Born in Wazirabad into a family which had migrated from Gurdaspur, a self-taught sculptor and painter, Shadi Khan lived a rich childhood in the woods around his hometown, especially on the bank of the Chenab. He would run away from school during the break and spend hours roaming around Palkhu Nullah and the architectural structures of Mughal and Sikh periods. His love for nature and the stunningly beautiful works of unknown artisans in the old buildings were the inspirations to draw and paint at a tender age.
“Hindu temples of Wazirabad, Shesh Mahal and Gura Kotha, a gurdwara of Guru Hargobind era, had a lasting impression on my mind. I had heard shocking stories of Sikh massacre in this temple during the Partition in 1947.
“The buildings and the artworks in the interiors were in good condition. There were no encroachments by the land mafia, the surroundings of Wazirabad were lush green. Even the water in Palkhu Nullah coming from Jammu was transparent, clean and drinkable,” he recalls.
Shadi Khan would sketch on paper and scribble on walls. With regular practice, he developed skills to paint lush-green landscape in his neighourhood and the portraits of film actresses from magazines.
A gift of a Russian wood carving tools set from his painter friend Akram Varraich in 1993 was a watershed moment in his life as an artist. He calls Akram his guru.
“Guru (Akram Varraich) handed me the tools and asked me to start wood carving. I was not familiar with this tough medium. But I already had a strong desire to make something memorable, so I took up the challenge.”
With no training of handling the tools, he started with hit-and-trial method. He says that the woodgrains became my guide very soon. He got the basic understanding by looking at the wood carvers making flowers and foliage on furniture.
“My first work was portraying an old temple with an oak tree. I had done the basic carving on the spot and finished the final details from a detailed study drawing. The emergence of forms out of wood hooked me. I kept on working like crazy, daily for long hours and it became a lifetime romance,” he recalls.
Shadi Khan displayed his works in a couple of group shows in Allah Bux Library and Waheed Tea Stall, a hub of local literary and political activists. Carving for more than two decades, he is grateful to painter Shahid Mirza for curating his show at Chitarkar, Lahore, and Ayesha Nadir Ali and Huma Safdar for bridging him to the art collectors in the provincial capital.
“In 2004, Shumita Didi Sandhu invited me to display my works in India along with other Pakistani artistes, including legendary photographer Azhar Jaffery.
“My works were well-received. I met renowned Indian artist Nek Chand and got inspired by his works created from ‘Theekri’ (broken ceramic pieces) in Chandigarh. After coming back, I made a series of works to decorate my home.
“The process was tough but the materials were inexpensive. I used to go out to collect broken pieces of my choice from the waste, thrown outside the ceramic factories in Gujrat. My guru (Akram Varraich) suggested me to make my art in public space. It took me six months to make a mural outside my house, depicting Krishna playing flute, surrounded by cows. I love the character of Ranjha. To me, he is Punjabi version of Hindu god Krishna,” he relates.
Shadi Khan is celebrated and respected in his neighourhood for his creative works and gentle nature. The local wood traders generously deal with him and often refuse to take money for the wood pieces required for carving.
Shadi Khan laments on violence on the Partition of Punjab and his feelings got intense after meeting families in East Punjab which were forced out of Wazirabad due to violence.
Living in a small house, he is a contented and composed man. To make a living, he travels four days a week as a vender, supplying locally made hardware to shops in Rawalpindi, Mandi Bahauddin, Azad Kasmir and Chawinda.
He is among very rare Pakistani artists who are not influenced by Western norms of making art. Rooted in his own land, his narratives and mediums originate from his own locale. Portraits of Punjabi mystics, scenes of mundane life, mosques, folktales, animals, birds, old buildings and artifacts from Harappan civilisation are the repeatedly used elements in his works. He is currently creating a series of wooden relief sculptures portraying the festival of Basant in Walled City of Lahore.
‘I want to celebrate the festivity in my art before the government bans the Basant in visual arts as well,” he said in a light tone.
Published in Dawn, April 30th, 2017