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Profile: Tested by fire

July 08, 2012

“This is Sheherezade, but she is not a storyteller. She is a koozagar — she makes pots with clay,” this is how Intizar Husain introduced her when we visited her studio in Toronto. It has been more than a decade but the impression she left is still distinct. A tall figure with neatly tied grey hair, she stepped forward and said Adaab and her trinkets jingled as she moved. She could have easily been the Gypsy Queen, or the poetic Jehan Zad if she was not closer to being the female version of the fabled Hassan koozagar.

Sheherezade Alam has moved on since then and is now based in Lahore where she has established Jahan e Jahanara, a centre where children can learn to appreciate traditional arts. A major exhibition of her new work was held recently in Karachi where 207 vessels, covering the period between 1985 and 2011, were on display at the Koel Gallery. This is where I encountered her again, moving around the impressive array of ceramics and then sitting down under the shade of the courtyard tree to continue the conversation further as she talked about earth and fire, and the experiences which have given shape to her life and art.

The daughter of Surayya Alam, a pioneer of Montessori schools in Lahore, and Mahmoud Alam, the tennis player, Alam was born in Lahore and remembers much of her childhood. “I was never a good student. I never understood a lot of the school work. I did not have many friends and was very lonely. I was an awkward child because I never fit in,” she says with apparent calm, sipping cinnamon tea. “Now that I think about it I must have been dyslexic!”

Her mother encouraged her to participate in and learn a variety of activities, from ballet to piano to the Persian language and even horse-riding. The next stop was Kinnaird College for Women and she feels that it was good for her. “By that time I had come of out my shell. I enjoyed acting, music and especially playing the accordion. I can still follow a tune easily although I cannot read music,” she explains.

The great leap forward came when she joined the National College of Arts (NCA), a premier institution headed by Shakir Ali, one of the most influential figures of modernism in the country. “I wanted to be a psychologist or a doctor but my mother insisted that I should go into the arts field. I went there initially for three weeks and then I did not leave for the next six years. It was the age of discovery for me. I could do many things which I could not have done at my parent’s home,” she says.

Being the only student in the ceramics department, college was also a challenging time. “I finished college in December 1972,” she says. After marrying Zahoor ul Akhlaq, then an upcoming artist, the couple combined studying with travelling. She describes how the young couple would pack up a few things and travel by bus to Kabul and then all over Afghanistan with a spirit of adventure no longer possible in the war-ravaged areas of today.

This was followed by spending time in the pottery factories and learning their production methods, and travels to Turkey, Greece and Iran. “All these countries I visited while still in my 20s. We took the opposite direction to the hippies!” she says with a laugh as she fondly recalls the great centres of arts and crafts she visited. “My experiences have made me the person I am. This includes travel, visits to the museums and of course, pottery. It is the sum total of how you become anything.”

At which point in your life did you begin to see yourself as an artist? I probe her further. “I have never come to know this, till now!” she responds candidly. “As a craftsperson, no such feeling ever came to me. I can say that I am an artisan. It was only Zahoor to whom I had given the license to be an artist,” she says.

“But every artist is a craftsperson first,” she says and explains to me how her visual vocabulary was shaped by what she had seen in Greece, Turkey and Japan. But above all, the Scandinavians were the first people to have mastered designers work in the industry and come up with beautifully crafted pieces for everyday use. She recalls how she got the chance to meet some of them later in life and how living in Turkey felt like ‘living inside a museum’ for her.

Alam lived and worked in Toronto for about 14 years, but then our conversation moved onto experiences of a different nature, painful and difficult to talk about. People still speak with horror about the gory incident in which Akhlaq and their youthful daughter Jahanara were brutally killed.

Alam does not flinch while talking about the impact of this on her life. “Yes, I do think about it. I revisit it on a daily basis. But I have learnt to come out of it quickly also because you cannot go there over and over again,” she responds. She spent the next five years in tracking and documenting Akhlaq’s work. The Laal Foundation and the Takhti series became her passion. Roger Cohen’s extensive book on Akhlaq’s life and work took shape and was eventually published.

“It would have been very difficult for me if I did not have the experience of working with Cohen,” she says. “Giving Zahoor and Jahanara back to the earth seemed to be the most natural thing to do. I felt as if I knew this earth; it is what has been nurturing us throughout. It is the earth which speaks to us and explains everything to us and it is through this process that I have learnt everything in life. It was the experience of working with my hands which helped me in the healing process. Every pot is touched and tested by fire. Like the pots I make, I, too, have been tested by fire,” she says simply and then goes on to remark that there is certain wisdom you get from your work. Her life is ample testimony to such an inherent wisdom.

Named after her daughter, she has established a centre in Lahore where she helps young children acquire an appreciation of nature and traditional crafts. “I want to be able to expand their visual vocabulary,” she talks with passion about the overriding ambition in her life. At the same time, she is working on studio pottery.

“I keep designing in my mind a retrospective of what I want to do with pots. Cracked, broken and whole; so many pots come out of the kiln with broken parts. I feel that I also live with some of my parts missing. I want this to be an experiential show in which the viewer is able to walk through such pots,” she says and quotes me the haunting lines of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet: “Forget your perfect offering/ there is a crack in everything/ this is how the light comes through.” And it is this sense of the light coming through which animates Alam and her ceramics.