DAWN - Features; January 18, 2008

Published January 18, 2008

Remembering Gulgee in different voices

By Asif Noorani


KARACHI: It was Gulgee’s bad luck that he was murdered shortly before the country’s most popular leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. His sad end somehow receded in the memory of his compatriots, more so because the tragic death of BB was followed by a reign of looting and destruction. But all said, Abdul Ismail Gulgee, one of the very few titanic figures in this country’s history of visual arts, certainly doesn’t deserve to be forgotten even for a while.

The FOMMA-DHA Art Centre rose to the occasion when under its honorary director Nighat Mir a memorial meeting was held at the beautifully restored barrack turned art centre. Zulfiqar Ali Lakhani, chairman FOMMA, was supposed to be there, but the man who wears so many hats may have been detained elsewhere. Conspicuous by his absence was FOMMA’s executive director Jalal Uddin Ahmed. He is these days in the UAE in connection with his latest passion -- the revival of the splendid journal Art and the Islamic World, which was once edited with distinction by Azra Jalal, when they were settled in London.

Nighat Mir set the ball rolling and did rather well when she said had she been able to communicate with the great artist she would have told him “Gulgee, your departure has left a gaping hole in the vast canvas of the art world, not just in Pakistan but all over the world.” She was right because artists and artistes of his calibre are citizens of the world.

A frail looking Amin Gulgee was there too. He spoke of his father and mother in a voice charged with emotions. “I used to call him dada, and my mother mama. They were great friends and I give them full marks for bringing us up, that is, me and my sister, as they did. They were so much interested in each other. They were best of friends. They were different in nature which is why they made a successful couple.” He dwelt on the ‘made for each other’ theme before he talked about the talents and the accomplishments of his father as an artist. At one point it seemed he would break down but he didn’t. Nighat Mir was holding his arm in support.

The next to speak was Marjorie Husain, the doyenne of art critics in Pakistan. She had had a long association with the late artist and had written extensively on him. “There are so many good things to remember about them. They were always smiling. They were always affectionate.” She didn’t say much about him as an artist perhaps because she has not left anything that is noteworthy unsaid. She recalled the speech that Gulgee had made in 1989 at the inauguration of a seminar at the DHA library, where her lovely painting Iqra, casts a spell on viewers.

Speaking at the end Javed Jabbar spoke highly of “the two inimitable personalities”. In one sense his was a welcome change from others in that when expressing regrets over the murders of the artist and his wife he remembered the poor maid, who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. (The one minute silence at the beginning of the programme was for the couple and, sadly, not for the maid).

On the Gulgees, he said they were gracious guests and warm and hospitable hosts. He claimed that behind the rough exterior of Zorro there was a kind-hearted person, who worked with zeal for the unprivileged at the SOS village.

“Gulgee had a pair of piercing and sharp eyes and his voice had unusually expressive qualities. It conveyed pain and pleasure alike in a highly eloquent manner. He was as articulate as his paintings.”

JJ, as he is commonly known, spoke about the amazing range of the artist’s subjects. “He drew a camel driver with the same passion as he did when he was asked to paint the head of a state,” said Jabbar, who was a friend of the couple for several years. He quoted the late Ahmad Parvaiz, an artist of no mean calibre, on Gulgee.

“He was a model for hundreds of young artists, who were inspired by him, even if some of them never cared to acknowledge it. He had an inexhaustible reservoir of energy. Marjorie had quite rightly said, way back in 1999 that it was an exciting experience watching him at work. She had aptly described him as a dervish of an artist,” said JJ, much to the discomfiture of the lady sitting next to him.

In the end the mike was taken to Gulgee’s relatives, admirers and some artists including Durriya Kazi and Nahid Raza. Nahid spoke in Urdu and the words came straight from her heart. That is Nahid Raza for you.

Bureaucracy rules the roost in NWFP

THE standard operating procedure in the civil bureaucracy is: if you want to delay any business just form a committee. This is very true for the bureaucracy serving the present caretaker set-up in the NWFP.

The caretakers in the Frontier province are lucky that they have little at hand to do any major business except taking a few decisions, mostly of administrative nature in the backdrop of prevailing flour crises and Swat operation against militants.

The Chief Minister’s Secretariat, observers say, is one of the victims of this state of inertness even on administrative issues of daily nature. When the caretaker set-up was brought in mid-November, there was a strong perception in the official circles that many decisions of the erstwhile Durrani-led government would be reversed owing to the fact that most of the caretaker ministers were affiliated with the anti-MMA parties.

Major areas of possible interventions were funds distribution under the Tameer-i-Sarhad Programme and reshuffling of the officers close to the clergy-led government. But status quo was maintained and no step was taken to correct the situation even after two months.

“Whose government is this,” complained a disgruntled caretaker minister, “we are helpless.”

In his interaction with visitors, paying either courtesy calls or meetings with officials, Caretaker Chief Minister Shamsul Mulk would make it abundantly clear that his priority remained holding of free and fair elections, so he would avoid indulging in other official business.

The caretaker chief minister, a senior official recalled, held briefings relating to the operation of almost every provincial department, but he was reluctant to take any major decision whenever asked for. The caretaker chief minister would rather give direction either for constitution of committees or engaging private consultants for resolving the issues, the official adds.

Mr Shamsul Mulk formed working groups for three different sectors including conducting the general election, food security, price stabilisation, economy and investment.

Ministers of the caretaker set-up were nominated to head each group with representation from government and private sectors. The groups have the same mandate to recommend short and long term policy measures. Some in the official circles think that these recommendations will help in evolving better strategies.

All the three groups were given two weeks to complete their assignments and forward their reports to the chief minister, however, so far none of them have finalised their reports even after the passage of one month.

“The entire exercise is merely window dressing as the caretaker ministers and bureaucrats actually did nothing,” remarks another senior government functionary.

One of the recent meetings of the working group on economic and investment offers real insight into lack of interest of the “baboos” towards a number of burning issues relating to the provincial economy.

This group held two meetings, wherein provision of subsidised electricity to industrial sector from Malakand-III hydropower project to soft lending facilities for the industrial projects through the Bank of Khyber and upgradation of the existing infrastructure of the industrial estates were brought under discussion.

The former MMA government remained unable to resolve these issues one way or the other and, says an industrialist, there were hopes pinned on the caretaker set-up that it would take some solid steps for settlement of these problems.

“But all our hopes have dashed to the ground,” the industrialists said. To satisfy the charged audience mainly from the business community in the second meeting held on Jan 3, officials proposed constitution of three different committees to further look into these issues and come up with some workable solutions.

A caretaker minister, chairing the meeting, pledged to resolve the issues within the given time. However, it has been weeks since the announcement regarding the formation of the three committees but no official notification has been issued so far.

Action speaks louder than words and cynical officials say that there is one thing that is not happening in the NWFP and that is action on long standing issues.



© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2008

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