weather controlled environment with dust, humidity, light and temperature monitoring. The Sistine Chapel had a system of air conditioning, dehumidifiers and micro-climate controls installed back in 1994. And yet, last year there was talk of limiting visitors to the Sistine Chapel. One hopes that the relevant authorities will provide the same facility to Sadequain’s art work.

Sadequain’s works have gone missing from Karachi’s Star Gate Airport’s Departure Lounge and in 1967 from the PIA chief executive Office. He had donated 40 marble works of Surah Al-Rehman measuring 4 by 6 feet each that cannot be found and copies of the stolen works turn up in far flung locales. Perhaps the fact that the paintings were donated resulted in this gross negligence. It is unfortunate that the artistic treasures bequeathed by Sadequain are in danger of being lost for ever. It will be a global loss for art and a grave destruction of national heritage if this happens for works of art such as these are unlikely to be reproduced.

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