The Fragrance

Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1897-1975) is often dismissed as a traditional and conservative artist. However, Chughtai’s art was a response to the politics and demands of Muslim nationalism and Pan-Islamism in the ’20s. His works find a strong parallel in the poetry of the time. His paintings like ‘The Fragrance’ (1935) functioned as more than just romantic visions of the Mughal period created in a vacuum; they were meant to remind his Muslim audience of their past greatness and call upon them to make efforts to acquire the same position and power.

They put forward community goals and aspirations because the power, luxury and elegance of the Mughal Muslim elite were deemed qualities worthy of aspiration by the literati of the time. His art was also an engagement with the avant-garde practices of the Bengal School of Art, a new art movement in the early 20th century, which was driven by the desire to construct an aesthetic that was modern and national, yet recognisably different from the Western one.

With the creation of Pakistan, Chughtai’s Perso-Mughal aesthetic became a convenient mouthpiece for the government’s vision of a homogeneous Islamic culture, which would serve as the bedrock of Pakistani identity. The first art exhibition to be held in the country was of his paintings and soon his name was synonymous with national art of Pakistan.

In the nearly 68 years of Pakistan’s history, the trajectory of art practice has been in constant motion; an unceasing evolution, with particular cerebral artists playing seminal roles as agents of change at particular times. In the first of a two-part series, our Art team discusses 10 specific works that altered the course of art history in Pakistan


Durriya Kazi and David Alesworth’s ‘Arz-i-Mauood’ (The Promised Lands) 1997 is an important work that reflects an unprecedented public art practice that was invested in exploring the everyday and popular. This relational art was set in the public space of Bagh-i-Jinnah and continued for one month. Its shamiana and decorative lights were reminiscent of wedding halls, Sufi shrines and melas which attracted people with ease. Panels on either side of the entrance formed a notice board for people to share their stories, histories and everyday experiences. The multiplicity of views, experiences and aspirations collected, revealed the diversity of Karachi and its inhabitants.

Further inside the tent stood painted backdrops with cut-out faces for people to take photos in their personalised “promised lands” – going to Mecca for Hajj, getting married or working abroad. There was also a tailor present doing embroidery on request. ‘Arz-i-Mauood’ centred on the realm of human interactions and subjective encounters in a public space. It was an interactive, social and relational work that defied the conventional and privatised space of individual consumption by embracing the contingencies of its environment and audience.

Sadequain Mural at Lahore Museum

Sadequain’s legacy is overwhelmingly vast given his broad thematic range and visual vocabulary. In his own words, he saw himself as a representational painter but his impact is most prominent within the genre of Islamic calligraphy. By focusing on it, he not only brought it within the mainstream but also re-approached its formal aspects. For instance, Sadequain’s calligraphic paintings in the Lahore Museum reveal how, rather than focusing on the script, he treats the words like form, where they are rendered in space, in a surrealist manner referencing the representational. Given the subject matter, these gelled very well with the ideological stance in terms of the identity Pakistan wanted to adopt at the time.

Distilling a complex debate, in the ’60s there seemed to be a real confrontation between modernism and tradition. Here, under the ideological pinning of crafts, calligraphy acquired a second-class status. Sadequain can be credited for turning his attention to this art form, reinventing it and bringing it into the modern idiom.

The artist was never directly associated with any academic institution yet his art continues to influence myriads of artists even today, making his legacy a powerful one.

Untitled (1977)

Ahmed Parvez took abstraction and reinterpreted it in his individual and personal style. His paintings were bold, shocking in the use of colour and charged with energy compositionally. In relation to his time, Parvez’s work marks the transition from representational concerns to painterly explorations within art making in Pakistan. Even though by the ’50s, he had already been exhibited internationally and was being discussed in the same context as prominent expressionists, including Jackson Pollock, at home national recognition came in 1978, a year before his death, when he was awarded the prestigious Pride of Performance.

Looking at his work towards the end, in particular an untitled piece from 1977, his interest to expand the pictorial space and dimensions of painting are evident, where we see the artist presenting a vase like structure at the same time opening up the image to abstract elements.

Having said that a reading of his life would be incomplete without looking at the personal details. Parvez had a troubled childhood, where his parents separated when he was very young, having a lasting impact on his emotional development.

Hence, when talking about his work, he often spoke about its cathartic nature saying, “whether I like it or not I am forced to paint.

I want to live and paint. Painting is my prayer and faith”. In this sense, he can also been seen as a pioneer of bringing in the autobiography within art making.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, March 22nd, 2015

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