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Honouring Eqbal Mehdi

December 13, 2009

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Unfortunately, Mehdi's demise in 2008 did not prompt any retrospective showings of his oeuvre — the current exhibition is the first large display of paintings after his death. — File photo

Today when the breadth and diversity of art that exists here is gaining some measure of classification through history writing and archival efforts it is time to relocate art expressions that enjoyed mass appeal but were either marginalised or excluded from the mainstream art hierarchy altogether.

The current exhibition of Eqbal Mehdi's paintings at the Karachi Arts Council's Ahmed Parvez Gallery provokes debate on the standing of the vast reservoir of art that pertains to genre painting and cultural expression.

Cultural paintings continue to be churned out by the dozens and their sales are brisk. Direct, descriptive and decorative, this category of art is passive, easy to comprehend, pursues an idealised beauty and has ready consumer consumption. Its modern and post-modern counterpart is technically and conceptually complex, it questions prevalent axioms, experiments with form and has the ability to challenge the imagination and unsettle the viewer. This fundamental difference has segregated the audiences of the two categories of art but is this reason enough to sideline or exclude culture paintings from the annals of art altogether? Based on the premise that the ideal and the sublime have timeless appeal should some of the finer works not be given due acknowledgement?

A family initiative, undertaken by Mrs Shahida Mehdi, her son Farhan and daughter Liza Mehdi, this exhibition has been mounted to celebrate Mehdi's memory through sale and display of his works. Comprising a potpourri of the artist's significant series and some in between productions never exhibited before, the show was an uneven mix but the brilliant execution of his signature pieces more than made up for the oddities.

A pair of miniature sized landscapes by Mehdi was a rare discovery, a pastel sketch of a woman came across as a preliminary study for a painting and two elaborate figure compositions rendered free hand in charcoal added another interesting dimension to the masters oeuvre.

Similarly a bolt and lock image painted on a ripped off, discarded wooden lid/door was a fun piece that spoke of Mehdi's transitory moments when he played around with surface and content.

Sadly, such experiments were never pursued to logical ends because the artist was inundated with commissions that pertained to official formalised works. Indeed a bulk of Eqbal Mehdi's oeuvre related to commercial assignments and his well-publicised 1982 exhibition of portraits of the Saudi royal family triggered the speculation that he might be following in Gulgee's footsteps.

A few paintings in the Arts Council exhibition rendered in the pointillist technique, especially of horses, also mimicked Gulgee's mannerism of building dotted surfaces but that was simply a phase in his career.

Originally from Amroha, India, 16-year-old Mehdi migrated to Pakistan in the early '60s armed with nothing except his passion to sketch. Initially struggling to eke out an existence with odd jobs, his first challenging break came at the age of 18 when he began to illustrate for the now defunct Lail o Nahar magazine and later for Sabrang Digest.

This was the inception of his love affair with pen and ink which was later to blossom into his signature 'Women' series. Self-taught and always given to prolific production, the artist in him was adventurous enough to venture into other ambitious undertakings. Apart from the sensitive pen and ink depictions of attractive young women Mehdi is known for his history paintings. Massive reproductions of works by the Orientalist painters of the eighteenth century mounted at vantage locations in hotel lobbies and office foyers familiarised the average non gallery public with the artist and his art.

These grandiose artworks centred on exotic Arab culture of royal hunts, harems, palaces and lavish finery did not just spotlight the artist's ability to reproduce and improvise on museum quality paintings they also strengthened his knowledge of light and shade and technicalities of rendering finished works. This awareness came out to advantage in his third very popular crowd puller series, oil on canvas figure studies of young girls/ women in traditional ceremonial attire and jewellery.

Using the chiaroscuro technique of dramatic contrasts in light and shade he emphasised fresh innocent expressions to exquisite effect. Therein lay his mastery—the eternalising of pristine beauty. The 'Girl with Jhumka' series of paintings in this exhibition give a glimpse of this magic of endowing the face with a wealth of emotions.

A pen and ink rendering of his daughter Liza, when she was four years old, also testifies to the warmth and feeling he could infuse in a portrait with other media as well.

Recipient of the Pride of Performance award Mehdi has numerous solo exhibitions at home and in Delhi, Tokyo, Washington, Paris, Riyadh and Hong Kong to his credit and his work features in the collections of prominent collectors in the country. Unfortunately his demise in 2008 did not prompt any retrospective showings of his oeuvre—the current exhibition is the first large display of paintings after his death.