Imet Sadequain at a reception in Karachi in September, 1959. It was a brief meeting, a few minutes. He was already a world renowned artist. I told him that I was working in Quetta as Assistant Collector of Customs. He said if he visited Quetta he would contact me.
In April 1960, I received a call from him. He was visiting Quetta, where his elder brother, Kazemain Naqvi, was news editor at Radio Pakistan, Quetta Station. I knew Kazemain Naqvi as our offices were nearby. But until then I had not known that he was Sadequain’s brother.
During Sadequain’s couple of weeks in Quetta, we used to meet quite often. He also travelled with me to Chaman, Mastung and Kalat. On our visit to Kalat, where I had gone to attend a meeting, we stayed for the night. I told Sadequain that we had a choice to either stay in a room at the Circuit House or in a tent in the lawns there. Sadequain opted for the tent and he enjoyed it.
In early 1962, I was transferred from Quetta to Karachi. My wife and I contacted Sadequain who used to live in the PECHS locality at the time. He was happy to meet us. We visited him often and he came to our house at Karachi Airport a number of times. My wife prepared elaborate meals for him but, despite her insistence, he would hardly eat. Similarly, my wife insisted on preparing qameez-pajama suits for him but he declined her offers, saying he had two suits which were enough for him.
A former bureaucrat reminisces about his friendship with the master artist Sadequain and the time they spent together in Europe and Pakistan in the 1960s and ’70s
On two particular visits to our house, Sadequain made two paintings sitting at our dinner table. He did each painting in three or four hours. Both paintings are my most cherished gifts from him, signed by him.
Once my wife asked Sadequain to paint a portrait of her. He replied that he didn’t do portraits. Then he told her that, if he prepared her portrait, it would be as he sees her, not necessarily how she looks. Upon her persistence, he said, “You are the wife of my dear brother, Saleem, and I cannot refuse your request.” He made her portrait and presented it to her.
For three years, 1962 to 1964, Sadequain visited us regularly and we would often go out together. We talked on a number of subjects and I discovered that he was not only a great artist but also a multi-dimensional genius. He had a deep knowledge of history and world affairs.
In the autumn of 1964, Sadequain travelled to Switzerland to attend the Swiss National Fair held in Lausanne. Pakistan had set up a pavilion at the fair and Sadequain was to show his paintings there and also to make new paintings, as visitors watched. Sadequain travelled to Europe by ship and carried with him five or six big paintings. I had the honour and privilege to see off my friend at the Karachi port.
After his participation in the Swiss National Fair, Sadequain moved to Paris and stayed there for nearly three years. During that period, he painted a mural at the PIA office on Champs-Elysees, near the Arc de Triomphe. Sadly, that office is not there anymore and I don’t know where that wonderful mural is now.
From the autumn of 1964 to February 1967, we were not in touch. But I used to get news of him from time to time.
An Evening in Paris
I had gone on a study tour of the United States from September 1966 to February 1967. On my return journey, I made a two-day stopover in Paris. I wrote a letter to Sadequain, care of the Pakistan Embassy, Paris, before leaving Washington, DC. I gave the date and time of my arrival and the flight number. My flight landed in Paris on a cold February morning. I looked around for Sadequain at the airport, foolishly thinking that a great artist would be waiting to receive me at the airport early in the morning.
After settling in my hotel room, I sent a message to him again via the Pakistan Embassy. After a couple of hours, I got a message that Sadequain would meet me at 6:30pm opposite Café George V on Champs Elysees. I reached that spot in the evening and, to my great delight, my friend was there waiting for me.
After a short walk along the fabled Paris Avenue, we went to a nearby restaurant for a long leisurely dinner. We discussed many diverse subjects. I asked Sadequain if he spoke French. He said, “I not only speak French, I even write poetry in French.”
After dinner I asked Sadequain to show me the mural he had painted at the PIA office. We walked a few minutes and reached the office which was closed, but inside the lights were on. I saw the mural from the glass window. What a majestic, breathtaking mural!
We were about to walk away when Sadequain saw a person inside the PIA office. On seeing Sadequain, the gentleman opened the door and came out. He addressed Sadequain, “How come you are here. Your father arrived this evening by a PIA flight. You were not at the airport to receive him. The PIA staff dropped him at your apartment.”
Sadequain was upset to hear that. It was around 10pm. Sadequain and I took a taxi and went to his apartment near Port Maillot. The apartment had been given to Sadequain by a wealthy Parisian patron of arts. His father was not there. A caretaker of the apartment told Sadequain that, since he was not there, the patron’s son took Sadequain’s father to the patron’s villa in the wealthy Parisian suburb of Neuilly.
We took a taxi and went to the patron’s villa. By that time it was almost midnight. An attendant there told Sadequain that his father had gone to sleep, as he was feeling very tired after the long flight. Sadequain decided not to wake up his father and told the attendant that he would come the next morning.
We taxied back to Champs Elysees. Sadequain wanted to show me Paris at night. That was a memorable night for me. It is forever fresh in my memory with all its details.
We spent the night visiting restaurants, coffee shops and bars. During the night, Sadequain kept telling me, “Saleem Bhai, this may be the first night you have spent awake. I have spent 10,000 nights like this — 9,000 working and 1,000 roaming around. From this you can also guess my age.” At one of the bars at around 4 am, Sadequain told me that he had once met Marlon Brando who had come there after shooting a film scene.
Around 6am, we came back to my hotel, the Paris Hilton near the Eiffel Tower. I told Sadequain to get some sleep. He said, “No Saleem Bhai, I won’t go to sleep. If I go to sleep I wouldn’t get up before midday. My father would think that I am a strange, spoiled son, who didn’t receive him at the airport and who hasn’t come to meet him in the morning.”
We had an early breakfast, and Sadequain left. That afternoon I left for Pakistan. No more meeting and no more conversations with Sadequain.
Back in Islamabad, Mangla Dam Mural
On my return to Pakistan I was posted in Islamabad. A few months after, around mid-1967, I received a call from Sadequain. He was in the city. Kazemain Naqvi was then a senior officer working with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Sadequain was staying with him. We soon met. Sadequain told me that, while in Paris, his father had fallen seriously ill. He brought his father back to Pakistan. And Sadequain never went back to Paris.
Sadequain and I often met in Islamabad. I used to occasionally invite him to the Islamabad Club for lunch or drinks. On the third or fourth visit, he told me that my monthly salary would be spent in a couple of visits to the Islamabad Club — he knew the meagre salaries of civil servants.
During that period, Sadequain was asked by the government and by the World Bank to paint a giant mural at Mangla Dam. He spent almost three months painting the ‘Saga of Labour’ mural. During that time, he visited Islamabad a couple of times. He told me that he used to work on the mural throughout the night. After he had finished the project, Sadequain came back to stay with his brother. I asked him how much the World Bank paid him for his giant work. He said that it was a six-digit figure plus unused paints worth around 100,000 rupees.
Kazemain Naqvi’s house was not far from mine. I would sometimes walk to his place to meet him and Sadequain and sometimes Sadequain would walk over to my place. My wife and I had a close group of friends in the city. They would often invite us for dinner. When they learnt that I knew Sadequain, they asked us to request him to join our dinner parties. He was gracious enough to join twice or thrice and seemed to enjoy himself, but seldom ate.
One evening, I was driving my wife and Sadequain from Rawalpindi to Islamabad. I was driving at a moderate speed. At one point, my wife asked me why I couldn’t drive faster. Sadequain responded, “Bhabi, Saleem Bhai drives very well. When I am with him in the car, I feel as if I am in my mother’s lap.”
Sadequain also wrote poetry, mainly rubaiyaat [quatrains]. He gave me an autographed copy of his book of rubaiyaat. I asked him how many rubais he had written. He said his book contained only a few rubais but that he had written some 5,000 as a hobby.
Sadequain loved his elder brother Kazemain, and his wife and his children. He was very obedient to his brother. When Kazemain Sahib fell seriously ill, I used to visit him very often. One morning, Sadequain called me to give the sad news about his brother’s demise. He asked me to help with the arrangements for the transportation of his body to Karachi by a PIA flight that afternoon. I spent the day making the necessary arrangements. Of course, a large number of his admires were at hand to assist with the arrangements. I saw off Sadequain and the family that afternoon at the Islamabad airport. Sadequain was grief-stricken. His love for his elder brother was exemplary.
Towards the end of 1972, I was transferred to the Permanent Mission of Pakistan to the UN Offices in Geneva, Switzerland. I shared the news with Sadequain. He told me the three most beautiful towns on the shores of Lake Leman (Geneva Lake) are Ouchy, Vevey and Montreux. He had visited these and appreciated their charm and beauty when he attended the Swiss National Fair.
In the summer of 1975, I came back to Lahore from Geneva on leave. Sadequain was in Lahore, too, painting the ceiling of the Lahore Museum. He invited me and my wife to a special ceremony at the museum, one evening. After the ceremony, he accompanied us to our home. We had arranged a sumptuous dinner for him but, as usual, he hardly touched the food.
On a subsequent visit to Pakistan, I met him at his Gallery Sadequain in Islamabad and we shared memories of our friendship, which had begun in 1959. Sadly that was our last meeting. A year or so after that, sitting in my office in Geneva, I received a call from a friend who broke the sad news of Sadequain’s passing away.
The memory of my dear friend lives forever in my heart. He was a great man, I an ordinary civil servant. Yet he gave me the status of a close friend.
May Allah Bless his soul.
The writer is a former Director of World Trade Organization (WTO), Geneva, Switzerland.
His email is email@example.com
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 22nd, 2022