Getting to know Adil Salahuddin, the man behind some of Pakistan’s most memorable stamps
Published October 27, 2019
Photos from Message Sent: The Life and Works of Adil Salahuddin
Photos from Message Sent: The Life and Works of Adil Salahuddin

After giving me directions to his home and sharing identifiers like the gate’s colour, Adil Salahuddin shares another small detail: “And you’ll find my statue on the roof of the house. It is visible from afar.”

It sure is. It is hard to miss the six-feet-tall, white sculpture of the artist looking skywards. “There used to be three doves there. More than my statue, it was a symbol of peace. I had named it ‘Freedom’,” he says. The doves fell off during the recent rains. Now a cawing crow sits on the sculpture’s outstretched left arm instead.

As one enters his home, one is welcomed by a portrait of Salahuddin. Next to another entrance in the L-shaped room there are several framed paintings of different sizes overlapping each other and lined against the wall.

Sculptures, portraits, paintings, calligraphy … all good … but I’m interested in talking about his miniature art, which is what he is best known for thanks to the hundreds of postage stamps he designed. I’m here following the launch of Message Sent by Arshi Ahmad Aziz, a hefty coffee table treatise based on the life and works of the artist. Salahuddin, however, is quick to point out that he is not just a miniature artist or stamp designer. “I did pursue philately as a childhood hobby though,” he says.

Gold stamp for Jinnah’s birth centenary
Gold stamp for Jinnah’s birth centenary

Salahuddin joined the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore in 1962. “At the time, my parents were unaware of the fact that I was attending an arts college,” he says. “They thought I was studying to be an engineer. The poor souls only found out what was really going on in my third year of NCA,” he laughs at the memory of them noticing, albeit too late, his canvases and the very many sketches that he had made for his thesis project titled ‘The Nude’.

He recalls that at the time the only two big art institutions in Pakistan were NCA and the Dacca School of Arts. The best of the best taught Salahuddin at NCA.

“There was Professor Shakir Ali, NCA’s principal, who happens to be known as the father of modern painting in Pakistan. There was Professor Khalid Iqbal who is known as the father of landscape painting and the initiator of modern realism in Pakistan. And there was the master miniaturist of Pakistan Haji Mohammad Sharif,” he lists some of his teachers.

It is quite obvious which of the three made the biggest impact on him. Salahuddin can go on and on about Haji Mohammad Sharif and his way of teaching. “There were no sketch tables or painting stands in his class. Neither were there any chairs or stools for us to sit on. We had to sit on the floor leaning against a wall lined with mats and bolster cushions with one leg drawn up for the knee to serve as support for our small drawing boards,” he recalls. “If you straightened your tired leg, there would be a not-so-gentle tap on it from Haji Sahib’s walking stick. But you were allowed a short break to straighten your legs outside.”

He says that they also made their own paper and paint brushes. “The kind of paper we needed for miniatures is known as ‘Wasli’, made by hand by gluing together several drawing sheets with lai, or homemade glue prepared from wheat flour, before smoothening it with marble stone,” he explains. “And the brushes used for the delicate work were made from squirrel tails. For the purpose each student was expected to catch two squirrels on his or her holidays. Then Haji Sahib would inspect each of their tails to decide which one was most useful for the purpose,” he says.

Adil Salahuddin in front of a portrait of himself by Saeed Akhtar | Photograph by Manisha G Baswani, from Message Sent: The Life and Works of Adil Salahuddin
Adil Salahuddin in front of a portrait of himself by Saeed Akhtar | Photograph by Manisha G Baswani, from Message Sent: The Life and Works of Adil Salahuddin

Salahuddin passed out from NCA in 1965, a time when there were not many jobs on offer for artists, especially young ones. But Salahuddin was lucky as Bashir Mirza (BM), his senior at college, had opened an art gallery in Karachi. “He visited my final thesis exhibition at NCA and liked it so much that he invited me to also display it at his new gallery, an offer I gladly accepted,” Salahuddin recalls. The Delhi-born budding artist had moved to Lahore with his parents when he was two. “I had always lived in Lahore till then but I thought it was time to explore Karachi,” he says.

Karachi was also home to the Pakistan Security Printing Corporation (PSPC) where the designing of currency notes, postage stamps, cheque books, etc., took place. For years the managers and designers at the press were English but, slowly, the government was replacing them with top students from NCA and the Dacca School of Arts. Usually two top students from NCA and two from the Dacca School of Arts would be selected and offered jobs at PSPC. This way there would be four fresh appointees each year.

‘Pioneers of Freedom’ series, issued on August 14, 1990
‘Pioneers of Freedom’ series, issued on August 14, 1990

“BM, one of the top graduates from NCA’s first batch, had also worked at PSPC, only to quit after only six months. He wrote in his resignation that he felt like he was ‘in jail with sirens going on and off’.”

Meanwhile, assisting BM at his gallery, Salahuddin was also giving art classes to children in his free time. This is when he was paid a visit by his former college principal who thought he was wasting his talent. “Explaining to me the fringe benefits of working at PSPC, my principal informed me that they were hiring again. Upon calling them for details I was asked to take a test, which happened to be designing a stamp to represent the World Health Organisation. It was more of a competition than a test as they had also asked several other senior designers to submit their stamp designs,” he says.

Salahuddin designed and submitted his entry in three days. It was selected and PSPC informed him that he had got the job. They were also going to send his stamp for printing. “There were two groups at PSPC then — one worked on designing bank notes and the other postage stamps. Since I had studied miniature art, stamps became my specialty,” he says.

Issued on December 24, 1978, the 75th anniversary of the first powered flight
Issued on December 24, 1978, the 75th anniversary of the first powered flight

“At the time, an assistant commissioner received a salary of 350 rupees and our salary, while just on probation, was 700 rupees. After becoming permanent employees, this was raised to 1,000 rupees a month. It was a big amount for a 22-year-old,” he says smiling.

“I, along with five or six other NCA friends, rented out a house in PECHS. In the evenings, we would head out to Palace or Capri cinema which screened the best English movies of those times,” he says.

Of course, it wasn’t just about the money; designing postage stamps was exciting for Salahuddin. “Knowing that my stamps would travel far and wide, serve as ambassadors of Pakistan and be a part of history with those who collected stamps like me was a euphoric experience,” he says.

Allama Iqbal’s birth centenary
Allama Iqbal’s birth centenary

Among his most memorable stamps are the 26 that he made featuring Quaid-i-Azam, one of which is a gold stamp. “It is the only stamp in the world that has been printed using real gold. And since Pakistan didn’t have the technology of printing such a special postage stamp back in 1976, when it was printed on the Quaid-i-Azam’s 100th birth anniversary, it was printed abroad,” he shares. “Of course, many of our stamps have been published abroad, in England, specially the earlier ones by Harrison and Sons.” He also shows me some stamps of foreign countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Yemen, Egypt, Nepal and Sri Lanka, which he designed and which have been printed by PSPC.  

Salahuddin designed countless stamps from 1967 to 2002, when he finally retired from PSPC. Those were the days when Pakistan Post was in the process of starting its own press. They wanted to take stamp printing away from PSPC and Salahuddin had an offer from there which he happily accepted. “We started getting lists from the government to come out with such and such stamps for such and such occasion. That’s how we came out with the ‘Pioneers of Freedom’ series, the ‘Poets of Pakistan’ series, the ‘Nishan-i-Haider’ series, the ‘Birds of Pakistan’ series and so on. Whenever the government changed, it came with a new demand for a series of stamps, and we complied,” he smiles, adding that a lot of research also goes into the designing work. For example, he actually visited Mohenjo Daro for the Mohenjo Daro series, done for Unicef in collaboration with the Universal Postal Union. He adds that some 75 countries of the world took part in designing stamps for that series.

“It is not a breeze. There are bureaucrats who, with their [limited] understanding of miniature art and stamp designing, are not easy to satisfy. For sharpness and clarity we sketch, draw and paint in miniature size but then, to make them understand the art, it is enlarged to six times its size,” he smiles. “It’s a tedious job. But, of course, there has been progress. The kind of intricate work we used to do by hand is now taken on by computers though I still sketch on paper which is then scanned and given colour on the computer,” he says.

Salahuddin married in Karachi in 1972. “We have three children, two sons and a daughter,” he says. All his children are into the arts. Salahuddin jokingly says that his wife is the art critic of the family. “She sees so much of it around her so she must have something to say about it.”

My eyes turn to the many paintings around us. “Not all of them are my work. Many of them are gifts from my artist friends,” he notices my gaze and comments. “In fact, they have been rescued from our basement which got flooded without our knowledge in the recent rains. Some of the work could not be saved though because we only found out about the flooding after five days. I couldn’t stop my tears when I realised it was ruined beyond repair,” he adds.

Salahuddin clearly believes that art must be preserved. This may be why he has donated his collection of 200 albums of stamps from 116 countries to the State Bank of Pakistan Museum. “It is better to take care of such things when you are alive,” he says.

Header photo: Issued on February 22, 1975, the first anniversary of the second Islamic Summit, Lahore

The writer is a member of staff
She tweets @HasanShazia

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 27th, 2019