The culture that took root nearly 50 centuries ago in the Indus Valley of the present day Pakistan came to be known as the oldest urban ethos of the region. The eventual infusion of Islam not only enhanced the cultural identification of Pakistan but also advanced the development of art over the years. During the pre-Partition days, poetry and literature were the primary means of expression and highly respected forms of art. On the contrary, artists were considered as languishing craftsmen who simply replicated traditional art. After independence, modernism was chosen as a popular approach by Pakistani artists like Shakir Ali and Zubeida Agha for emancipation and free enterprise, contrary to the restrained demeanour of the old school.
Shakir Ali did his masters from the Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy (JJ) School of Arts, Bombay, and left for England and France. On his return in 1952, Ali, after a short stint as a drawing master in Karachi, joined the Mayo School, Lahore as a lecturer. In 1958, the Mayo School was upgraded to National College of Arts (NCA) where Professor Mark Sponenburgh, an ex-JJ School sculptor, continued as the Principal and introduced major changes in the curriculum for necessary upgrading of the art disciplines. Ali succeeded Sponenburgh as Principal in 1961, where he served till 1969.
Ali’s presence in Lahore acted as a catalyst to the liberal art community for his overwhelming interest in the works of Cézanne and Cubism, which he introduced in the 1950s. He was also inspired by Muslim calligraphy and exploited its use in his paintings. A stranger to the city of Lahore, he took refuge in the tea and coffee houses on the Mall, where artists and poets frequently congregated to exercise creative intelligence. These individuals were frustrated with the events of the recent past and were anxious for a change. The addition of Ali amidst a perturbed set of like-minded artists was timely to impart the requisite impetus. He never forced anyone to paint like he did; instead, he inculcated the desire to be original.
Amongst his closest associates who rejuvenated the post-Partition modern art were Sheikh Safdar, Raheel Akbar Javed, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Moeen Najmi and Ali Imam. Dr Akbar Naqvi, a distinguished art critic, in his book, Image and Identity, gave them the title of Shakir Ali’s Panj Piyare (meaning ‘the five beloved ones’ in Punjabi).
Sheikh Safdar, the first piyara, painted in the style of a cubist and drew subjects that were Ali’s favourite; however, he could not achieve the sensitivity of the mentor. Safdar’s painting of ‘Mother and child’ was ornamental and carried liberal signs of modern art. His style bore some semblance to the work of Zubeida Agha. Influence of the renowned painter Jamini Roy was also incipient in his paintings. Safdar made use of the multipoint view of an object but in a primitive manner. Although Cubism had become quite popular, but somehow, his work remained reluctant and wanting. With a limited creative acumen, he painted for pleasure to attempt anything that was different and spellbinding.
Raheel Akbar was a remarkably versatile painter who could express utilising a variety of subjects with equal ease. His paintings are composed of abstract forms which are defined with vivid fluorescent colours. The basic shapes of the rectangles, cubes and squares are arranged in a pleasant picturesque format. Unlike the characteristics of cubism, he searched for attractiveness and a particular impression of light and texture. He was Ali’s second piyara, who left the country in the ’70s.
Anwar Jalal Shemza, the third piyara, obtained his diploma from the Mayo School of Art and did his graduation from the Slade School of Art, UK. He was modest about the choice of canvas size like his mentor Paul Klee. The small-sized paintings drew the viewer closer to observe the detailed handling of the medium. Shemza carried out numerous delicately executed paintings based on the alphabets B and D, before his death in 1985 in England. His paintings of ‘Roots’ series based on arabesque carry nostalgic nuances of his homeland and people.
The fourth piyara, Moeen Najmi was a founding member of the Lahore Art Circle and taught at the Aitchison College, Lahore. Initially he painted trivial landscapes but gradually transformed his style to modern painting. He utilised scenes from rural Punjab and the Shalimar Gardens, Lahore, in his paintings of abstract genre. While keeping architectural monuments in focus, he painted the gardens depicting the entwining of nature and culture. He painted buildings and monuments with a superior sense of ornamental architecture which reflects his yearning for intricate detail. To express the values of Muslim art and culture of the sub-continent was the objective of Najmi’s paintings.
Ali Imam, the fifth pyara of Ali, had a major impact on the art of Pakistan through his students, his acumen for entrepreneurship, the Indus Art Gallery, the journalists, collectors and admirers he created. He had a fair understanding of modern painting and had a wealth of knowledge about art. He appointed himself as an authority on Pakistani art to make a living when he returned from abroad. His painting, before he switched to modern art, comprised of watercolour in a form similar to the Bengal School. He made his early modern paintings in the ’50s, while he became a member of the Lahore Art Circle. Later he moved to Karachi and taught art, while painting whenever possible. During the ’70s, his painting went into decline, but his white paintings turned out to be worthwhile for their unique texture and movement.
The culture of interaction within friends, associates and contemporaries during the ’50s was an effective means of exchanging intellectual information. The tea and coffee houses served as crucial rendezvous points for the brimming prodigies’ talents, who desperately needed to redeem their minds from creative blocks. The combination of ideas and conjecture from diverse origins has an amazing potential to resolve numerous misunderstood concepts of art. Incidentally, in the present day local art scenario, the need for a similar culture of frequent interaction is strongly felt.
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