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DAWN - Features; December 20, 2007

December 20, 2007

Gulgee: the last of the Mohicans

In the passing away of Abdul Mohammad Ismail, popularly known as Gulgee, in the most tragic manner, Pakistan has lost one of its accomplished senior artists. With him till the end was Zorro, his life partner and, as he called her, “a pillar of inexhaustible strength”. She joined him in death as she had joined him in life, when the two along with their maid were murdered by yet to be identified stone-hearted criminals.

The painter-cum-sculptor was born in Peshawar in 1926 and even though in his early eighties, he remained a practising artist till the end. Gulgee started to paint while he was studying engineering in two of the most prestigious American universities, first at Columbia and then in Harvard.

A self-taught painter, he didn’t go to an art school but never felt any disadvantage. He once said: “No, I don’t think I missed out on art school. In fact, I have learnt from the Great Masters themselves. For hours on end I have gazed and gazed on the works of the great from East and West. There is no major museum in any part of the world where I have not learnt a lesson or two.”

While he was doing extremely well as an engineer, he gave up his lucrative career as a high dam expert and decided to pursue art on a full-time basis. His friends and family members tried to dissuade him but they gave up, thinking he would return to his profession. But he didn’t retrace his steps and never regretted doing that, not even when he had to face financial and social problems. Engineering’s loss was not too great but painting and sculpture’s gain was immense.

He started his career as a portraitist who impressed King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan when he did his portrait. The overjoyed monarch commissioned him to paint or sketch about 150 portraits of his friends and family members. His best work of that period was the portrait of the late Aga Khan which he did in lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone.

In the sixties he painted portraits of Prince Karim Aga Khan, the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, Queen Farah Diba of Iran and President Ayub Khan, to name a few. Later he did portraits in marble and semi-precious stones also.

His visit to the Middle Eastern countries, particularly Iran, with President Ayub Khan was fruitful in more ways than one. He got to study the Islamic art in greater detail and what is more he developed an undying passion for calligraphy.

Mr Jalal Uddin Ahmed, the editor of Art and the Islamic World, who followed Gulgee’s career from his earlier days disagrees with the common feeling that he took to calligraphy just to please Gen Ziaul Haq. “Nothing can be further from truth. He was very much into calligraphy well before Zia took the reins of the government. Gulgee gave an extra dimension to calligraphy, whether he did it in bronze or on canvas with a thick layer of pigment. That was his major contribution.” Mr Ahmed, who is currently the Director-General of FOMMA, the Foundation for Museum of Modern Art, adds: “Gulgee also lent sculptural quality to his work which served as inspiration to his son, the jewellery designer Amin Gulgee.”

Gulgee has left behind a son and scores of admirers, and what is no less important a museum which displays some of his invaluable works on a permanent basis. The museum at Clifton was opened in 2001. One hopes Amin will after sometime reopen it to art lovers.—Asif Noorani

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007