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Cover Story: A whirlpool of fire

May 22, 2016


The above three paintings are interpretations of Iqbal’s poetry by Sadequain. All three date back to 1977. -Photos from the book.
The above three paintings are interpretations of Iqbal’s poetry by Sadequain. All three date back to 1977. -Photos from the book.

Capturing the rhythm and pulse of Sadequain’s art is not for the faint-hearted, not just because of its intensity and magnitude, but also because of the complex cultural strains running through it. The recent Oxford University Press publication, Sadequain: And the Culture of Enlightenment, by well-known art critic Akbar Naqvi, has an edge over other philosophical commentaries on the artist and his art as the author had the privilege of reviewing Sadequain’s art during his lifetime. He knew him personally and possesses extensive knowledge of the cultural environment within which Sadequain evolved.

This volume elects to flesh out a holistic picture of the artist by locating him “in his correct multicultural context, one which includes ancient Indian mythology, Arabic, Persian and Urdu literature, as well as the Muslim Enlightenment of the Raj.” By reconstructing the cultural perspective relevant to each aspect of Sadequain’s oeuvre, painting, khattati, khushkhati in line and rubai, Naqvi establishes the nature and role of multiple influences that fed into his art. The author’s emphasis is not just on defining Sadequain but by doing so to also highlight prominent facets of ‘enlightenment’ (roshan khayali) in the culture of “al-Hind” that has enabled the new and the modern to evolve. So, while Sadequain is the protagonist in the book the culture narrative is not a sub-text; it moves as a parallel force to establish a trail of the spirit of co-existence, tolerance, creativity and inventiveness.

Akbar Naqvi demystifies Sadequain’s body of work

An entire chapter devoted to the malamati tradition describes its specifics, evolution and relevance to Sadequain’s art. Under the influence of Sufi philosophy, malamat, meaning blame or condemnation, found a home in Persian and Urdu poetry and in the Indo-Persian culture it was “the voice of the soul of the faryadi, of men too weak to stand up to Satan but strong enough never to let Allah go from their hearts. Art resolved to solve the puzzle.” This culture (tehzib) accepted man as an aberrant or immoral creature but not a refuter of Allah. Naqvi observes that Sadequain was a “malamati like Hafiz, Ghalib, Dard, Mir,” who “let his spiritual honesty and integrity lead him to voluntary damnation by proxy, the state in which he found peace.” The Sar-ba-kaf, head in hand image is a defining feature of Sadequain’s art — he “punished his body, in life as well as in his drawings and paintings unlike any other artist in Pakistan.” Like the Sufi sensibility of assuming the persona of a sinner to expose hypocrisy in society he preferred shocking exhibitionism over ceremonial piety to bare social evil. Possessing the courage to uphold the truth and suffer for it Sadequain was able to adopt many behroops or disguises in order to “awaken us to our values of culture and art.” This eclectic art was a “manifesto of liberation” which ultimately connected with the “primordial covenant between himself and Him.”

Belonging to a family of khattats Sadequain felt honour-bound to continue the calligraphic tradition of his elders but unlike the perpetuation of conventional calligraphy he adopted an experimental expression, essentially fuelled by “his own angst and ecstasy.” Describing Sadequain’s khattati variously as “a whirlpool of fire, “pearl in an oyster” or a bonfire, Naqvi comments at great length on the “tortuous restlessness” inherent in the artist’s attitude which compelled innovation. He upholds this pioneering stance with historical references highlighting the evolution of khattati, especially its progressive developing face and how “in its day it was boldly experimental and represented the soul and body of a Muslim.” Quoting Malik Ram, a renowned Urdu, Persian and Arabic scholar, Naqvi discloses that Muslim and Hindu khattats of India invented many new styles from nastaliq, like khate gulzar (garden of letters), khate taoos (letters like a peacock), khate mahi (letters like fish), khate zulf-i-uroos (letters like the long hair of a bride), etc. “It was to them and their tradition of experimentalism that Sadequain added his own permissive contribution to the great form.”

It is common to attribute abstract, bizarre or grotesque expression in art nowadays to some Western influence or another. Often unaware of other references we seldom trace its genesis to our cultural history. A very credible inference is drawn regarding Sadequain’s strange vocabulary and imagery by the author. Dismissing influences of European surrealism in Sadequain’s work, Naqvi remarks that he was “fantastic, horrendous and disturbing according to the Arab and Persian Dastan of events and stories involving human and extraterrestrial creatures as well as mind-bending events and adventures.” The Dastan was a fictitious and seemingly endless narrative of magical tales. In drawing human figures he was influenced by ancient Indian tradition where the body was constructed not according to the laws of anatomy but of the Vedas. “The figures were plump, whether it was a Yakshi, a tree spirit or fairy or the Buddha, and they were full of the soul or atma, meaning life as well.”

“In writing about about these two great artists, Sadequain and Chughtai, one cannot think of two more starkly contrasting styles of art and personality, even though they were different fruits of the same culture and tradition. In this brief note, I shall touch upon their common heritage and also the respective individuality of style which makes them appear antipodal. Art is the product of a long history of culture and intellectual tradition of a country or subcontinent and peoples. It is only then that it becomes truly universal or, if one prefers the word, international or global from its cultural roots. For example, even in miniature painting of the Muslim cultural empire, there were various schools associated with Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia, constituting what came to be known as Islamic Art. I prefer to call it Muslim Art because this art was secular or worldly in a spiritual way peculiar to Muslim peoples and societies. Similar was the case with miniature painting in the Indian subcontinent which Muslims called al‑Hind after the great River Indus. English or French art is national and at the same time European. American painting has its own culture of ideas and visual phrasing but it is associated with Europe.” — Excerpt from the book

Among the varied influences that determined Sadequain’s art the most important was that of Persian and Urdu poetry and the cultural ethos surrounding it. In his first book of rubaiyat (quatrains) Sadequain acknowledges the profound impact of Ghalib and Iqbal on his work. In this context Naqvi questions, “How can one appreciate Sadequain without reference to Ghalib and Iqbal and writers of rubai like Josh Malihabadi and Mir Anis? Even if one does not know enough about these poets, one must be aware of the cultural ambience of Sadequain’s art — poetry and visual arts.” A counter question to this is — how do successive generations, who do not understand Urdu or Persian poetry, access Sadequain? It is in such circumstances that books like this one become invaluable conduits to the artist’s psyche.

Akbar Naqvi’s comparative studies of Sadequain with his contemporaries like Chughtai and Shakir Ali are yet another yardstick by which to measure and understand the artist and his cultural background. Both were products of and reverted to the same Culture of Enlightenment (Roshan Khayali) as Sadequain, but from their personal perspectives. Like Sadequain, Chughtai also admired Ghalib and Iqbal but one protested against tyranny of the powerful over the weak, and the other waxed lyrical over past Muslim glory. Both were knowledgeable about khattati, wrote poetry and indulged in their traditional book art/craft of illumination and bookmaking albeit one chose the raw fibrous earthiness of jute as a suitable cover for his books while the other opted for chromatically luminous visuals containing romanticised notions of Islamic and Mughal history rendered in his exquisite wash technique.

Iqbal’s portrait. Sadequain, 1977.
Iqbal’s portrait. Sadequain, 1977.

In scrutinising Sadequain and Shakir Ali’s equivalence and divergence, the author notes that they shared the same culture and both referenced India’s mythological legends, but their approaches and choices were distinctly individual. Their art and their social and religious backgrounds were different, but Naqvi points out that the angst and longing of both artists were the same but again the expression was “open in Sadequain and internalised in Shakir.” He says “if Sadequain made oblique references to Shiva, and adopted the hatha yogis discipline of torturing the body for salvation, Shakir Ali opted for Jain painting, the Ajanta murals, and the great Chola bronzes of 11th-century India.”

In the end chapters it becomes apparent that the culture trail is more than just a corresponding discourse. The essay, ‘Shahid Sajjad and the Beginning of Time’, is only indirectly related to Sadequain; its immediate relevance is to the concluding essay. Naqvi associates the wellspring of Sajjad’s sculptural expression to the traditions of the subcontinent and the spirituality inherent in nature. Unlike Greek or European sculpture that eulogised the anatomical structure of the body it was the “atma or breath/soul informing the body” that underscored Sajjad’s aesthetic concerns. Referring to nature and the universe as “the silent Quran, manifesting the power, majesty and beauty of Allah” he points to the truth and wisdom hidden in the silence and body language of Shahid Sajjad’s sculptures. A certainty “which we have forgotten and in the mental void thus created, are hell bent on destroying nature and our planet.”

Similarly the concluding chapter, ‘Al-Beruni and Amir Khusro: Beacons of Enlightenment’ again highlights traditional tenets but through the presence and role of the initial torch-bearers of enlightenment in the subcontinent. Pronouncing Al-Beruni and Amir Khusro as the founders of this open-minded sensibility, he attributes the consolidation of Al-Beruni’s perceptions to Khusro, in the 13th century, 200 years after the latter’s journey to India and his stay there. He declares that Khusro “brought about the first synthesis of several cultures, indigenous and foreign, which was shared in various degrees by all, from the court to the people.” Establishing his premise with historical evidence Naqvi cannot be contested when he claims that the current postmodern hype about diversity, the other, and multiculturalism “was known to people of ravadari (tolerance, peace) even before these terms began to be used in their present sense in Europe.”

The author’s emphasis on enlightenment and its contextual backdrop is not just to frame a cultural chronology or a historical recap of subcontinental traditions. Pointing to graver concerns he states that “the purpose was to make my children and others of their age, as well as my great-grandchildren, aware of their precious heritage, especially in the present circumstances when a new kind of Islam, with emphasis on jihad terrorism, has made us and our fellow men and women victims of a conspiracy.” According to him, superpower interventionist politics has played havoc with the cultures of vulnerable countries that are manipulated as pawns in the game of international politics. He cites lack of interest and not dearth of research material that has allowed the culture of Roshan Khayali to dissipate. Propagation of an “ossified religion” by its guardians “the sheikh, mullah and Zahid” has also clamped the spirit of inquiry and evolution so necessary for a country to remain in step with the times.

Regarded as an art icon of the distant past, Sadequain’s art is sought after as a lucrative asset. His persona does not seem to intrigue the present new media-obsessed generation of artists. The current art milieu may not be instantly enamoured by this volume as its time and attention is heavily invested in production and promotion of contemporary art. Nonetheless the book is very informative, very educational and a valuable research source. Its only shortcoming is its hydra-headed narrative which calls for concentrated reading in order to keep all the tangential streams of thought connected as one story.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based freelance writer and art critic.

Sadequain and the culture of enlightenment
By Akbar Naqvi
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN 978-0199066483