Meursault’s lover, the innocent Marie
Meursault’s lover, the innocent Marie

Thursday, October 27, 1966 in Paris was cold and windy but the leading citizens of the city were well fortified against the harsh weather. Gathered in the heart of Paris in Room 6 of the majestic Place de la Concorde, formerly Place de Louis XV, the sumptuously dressed grandees of France’s high society clinked champagne flutes and enjoyed beluga caviar at a resplendent banquet hosted by the Automobile Club de France (ACF).

Founded on November 12, 1895, ACF is one of the most exclusive private clubs in the world. Patron of the French Grand Prix, its members include European royalty, high-ranking politicians and powerful businessmen. One of its members, Carlos Ghosn, former head of Renault-Nissan, was in the news recently for his daring escape from Japan on December 29, 2019.

The banquet the ACF hosted on October 27, 1966 was a dazzling spectacle celebrating Albert Camus (1913-1960) — arguably France’s most famous writer of the 20th century — by launching a special edition of his classic novel L’Etranger (The Outsider), 24 years after it was first published.

Camus won the Nobel Prize for Literature aged 44 in 1957, and became the second-youngest laureate at that time. L’Etranger, published in 1942, is one of the most famous French novels. The ACF relaunched The Outsider in a ceremony befitting the renowned writer of a nation finding its feet after the humiliation of past decades. The French wanted to claim lost glory under President Charles de Gaulle, who favoured a muscular foreign policy, and ACF wanted to capture the resurgent mood of the nation.

Meursault kills an Arab for which he is later convicted
Meursault kills an Arab for which he is later convicted

Held in a majestic, historical setting with a breathtaking view of the most beautiful monuments of Paris, the event was a smashing success. Madame Camus graced the event, along with other luminaries. But bedecked in jewels and finery, the doyens of Paris were only interested in rubbing shoulders with a slender, young man who had illustrated the relaunched book.

Bespectacled, dark haired, slightly disheveled and surrounded by admirers, Sadequain was in his element that day. As he wrote to his elder brother, Kazmain Ahmed, on October 29, 1966, “L’Etranger was launched with a caviar and champagne banquet. The leading elite of Paris were present. I was so busy signing autographs that could not even see the proceedings. The event was a huge success and the millionaires all congratulated themselves.”

How Sadequain captured the essence of French Nobel laureate Albert Camus’s most famous novel in the 1960s and brought Paris to his feet

But how did a Pakistani artist get an assignment as French as La Marseillaise and in a reputedly xenophobic country?

The answer is that, by the time he was given the assignment, Sadequain had already transcended Pakistan’s artistic landscape. His rise had been dizzyingly swift. Through the 1950s, he had held shows across the country and executed works for several public institutions. His exhibition held at Karachi’s Frere Hall, on April 4, 1957, was inaugurated by the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy.

Title page of the novel
Title page of the novel

At only 29, Sadequain won the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz [Medal of Distinction] in 1960 and, in the same year, he won the first prize in the All-Pakistan National Exhibition of Paintings. Sadequain’s fame and style led to an invitation in December from the French Committee of the International Association of Plastic Arts. Thus, began his long and fruitful association with France, where he spent much of the next decade and — after Pakistan — most of his adult life.

In January 1961, Sadequain arrived in Paris and held an exhibition at the Galerie Suillerot. Art critic Barnett D. Conlan wrote about Sadequain’s works: “[I saw] a collection of paintings which impressed me as being quite original. Unlike some of the contemporaries from Pakistan and India, Sadequain does not owe very much to Western art, but stems from his own Muslim past and from the natural forms met in the country around Karachi.”

In October 1961, Sadequain was chosen as the best artist — out of hundreds — from over 50 countries at the Paris Biennale. He was prolific, hosting one exhibition after another in Paris, London and Washington D.C. Soon he was the darling of the press. Dawn reported on November 22, 1963: “Art critics on both sides of the Atlantic are unanimous in their praise of his evocative use of large dramatic forms and his distinctive colour range. He is by far the most exciting and imaginative Pakistani artist to enter and conquer the Western art world.”

Contemplation
Contemplation

Sadequain was pleased with the adulation, but he wanted a project that would capture the imagination of Parisians. He had an appetite for grand assignments. The murals dotting the public buildings of Pakistan had nourished his passion and appealed to the showman in him. Sadequain found out about the ACF’s search for an artist who could meet their exacting standards and put his name forward.

On January 29, 1964, he wrote to his nephew Sultan Ahmed: “Tomorrow at 8:00am I have to meet a senior representative of a very big publisher at my home. Albert Camus’s book L’Etranger is being published by the printer and some well-known artists of Paris want to create illustrations for this publication. Your chacha jaan [uncle] was also trying for it. To select the artist there was a jury of pompous experts and art connoisseurs and, at long last, at 6:00pm yesterday evening, the jury gave the decision that your chacha jaan will make the illustrations.”

The ACF had chosen wisely. Sadequain was a modern artist with a bold style that represented the confidence of a powerful country ready to chart its own path. He was being compared with the finest artists of the 20th century. Le Monde wrote in April 1964: “The multiplicity of Sadequain’s gifts is reminiscent of Picasso.”

The title of the novel also echoed with the illustrator. Sadequain was very much an outsider, set apart from society; he saw its foibles with bemusement, the people in it were subjects for his works. He was different from other Pakistani artists and did not recognise them as peers. They were professionals and he was the Faqir, Arif, Dervish, Sarmad. Sadequain traversed the spiritual and temporal worlds, transcending space and time to connect with Buddha, Jesus, Ghalib and Iqbal who, like Camus, had made their way into his consciousness.

As an outsider, he could also step back and visualise grand endeavours that would set him apart from other artists, as he wrote to his elder brother, Kazmain Ahmed, on February 1, 1964. “The Camus book is a very special project,” he wrote. “I am being given only 60,000 francs but, even if I were getting nothing, even then it would have been a great project and I would have happily done it for free. The work is lengthy but I will complete it [on time] and it will be part of a deluxe book.”

Like Picasso, he would be the toast of the town and relished the idea of having a powerful European institution at his beck and call. In a letter dated March 4, 1964, he wrote, “A lithography press is at my disposal. The experts say that an exhibition in Paris done after the launch of the book will be even more successful. The leading people of the Automobile Club will come to the exhibition. As the chief artist, I have the full backing of this institution, which is of the biggest in France’s business world.”

Meursault being tormented by demons
Meursault being tormented by demons

Another letter dated January 30, 1965 notes the progress and details about the book. “The last few paintings for the Camus book are now being made according to my wishes,” wrote Sadequain. “The picture spread over two pages is the summation of my experiences and my own critique on society. Other than this, the book has 12 chapters and the space left over after every chapter will feature an image in black and white. All this work should be completed in the coming week, and then I will leave for a bit of sightseeing.”

Paris was the capital of the art world and Sadequain found himself at home, surrounded by the works of masters and modern titans. He once commented that there were only two cities in the world, his native Amroha and Paris.

Sadequain’s studio in Paris became a salon, attracting rich patrons and artsy vagabonds alike. One unannounced visitor was the Pakistani foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. As he wrote to Kazmain on July 28, 1964, “Day before yesterday Bhutto sahib came to my studio and with him was also the Pakistani ambassador. He was departing the same afternoon. Because it was a Sunday, the gallery’s owner, Monsieur Jan Forge, was out-of-city and the gallery was closed. If I had known Bhutto sahib was coming, I would have kept the gallery keys with me. Oh well, no matter.”

Sadequain spent almost two years on the illustrations for The Outsider but, during this time, he kept painting and exhibiting, often working 20 hours a day for weeks. “I am not possessed by jinns, rather I have possessed them,” he would say, referring to his magical energy. “[In fact], I am possessed by fairies.”

His prodigious endurance paid off.

By October 1966, the book was near completion. It was an exclusive edition and only 150 copies were printed; Sadequain himself would only get two. The first edition was destroyed because of poor paper but the second was deemed perfect.

On October 20, 1966, a palpably excited Sadequain wrote to his brother: “A week from today, the grand celebration of Camus’s book L’Etranger will be held at the Place de la Concorde. It is the grandest place in Paris. I hope, following all of this, my exhibition will also be held there. The book is quite magnificent and, after its launch, things should be even better for me.”

The lithographs that illustrated the book had Sadequain’s distinctive hallmarks — the bloodthirsty monsters, lissome women and stylised men were captured in a burst of vivid colours and dynamic forms. Most of the images revolved around the protagonist Meursault in the French colony of Algiers. Whether it is young lovers frolicking in the azure waters of the Mediterranean or Meursault being castigated by society, Sadequain was able to capture the mood of the novel. The sketches seem to be observations of the characters by an outsider, at once apart from the setting and also intimately in it.

The art experts were unanimous in their praise and the lithographs were an instant sensation. As Sadequain wrote on October 29, 1966, “Right after the banquet, an auction was held for the preliminary sketches. People put up large bids, and all the sketches were sold. Besides this, there were some of my drawings that were also sold. Before the dinner, the Automobile Club president praised me to the skies.”

In spite of the critical acclaim, Sadequain did not illustrate any other books. The closest he came to bridging the worlds of words and images was when he made paintings for the verses of Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz and his own quatrains. But, for a short while, the self-proclaimed faqir reached out to a Nobel Laureate, transcending nationality, language, culture, and even space and time, to produce a work of art that had Paris at his feet.

The writer is an independent researcher, writer and curator. He is Sadequain’s grand-nephew and has authored books and essays on the artist and curated exhibitions of his paintings

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 21st, 2021

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