Salima Hashmi
Salima Hashmi

Salima Hashmi is a multi-faceted personality donning several hats, and aces each role she takes up. She is a painter, an art educationist, former principal of the National College of Arts (NCA), a former caretaker minister, human rights activist, a writer and a curator.

The eldest daughter of the legendary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ms Hashmi represents the first generation of modern artists and is also a recipient of the Pride of Performance Award in 1999.

Salima was born in New Delhi in December 1942 “in the last century!”, as she puts it.“My father was in the British Indian Army back then in the propaganda section during World War II. He left the army in 1945, and was offered the editorship of the Progressive Papers Limited which Mian Iftikharuddin was setting up. So he became chief editor of The Pakistan Times and Imroze in 1946 and we came to Lahore in February 1947. I have very clear memories of 1947 when we were spending the summer in Srinagar with my English grandparents.”

Once in Lahore, she first went to Queen Mary’s for schooling and after her father’s arrest, to Kinnaird High School. She also fondly remembers her great fine arts teachers Jamila Zafar, Naseem Qazi, Jalees Nagi, and a few lectures by Anna Molka Ahmed during her FA from the then Lahore College for Women. She then moved to NCA, a decision, she maintains, changed her life and the direction and understanding of art education.

“Indeed, those first years at NCA saw the most vital and revolutionary changes in art, design and architectural education as a band of brilliant teachers put together a curriculum and division, which in many ways continues even today although not as sure-footed.”

Two years later, she left for the UK to study at the Bath Academy of Art, which invited her back decades later in 2016 and awarded her an honorary doctorate. Living in England also gave a young Salima a chance to visit Europe and enrich the art student in her, visiting all the museums and galleries and architectural monuments in France, Spain and Italy. “As one stood in the Sistine Chapel or gazed at the windows of Notre Dame, one was learning to see beyond what was taught in the classroom. Spain was enthralling, especially Granada and Seville. Later, I went to Cordoba also.”

On returning to Pakistan, she married Shoaib Hashmi and taught at the NCA for a year before returning to London – this time because her husband was going to study at the London School of Economics. While Shoaib studied, Salima taught in a primary school where she put her art education into practice.

“The sixties were wonderful in London with music, theatre, ballet, exhibitions, and all the political discussions of the student world at LSE. I also did a weekly programme at the BBC Urdu service called Shaheen Club for children.”

When the duo returned home, Salima resumed teaching at the NCA where she ended up spending 30 years, including four years as the principal.

The couple also dedicated a significant part of their lives to introducing refreshing, entertaining content on PTV that often got them into trouble, but was largely lauded by even those in the power corridors.

“From 1971 to 1977, we were seen as a group that devised a new kind of programming for PTV. This was a free-wheeling, humourous, satirical commentary on life in Pakistan. All of this work, which consisted of children’s TV (‘Akkar Bakkar’, ‘Aik Do Teen’) social and political satire (‘Such Gup’, ‘Taal Matol’) had serious intellectual underpinnings, well hidden from the view. We faced criticism now and again from those we targeted, which included the media, government, and politicians. We were taken off air once or twice, but somehow came back on because there was a sense of humour in the highest echelons of the government, which prevailed most of the time.”

Salima and Shoaib were part of an illustrious bunch of youngsters that later became household names, including Navid Shahzad, Arshad Mahmood, Nayyara Noor, Maryam Hasan, Abbas Shafi, Hasnat Ahmed, Farooq Qaiser, Irfan Khoosat, Samina Ahmed and many others. They were also part of a series, called ‘Baleela’, which introduced veteran actors Shehnaz Sheikh and Asif Raza Mir, but were then banned by military dictator Gen Zaiul Haq. “That was the end of that.”

The years that Salima took to painting in earnest in the ‘80s were also the years of the women’s rights movement – in activism, art, poetry, music, photography,dance and theatre, literature and law. The Women’s Action Forum, street theatre, Ajoka, the human rights commission all came into being around that time and the women poets took the lead, and Salima was at the forefront of it all.

“Banned from TV, I took my camera over my shoulder and travelled the length and breadth of Pakistan, from Bannu and Kohat to Manchar Lake to Sehwan to Nushki, just recording the lives of women and children. I was found in shrines, in bazaars, in cities, by the roadside. I leant much about this land of ours and how our people live.”

Salima also recalled her visit to her parents in Beirut during their exile, her visit to Palestinian camps, in Sidon and elsewhere, hearing Yasser Arafat speak and feeling the pain and passion of the people.

“To be the daughter of Faiz is to take the Palestinian cause to heart, as many of the causes Faiz stood for which we were brought up with.”

Her father’s time in jail taught the children that one must be prepared to suffer if one challenges injustice, corruption and denial of the basic freedoms. “In a country that cannot provide education, health, shelter and employment to its people, anyone who dares to fight for these rights is undoubtedly going to come into confrontation with the state. But when you have the power to move people and influence them through poetry or writing then you have to be silenced because your power is mightier than the power of the state.”

About her revolutionary poet father and how he was as a person, Salima calls Faiz the gentlest of human beings with a great sense of humour and a quiet presence. She says he never raised his voice or lost his temper and never had a hard word to say about his bitterest enemies.

“With me, he was a friend, never laying down the law about anything, always trusting my judgement in making my own decisions, including what I wanted to study and whom I wanted to marry. Our house was free of patriarchy, and very democratic. It taught us that this was the way society should be run and also the government.”

Salima’s passion as a curator started with the Rohtas Gallery in Rawalpindi/Islamabad in 1981 with the intention of exhibiting the works that could not be seen in government venues during the Zia era. They showed the work of artists like Zahoorul Akhlaque, Anwar Saeed, many women artists and even Zubaida Agha, who had said her show would never happen during Zia’s rule.

She also took it upon herself to help promote the arts and artists, within the country and globally. As part of this effort, she authored a book on the women artists of Pakistan that recognised the leading role played by women in the Pakistani art world. She then wrote more books and book chapters and articles in international journals to continuously draw the attention of the world to the “highly dynamic work happening in the most difficult of circumstances in Pakistan. With very little state patronage, the art movement has flourished and our artists have made their mark worldwide”, she stressed.

Now, Salima says her interests are varied – from the preservation of cultural heritage to the struggle for the rights of women, children, minorities and the marginalised “in the very unequal society we live in”.

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2021

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