In Ways of Seeing, John Berger, the late, great, British art critic, posits that, “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe. In the Middle Ages when men believed in the physical existence of Hell, the sight of fire must have meant something different from what it means today… History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past.”

Put differently, since what we know and what we believe changes over time, history becomes critical to understanding the world around us. It provides context.

But history is a contested construct everywhere. The present often informs the past, not the other way around. In the United States, for instance, McGraw-Hill recently revised a textbook suggesting the slave trade brought “millions of workers” across the ocean. [ 1]

An Australian journalist writes, “My knowledge of Australian history … went … as follows: Captain Cook, convicts, gold rush, Gallipoli, ANZACs, Bradman, done.” [2]

Manifestly, the Aboriginal people do not figure. In France, a bill was passed calling for recognition of the achievements of the colonial enterprise, omitting the fact that during the French conquest in 1830, the population of Algeria halved due to war and famine and disease. [3]

What of the Fraternité?

The postcolonial predicament presents other challenges as the colonial machinery from Vietnam to Brazil mediated, sometimes manufactured, history to serve governance. In Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge, anthropologist Bernard Cohn suggests that British colonialism in India was contingent on “determining, codifying, controlling and representing the past.”

The imposition of officially sanctioned histories caused a disjuncture in the narratives that informed notions of self-identity among the subjects and when these narratives were reorganised, reconstituted, after the fact, so to speak, history, historiography suffered.

In India, for instance, historical gerrymandering is as old as the state, from the roles of the “founding fathers” at Independence [4] to the brutal conquest of Hyderabad, an episode erased from national consciousness and only recently excavated. [5]

Even before the resurgence of the right, William Dalrymple catalogued the academics who were effectively declared personae non grata by the Indian state. [6]

Recall that Wendy Doniger and Paul Cartwright were forced to recall Hindus: An Alternative History and Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings, respectively; an order to arrest and extradite James W. Laine, the author of Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, was issued; and D.N. Jha, the author of The Myth of the Holy Cow, received death threats.

Of course, this imperative has been more pervasive in the present chauvinist climate, from “two-hundred-foot planes” that could fly “forwards, backwards, and sideways, hover in mid-air” during the Vedic era – Air India, not to mention PIA, should take a page out of history – to elementary school textbooks that maintain meat-eaters “easily cheat, tell lies, forget promises, are dishonest and tell bad words, steal, fight and turn to violence and commit sex crimes.” [7]

Although postcolonial revisionism is characterised by its own peculiar dynamics, the imperative to “other” is a salient, shared characteristic across the board: writing in Dawn, columnist Jawed Naqvi notes, “As in India, rigging the chronology of history has been honed into a craft in Pakistan too, and it is difficult to say who between the two is better in conjuring myths that exhort young minds to violence. A recent study in Pakistan found that the country’s public school textbooks negatively portrayed religious minorities, including Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis, as ‘untrustworthy, religiously inferior, and ideologically scheming.’” [8]

Our exclusionary imperative might be traced before Independence – we can debate foundational myths ad infinitum – but there is no doubt that discourse was hijacked by a small, vociferous band of clergy that lobbied for the Objectives Resolution in the 1950s. Pakistan was reborn as an Islamic Republic then, a development cemented by the political parties bill of 1962. [9]

The Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s populist government in 1974 and the colonial era blasphemy laws, which were amended by the Ziaul Haq dictatorship, then by the Sharif government in the 1990s, have been used to harass, hound and disenfranchise “minorities” and Muslims alike.

Only 21 members of the National Assembly out of 69 voted for the Objectives Resolution but now, it seems, everybody has blood on their hands. Recall, for instance, 40 homes that were torched by a murderous mob in Gojra in 2009 after reports of the desecration of the Holy Book. Nine Christians were burnt alive; scores were injured.

A subsequent investigation, however, found that no instance of blasphemy had occurred. The law minister maintained, “It was just a rumour which was exploited by anti-state elements to create chaos.” [10]

Recently, a 23-year old student named Mashal Khan was brutally murdered by a mob at a university over accusations of blasphemy.

Dawn’s editorial maintains: “The culpability of the state — particularly some elements of it — in bringing matters to such a pass is undeniable. For even while spewing platitudes in the name of anti-extremism, it has fed the fires of intolerance and unreason, deliberately creating an environment where mere allegations of blasphemy trigger vigilante ‘justice’ and where appeals to moderation are conflated with defending blasphemy itself.”

The state is often directly complicit. When secular-minded bloggers who allegedly defied our ‘national ideology’ in quiet cantons of the internet were whisked away to be interrogated in secret rooms, one wondered: is our national ideology so fragile, so friable?

In his opus, Image and Identity, the late, great, Pakistani art critic, Dr Akbar Naqvi, announces, “Pakistan’s history is older than its age… The thesis of this book is that Pakistan is inseparable from [the] heritage of Al-Hind, and without that it has no identity.”

Although this might not be news to serious historians, in the ever-evolving exclusionary socio-political ecosystems of the subcontinent, the assertion was like a brick lobbed in the oft stagnant pond of popular discourse. This theme pervades Dr Naqvi’s oeuvre, from Shahid Sajjad’s Sculpture to Sadequain and the Culture of Enlightenment.

“The subcontinent was partitioned,” he writes elsewhere, “but its people continued to share myths, histories, cultures and a multifaceted civilisation.”

Consequently, we in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka are “joint custodians” of the discourse of the subcontinent.

Dr Naqvi observes this shared ethos in the work of Abanindranath Tagore, who responded to late Mughal miniatures, Abdur Rehman Chughtai, who routinely rendered icons from Hindu mythopoetics, Syed Sadequain Naqvi, who distilled everything from tantric symbolism to Arabic calligraphy, and Ustad Allah Buksh.

“Buksh’s art was the Indian face of European painting and accepted national art … [i]n this style, local romantic lore and mythological subjects were painted according to Euro-Indian conventions of Raj art schools.”

Manifestly, we, demonyms of the subcontinent, “have several histories converging upon us.”

For Dr Naqvi, history is not good, bad, some sort of binary, or for that matter, linear: Picasso’s Cubism, derived from African masks, in turn influenced the likes of Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes or Zubeida Agha and Shakir Ali.

El Greco was moved by Moorish history and Sadequain’s figurative work was in turn influenced by El Greco. [11] Ideas, Dr Naqvi maintains, “move in mysterious ways to infiltrate societies and germinate in the minds of thinkers…”

The problem, as Dr Naqvi characterised it, is “Picasso has not been critiqued by an African, nor … Matisse by a Persian to highlight their shortcomings from the point of view of whose art they borrowed from. No one asked them in Europe if they understood what they took and used it correctly… We are too much on the defensive; we have taken ideas and styles from the West in the same way Europe did for centuries from Egypt, the Muslim world, the Far East, and Africa…”

Conscious of such pervasive epistemological disparities, Dr Naqvi reclaimed discourse by developing a critical language, a hermeneutic strategy of his own, invoking sources as varied as the Ramayana, Fardid-Ud-Din Attar’s millennium-old epic Conference of Birds, Bulleh Shah’s Punjabi folk anthems, the canon of Urdu poetry – Ghalib, Mir, Dard, Iqbal – as well as English literature and continental philosophy.

In Shahid Sajjad’s Sculpture, Dr Naqvi employs the verses of 18th century poet Mir Taqi Mir to elucidate the practice of sculpture: “Those who worship the appearance of things, know not reality/ My love of idols is not idolatry, but something else.”

Dr Naqvi maintains that the “Urdu ghazal, based mostly though not exclusively on the theme of unrequited love, leaned heavily on the analogy of idol worship…” How so? “First, it symbolised the heartless beauty of the beloved” and “secondly, the lover separated from his beloved turned into a sculptor, carving out the beloved’s image during … [his] … agony.”

One of the more elegant models Dr Naqvi posits is the ethos of malamat, an ontological sensibility derived in part from a Sufi order founded in Nishapur (or present day Iran) by Hamdun Qasr in the ninth century.

“The malamati lived inwardly in unison with God, while outwardly they behaved as if they were separated from Him. That is, they dressed, acted and spoke to provoke the condemnation of respectable members of society and self-righteous scholars as well as leaders of daily prayers… [According to the prominent Irani scholar], Syed Hossein Nasr, they emphasised sincerity in action and opposed all ostentation and religious hypocrisy.”

Dr Naqvi posited that great artists are fundamentally malamati.

“Faiz Ahmad Faiz, himself a malamati poet, gives a succinct description of his ilk, ‘ahle safa, mardude haram,’ or those whose hearts are spotlessly clean but remain barred from entering the mosque due to objections raised by the righteous and censorious…”

The malamati model suggests that great art is inherently subversive; it has a moral and social dimension; it holds a mirror to man, to society. The art, then, which is merely a commentary about itself – much of modern and postmodern art, for starters – lacks force and function.

“The story of my book,” Dr Naqvi begins, “is rooted in the cultural upheavals, confrontations, and responses to change that have been the feature of the subcontinent. Arts have fallen and risen with conquests and clashes of cultures and the discourse of the subcontinent on the subject has a vitality of its own.”

∞ Dr Naqvi was born in the midst of history in Hajipur in 1931: the subcontinent was at a pregnant juncture between the wars – the Indian National Congress had announced Purna Swaraj or complete independence a year earlier and Gandhi led his civil disobedience by sauntering to the sea – but Dr Naqvi was unaware of such vicissitudes then.

“I was born,” he narrates, “in a Raj bungalow to a Syed family on the bank of an ancient holy river of India.” He remembers “Hindu holy men and women” congregated every year past a “small, white-washed temple” to “wash away their sins” at the conflux of the Gandak and Ganges.

The house belonged to his maternal grandfather, an avid hunter, recreational tennis player, Haji, and the first Indian deputy commissioner and collector of Muzzaffarpur. Akbar Naqvi’s father, who started his career as a correspondent of The Statesman, would also join the provincial civil service as deputy magistrate.

As a child, Dr Naqvi read the Quran at his grandfather’s maktab and studied Persian – he enjoyed the poetry of Sa’di in particular – before attending a government school at eight.

In 1938, when the family acquired a radio, he listened to programming on the BBC, from the news broadcasts to the ‘Nocturnes of Chopin.’ He would also survey Life and the Illustrated Weekly of India in the houses of neighbouring British and Anglo-Indian families posted in the tribal hinterlands: Dumka, Pakur, Giridh.

Once, his father took him to a Jain temple. “It was evening [when] we reached … and entered into a strange world.”

The hall, “carved from the mountain of Parasnath” featured granite statues “three times the size of a man” and were “stark naked.”

He recalls “women and girls were singing and moving in a circular motion” bearing brass platters wielding earthen lamps fuelled by mustard oil. “What I realised then, and became conscious of much later … was the difference between … art and life.”

At the beginning of the Second World War, one of Dr Naqvi’s uncles joined the Royal Air Force “on the orders of the Communist Party;” another was dispatched to the Burma front as a doctor, while a third toured villages in a battered jeep as a publicity officer in the provincial information service.

The fourth had become active in student politics, canvassing for the Muslim League at Aligarh University. Dr Naqvi would also be sent to Aligarh (though he completed his BA in English Literature at Patna College).

It was in Aligarh that Dr Naqvi learnt of Gandhi’s assassination. “Until Nehru announced … that it was a Hindu who had committed the dastardly act, we knew that a slaughter of all Muslims was to follow had the assassin been a Muslim. The panic even after [the] broadcast … was worse… I was miserably homesick and managed to slip away from my hostel.”

But on the Toofan Mail, his “identity was exposed.” A young Sikh “got into the compartment and incited passengers with his oratory… As he stepped forward to cut our throats with his kirpan … and caught hold of me by the collar, two Indian army soldiers with Tommy guns intervened.”

Not long after, Dr Naqvi managed to secure a scholarship to Liverpool University (after his seat in Clare College, Cambridge, was scuttled by nepotistic machinations).

In the United Kingdom, he maintained, “I worked hard and played hard:” he travelled to Loch Ness to “spot the monster,” “listened to classical music every fortnight … and jazz music,” watched French films, plays (including T.S. Eliot’s The Birthday Party), and visited art galleries and museums where he came across the works of Picasso, Miro, and Klee.

Although Dr Naqvi’s father was appointed secretary irrigation in Bihar after Independence, he would be demoted by the chief secretary when he refused to allot a house to the private secretary of a minister.

There would be a subsequent inquiry (which was eventually cleared) but he would eventually be packed off to Delhi as director-general of the All India Waqf Board. It was a step down. In the new state of India his father’s career suffered.

Consequently, perhaps, he suggested his son immigrate. Although Dr Naqvi aspired to pursue a life in academia in the United States, [12] his father preferred he remain close by, next door, in Pakistan.

“When I came to Pakistan I had two choices,” Dr Naqvi stated. “One was to teach in some college… The second choice was to give up the career for which I was educated in Aligarh University, Patna College and Liverpool University. I decided to take up a corporate career so I could earn enough and give [my wife] the same standard of living I was used to.”

He joined Eastern Management followed by Eastern Refinery, Esso Chemical, followed by Exxon.

In Karachi, Dr Naqvi socialised with the fraternity of middle-class intellectuals, artists and kindred spirits who populated the environs of Garden and Nazimabad, [13] including Ali Imam, Sadequain and Shahid Sajjad.

He begin writing on art, or as he characterised it, “exchanges between the eye, mind, and memory” for publications that include the Sun, Dawn, Muslim (which was edited by one of his erstwhile Communist uncles), and the Herald.

His magnum opus, Image and Identity, was completed in 1997.

Although I knew Akbar Naqvi since I was a child, I started spending time with him when I returned to Karachi in 2000.

We did not always see eye to eye, the good doctor and I – he could be tin-eared, testy [14] – but whether or not I agreed, whether or not anybody agreed for that matter, one was compelled to listen.

It did not have to do with his mien or manner – his protruding blue eyes, warbling baritone tenor, or the way he leaned forward when stirred, hands gesticulating, in the worn turquoise armchair in his spare living room – but his erudition.

It had to do with the fact that he was that rare species: an original thinker.

Whatever the resonance of Dr Naqvi’s work might be for others in this savage, distracted age, I am grateful that my uncle introduced me to certain modes of inquiry, or ways of seeing. I only wish I could have seen him one last time before he left.

The columnist is the author of Home Boy. His second book is to be published this year.



  2. “Closing the Gap: Australia is Meaner, Dumber and more racist than 25 years ago,” Andrew P. Street: Sydney Morning Herald

  3. “The Memory Colony,” HM Naqvi:

  4. Nisid Hajari, author of Midnight’s Furies, writes, “There’s little question […] Gandhi’s leadership of the Indian nationalist movement […] contributed to Muslim alienation [...]. He introduced religion into a freedom movement that had until then been the province of secular lawyers and intellectuals, couching his appeals […] in largely Hindu terms […]. Gandhi may have done the most damage at what is normally considered his moment of triumph [...]. When the first pre-Partition riots […] broke out in Calcutta […] he endorsed the idea that thugs loyal to […] Jinnah […] deliberately provoked the killings. The truth is hardly so clear-cut: It appears […] initial clashes quickly spiraled out of control […]. Later, after lurid reports emerged of a massacre of Hindus in the remote district of Noakhali […] Gandhi fueled Hindu hysteria […] focus[ing] on wildly exaggerated claims that marauders had raped tens of thousands […] [and] advised the [women] to ‘suffocate themselves or […] bite their tongues to end their lives rather than allow themselves to be raped.” (

  5. Mike Thomson begins, “In September and October 1948, soon after independence from the British Empire, tens of thousands of people were brutally slaughtered in central India. Some were lined up and shot by Indian Army soldiers. Yet a government-commissioned report into what happened was never published and few in India know about the massacre. Critics have accused successive Indian governments of continuing a cover-up.” (

  6. “The War of over History”: New York Review of Books, April 2005

  7. “Five Bizarre Lessons in Indian textbooks”: BBC, Sept 2015

  8. Writing in the New York Times, novelist K. Anis Ahmed delineates the recent changes in Bangladeshi textbooks: “The Bengali letter “o”used to stand for “ol,” a yam; now it stands for “orna,” a scarf worn by women for modesty. Texts by non-Muslim writers — including some revered as part of Bengali heritage, like the classical poet Gyandas or the contemporary novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay — have been removed. Also gone are a small excerpt from the Ramayana…and songs of the Sufi icon Lalon Shah, whose syncretic faith is anathema to Muslim conservatives.”

  9. In From Jinnah to Zia, former chief justice, Muhammad Munir writes, “The Quaid-i-Azam never used the words 'Ideology of Pakistan.' For 15 years after the establishment of Pakistan, the Ideology of Pakistan was not known to anybody until in 1962 a solitary member of the Jamaat-i-Islami used these words for the first time when the Political Parties Bill was being discussed. On this, Chaudhry Fazal Elahi, who has recently retired as president of Pakistan, rose from his seat and objected that the 'Ideology of Pakistan' shall have to be defined. The member who had proposed the original amendment replied that the 'Ideology of Pakistan was Islam', but nobody asked him the further question 'What is Islam?'”


  11. Interestingly, according to the entry on Greco in the ever authoritative Wikipedia, “A significant innovation of El Greco's mature works is the interweaving between form and space; a reciprocal relationship is developed between the two which completely unifies the painting surface. This interweaving would re-emerge three centuries later in the works of…Picasso.”

  12. Once upon a time, the greatest literary critic of the time, Lionel Trilling, offered him a teaching position at Columbia on the basis of a few typewritten paragraphs he submitted by mail – what is called a thesis statement – concerning something about the “Emergence of the New Man.”

  13. For a breezy account of the cultural ecosystem of the time, one might peruse Sibtain Naqvi’s “The City of Lost Dreams” in Dawn.

  14. I can imagine him objecting to my reducing his life and work to three, four pages, a few thousand words.

An abridged version of this article was published in the April 16, 2017, edition of Eos/Books&Authors.


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