Herald Exclusive: A dash of colour

Keeping the flame of art alive in Balochistan
Published April 14, 2014

Shazia Batool’s conversations – about Quetta, about the worsening situation and the burgeoning art scene – are filled with dramatic gasps and sharp intakes of breath but beneath her excitable exterior lies a steely resolve. This is evident in the stories she chooses to tell: How she wheeled herself into Quetta’s Serena Hotel and insisted that its managers let her exhibit her paintings; how, as a physically-handicapped person, she manages to live in an environment not exactly friendly to the disabled, how she migrated to neighbouring Iran with her mother but, after living there for two years, decided to return alone and resume her life in Quetta.

“I felt trapped there,” she says simply.

This sense of entrapment had begun to affect her art. The paintings Batool creates here, in her home city, are large and vibrant and full of colour; they examine individuals in a crowd. In Iran, on the other hand, her work was darker: In one painting, a solitary woman, her face somewhat obscured, glances out of a window. There appears to be a general air of suffocation.

I find this intriguing. Batool lives with close relatives in Mariabad. It is a beautiful locality, one of two neighbourhoods in Quetta dominated by the Hazara community. When I enter Mariabad, scores of large houses rise up before me, minute in perspective, like concrete ants on craggy mountains that, in turn, are swallowed up by a deep blue winter sky. It is remarkably clean: the geography of the place is such that rainwater and snowmelt come rushing down from the mountains and into Mariabad’s crowded streets — so drainage is essential. But Mariabad is also one of the most heavily guarded neighbourhoods in Quetta — I am only able to enter because I am accompanied by art students from the Hazara community. Caught in the crosshairs of growing sectarianism and easily identifiable by their Mongoloid features, the Hazaras find themselves physically and psychologically backed into a corner.

Batool, who teaches art to young children, shows me a drawing made by one of her students. It is a rough sketch – cartoonish almost – of a bombing at a local Imambargah. The four-year-old girl has depicted the bombers as Yazid. Quetta was a different place when she was at college, says Batool, a graduate of the University of Balochistan’s fine arts department; at the time, she felt comfortable venturing into the main city. Today, she sometimes can’t even buy her art supplies. In Quetta, there is only one art supply store, Hatim, and it is in the main town. “We feel scared to go there,” she admits.

“Even Hatim doesn’t have all that we need, actually, so we still have to order some of our supplies from Lahore.”

And yet — she came back. Whatever shape home may be in, or whatever it may turn into, its pull can be hard to resist. As I set out to explore the art scene in Quetta, I discover that it is populated by precisely such people: Individuals who decided to stay, and if they left at all, decided to return, lovingly carving out a sacred space of their own.

Thirty years ago, four recent graduates of the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore returned to Quetta and established the fine arts department at the University of Balochistan. Their careers and life paths have since traversed different trajectories — but at the time, Jamal Shah, Feryal Gauhar, Kaleem Khan and Akram Dost Baloch were united by a common desire to make something happen. “I was completing my thesis at the NCA and, in the interim, I happened to go to Quetta,” recalls Jamal Shah. The vice chancellor of the University of Balochistan at the time, Akbar Shah, happened to be his distant relative and he asked Jamal Shah what his plans were post-graduation. “I mentioned that, deep down, my desire was to start a fine arts department in Quetta.” Akbar Shah asked Jamal Shah to produce a feasibility report and gave him the go-ahead to return and set up the department.

“It was a great beginning and a beautiful time,” Jamal Shah says. “There was tremendous enthusiasm and energy. Despite multiple strikes at the university, we made sure that our department was kept open. We got the best possible students in the first batch.”

 An artist paints at the Shal Art Gallery in Quetta.
An artist paints at the Shal Art Gallery in Quetta.
In retrospect, the setting up of the fine arts department can be seen as the beginning of contemporary art practice in Balochistan — though, perhaps, ‘resurgence’ may be a better word for it. The history of art in the province is not very well documented: Cave art from the Upper Paleolithic Age, circa 18,000 BC, has been discovered in the Musakhel district of the province but the millennia that follow are more or less a blank canvas. Individual artists begin to appear in and around the 20th century: One Syed Aziz Jan in Pishin, who made small figurines depicting daily life – people offering prayers, watching cockfights – and murtis and colossal effigies, 30 to 40 feet high, for the Hindu festival of Dussehra; one Zainuddin, who would paint on glass; and one Deepak, originally from Bombay, who painted renowned personages, such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. But apart from these and a few others, until the 1970s and 1980s, the practice of art in Balochistan remained restricted mostly to signboard painters.

“Signboard painters had a major influence on the Balochistan art scene,” says Kaleem Khan. “Names such as Shafi Sahib, Lala Aziz and Khalid Mengal were important.” So were the NCA and Punjab University — the early teachers at the local arts council in the 1970s, before the founding of the fine arts department at the University of Balochistan, all had degrees from there.

“Sadequain used to live in Quetta before he became known. Saeed Akhtar, the renowned Pakistani portrait painter, spent his childhood here, as did Professor Ijazul Hasan,” says Kaleem Khan as he lists some of the earliest influences on artists and art practice in Quetta. Of course, there might be many other names, he notes, but we no longer know them. They are invisible, their voices diminished due to lack of interest and poor documentation.

Today, of the quartet that established the fine arts department, only Akram Dost Baloch remains at the university. I visit him on a cold winter morning at his office, which also serves as his studio — there are paintings all around. Our conversation is frequently interrupted by students and faculty members dropping in to say hello — the soft-spoken professor is clearly well liked. I can see the onset of age on his features, as well as the impact of working amid multiple challenges. His son was gunned down recently while returning to Quetta after attending a wedding in Noshki. The grief-stricken father hasn’t created any new art work since.

But the pride Akram Dost Baloch takes in the department he has established, and its contribution to the community at large, is nonetheless evident. “There are now three [fine arts] departments at the university level in Quetta,” he says. “And part of the faculty at these institutions are graduates of this department.”

Although Quetta is often perceived to be at the margin of the margins by the greater part of the world, it has managed to carve out a small but vibrant space for itself as far as art is concerned. Apart from the three university departments, there is the state-led arts council now known as the Idara-e-Saqafat, a sprinkling of art galleries, a roster of exhibitions as well as an artists’ society. Within Balochistan, the city serves as a centre for the arts world, attracting students from all over the province.

During my time in Quetta, I meet Naseeb Khan, a 27-year-old student in the fine arts department headed by Kaleem Khan at the Balochistan University of Information Technology and Management Sciences (known locally as the IT University). He will be part of the department’s first graduating class. Originally from Kuchlak, a small village north of Quetta, he has three young children and a wife, who, he says, remains rather concerned about his love for art. To support them, he paints signboards and trucks, sometimes for as low as 1,000 rupees. He hopes his children will follow in his footsteps — he has even named one of his sons Musawwir, which means ‘artist’ in Urdu. His own father was a truck driver.

 "The crowd" by Shazia Batool
"The crowd" by Shazia Batool

Tamseel graduated from the fine arts department at the Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University in 2009. She was lucky that the department, exclusively for women and the only one among the three in Quetta to have its own building, opened when it did — she says she didn’t feel very comfortable going to the University of Balochistan due to its history of political trouble and violence. Hailing from a family well-versed in Persian and other regional languages and literature and originally coming from Loralai, a small town located in the Pakhtun part of Balochistan, she now illustrates books on Pashto poetry. Initially, she was pressurised by relatives not to sign her name on to the illustrations but, she is quick to add, “When my father found out I was illustrating books, he was very proud of me. In fact, his main complaint was that I hadn’t signed my name.”

Despite the fact that an all-female arts department has made a difference, there still does appear to be a relative lack of female leadership within the local art world. Tamseel now teaches at the IT University. She is one of the four female teachers in the varsity’s fine arts department – a heartening sign – but the societal bias against art is something she and her students have to contend with on a regular basis. “Everyone is born drawing but then you grow up and are made to change it,” laments one of Tamseel’s first-year students. “I don’t have much value in society as a woman, but the way I make my art, that is my art,” she adds.

 From top to bottom: Artists Fazil Mousavi, Shazia Batool, Hammal Khan, Syed Mubarak Shah
From top to bottom: Artists Fazil Mousavi, Shazia Batool, Hammal Khan, Syed Mubarak Shah
One of the biggest complaints in Quetta vis-à-vis other provincial capitals is regarding the lack of opportunity for up-and-coming artists, regardless of gender. Local students are regularly ignored in national shows, often without any explanation. One of Naseeb’s most striking paintings, titled Walwal, explores under-age marriage in Pakhtun and Baloch cultures: A faceless woman, presumably a child bride, is led across a vast landscape by an older man. It is an image that deserves a national audience — and yet, sadly, it may never find one. Khuda-e-Rahim, the current assistant director of the Idara-e-Saqafat (and a graduate of the University of Balochistan fine arts department) claims that his organisation has sent many proposals to the Pakistan National Council of Arts (PNCA) in Islamabad for an exhibit on contemporary art from Balochistan but has never received a response.

Interestingly enough, unlike in other parts of the country where lack of government patronage for art is the most common complaint, in Quetta – up until recently, at least – it was the state-led Idara-e-Saqafat, headed by the energetic and effusive Abdullah Baloch, that served as the focal point for art education and promotion. Many young aspiring artists have studied and trained here before securing admission to arts colleges elsewhere in the country. But, the organisation which once operated relatively more independently under the PNCA, now falls under the provincial Ministry of Cultural Affairs, and this has resulted in its own set of problems: The Idara-e-Saqafat appears to be bogged down by bureaucracy and there are whispers that Kaleem Khan, a Pakhtun, left it due to ‘ethnic issues’.

The only art exhibition opening that takes place during my stay in Quetta is under the auspices of the Idara-e-Saqafat. It is a showcase of calligraphy — the attendees and artists are all male. More problematically, some of the organisers have their work exhibited as well, a clear blurring of the lines between the promoters and the promoted. None of the work is sold.

There are also some private initiatives to promote contemporary art. The Shal Art Gallery, housed within the Brahui Academy, a beautiful sandstone building, was founded by Abdul Hameed Baloch, a fatherly figure from Kalat and once a student of Kaleem Khan. The academy faces serious problems – there is, for instance, no gas for room heating or electricity – but it offers a free space for artists to create works and exhibit them. It is also home to the city’s only artists’ society, created seven or eight years ago. “Our mission was to promote the arts in Balochistan,” Abdul Hameed Baloch tells me. “Paintings would never get sold here.” But the first time they held an exhibition, a showcase of artist Aziz Mengal’s works, almost a dozen paintings ended up being sold, he tells me with pride.

The Hazara community has its own initiatives. On the day I meet and speak with Batool, I visit one such community space. Amongst the mass of homes and shops and restaurants in crowded Mariabad, is a seemingly unassuming door with a small plaque that says, in a near-silent whisper, Sketch Club. The ‘club’ was started in 2008 by Fazil Mousavi, a respected elder of the community. For the very low fee of 1,000 rupees a month for each student, on the rooftop of a katcha house and surrounded by the panoramic view of mountains, local children are taught art. Some are being rigorously trained to sit the entrance exam for the NCA; others are much younger. I strike up conversation with a chirpy hijab-clad seven-year-old. Another young girl tells me how she protested to her family until they allowed her to start drawing. Yet another wants to go to Lahore and study miniature. As the sun starts making its lazy descent down the sky and the blinding light creates dark shadows, students sit around a still-life and studiously sketch. At the end of each year, the Sketch Club holds a student exhibition where the works are put up for sale. Mousavi believes that art should be accessible to all and the art pieces are thus priced accordingly — much of it ends up being bought. There used to be a local art gallery in Mariabad, a teacher at the Sketch Club tells me, but its owner shut shop and migrated to Australia.

 Left to right: Syed Sajjad Hussain in his studio; The fine arts and sculpture studio at IT University.
Left to right: Syed Sajjad Hussain in his studio; The fine arts and sculpture studio at IT University.

“It is very easy for me to go to Australia — half my family is there already,” says Syed Sajjad Hussain, Mousavi’s son. A graduate of the NCA, he is a soft-spoken young man, with a tendency to wax philosophical about the meaning and purpose of art. On his face are visible scratch marks — as it turns out, Hussain was severely injured last year in an attack on a bus that was taking students from the IT University to Mariabad. Since the incident, says Hussain, his simple neo-miniaturist style has undergone a drastic change. The central locus of his work focuses on an individual in a meditative position, exuding calm. Upon closer inspection, however, all is not perfect: In one of the works, the face is masked by a bullet; in another, there is an eerie reference to overpowering blood. Is the individual transcending this world due to death or due to spirituality? In modern-day Pakistan, where Hussain’s community has been so heavily targeted on the basis of its sect, is it one and the same thing?

Despite this, however, Hussain chose to come back to Quetta after finishing his studies in Lahore — and refuses to leave, for Australia or elsewhere. “There is a bigger statement to make here,” he says. He then refers to big names in the Pakistani art world such as Imran Qureshi, R M Naeem, Rashid Rana, Salima Hashmi and asks how many people can such mentors accommodate in one year, in one batch. “Fifteen, 20 — maximum 40. So, what happens to the rest of the students? Are they not doing art?” Some others like him need to be here to lead and guide the rest.

Hareem Shairani also came back. So did Hammal Khan. Graduates of the NCA, just like Hussain, they appear to represent a new and important dynamism within the art scene in Quetta, which regularly loses its artists to other parts of the country. Indeed, a few students enrol in the University of Balochistan’s Fine Arts Department for a year and use it as a launching pad to obtain admission to the NCA. Shairani and Hammal Khan’s work, highly politicised, is also important for another reason: It is largely experimental, a shift away from the tendency to paint landscapes. (This tendency is, perhaps, linked to Baloch nationalism, as if by painting one’s land, one can assert ownership over it, but it may also be the lingering legacy of Kaleem Khan, who excels in landscape painting. It also stems from an inherent love for the land, former provincial legislator and one of the 18 Parsis still living in Quetta, Khursid Barucha, explains to me, proceeding to describe how beautiful the white snow looks as it falls on dark muddy mountains.)

 [L - R]: Naseeb Khan with his son at his studio in Kuchlak; A site-specific installation by Sahibzada Sardar at the IT University; Girls at the Sketch Club, an initiative of the Hazara community in Quetta.
[L - R]: Naseeb Khan with his son at his studio in Kuchlak; A site-specific installation by Sahibzada Sardar at the IT University; Girls at the Sketch Club, an initiative of the Hazara community in Quetta.

Shairani, who is native to Quetta, specialises in printmaking, a rare field in Balochistan. (The University of Balochistan’s fine arts department has only one printmaker – which is broken – and no faculty that specialises in the discipline.) Her works deal with patriarchy: They cheekily show men standing in grim and grave poses, while the women are represented only by their shoes. Hammal Khan, who is from Turbat, perhaps the only artist from his district, is on the other hand experimenting with video art.

Originally trained in miniature, his recent video work deals with themes of self-identity and the anxious relationship of the Baloch people with the Pakistani state: Individuals with pained expressions on their faces rub off dust and dirt from their bodies, eventually appearing free of blemishes. In the future, Hammal Khan hopes to help establish a fine arts department back home in Turbat and spread greater awareness among the students there about the myriad art-related opportunities available in the country.

Shairani, Hammal Khan and Hussain all teach at the IT University. Instruction in art history and practice comes with a number of problems, they say: Due to the conservative nature of the province, it is impossible to show nudes in art history classes — which is, of course, one of the most central aspects of Western art history. Students regularly ask for lectures to be translated into Pashto or Balochi. Freedom of expression remains, as elsewhere in the country, a tricky concept and ethnic tensions abound. Two artists who agree to speak to me, one Punjabi and the other Urdu-speaking, request that I don’t use their real names. Moreover, students continue to gravitate towards landscape paintings and other forms of art that do no feature figures and are, therefore, deemed religiously acceptable.

 Female faculty at the IT University,
Female faculty at the IT University,

Despite all this, the three are determined to stick it out. “No one else will come to these students, apart from us,” says Shairani. Their hope is that a new generation of art educators will sustain and boost the local art scene.

On the grounds of the IT University, I come across a site-specific installation made by Sahibzada Sardar, a third-year student from Kuchlak, the only work of public art that I see in Quetta. Sculptures are rare in Balochistan, for cultural and economic reasons; Sardar was paid a paltry 8,000 rupees for his creation, barely enough to cover the cost of the materials. But the work speaks volumes about his artistic skills, effectively capturing the spirit of the artists and art students I meet in Quetta: A figure of metal frozen in a moment of ascendancy, fist raised, one leg in a beautifully curved position, ready to take on the world. As I look on, the metal gleams in the wintry Quetta sun.