World Artists

Japanese Art in Lahore

26 November 2013

A recent exhibition of Japanese paintings brought the restrained artistry of the orient to Lahore.
Review by Raza Rumi


Stormy Sea off Kanagawa, from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by the artist Hokusai (c 1830)

A recently held exhibition at Alhamra Arts Council brought the subtleties of classical Japanese art to Lahore. The two cultures met and interacted with each other. I was lucky to get a quick preview of the exhibition thanks to the dynamic Sabah Hussain who has untiringly promoted this inter-cultural dialogue in Lahore.


The Actor Ichikawa Ebizo as Takemura Sadanoshin by the artist Sharaku (c 1794) Ebizo was a leading actor of his time

Sabah is also the founder and director of Lahore Arts Foundation and a renowned artist. A Lahori and a distinguished graduate of the National College of Arts, Sabah specialized in the preservation & conservation of works on paper at the College of Arts, London. Later she was trained at the Kyoto Institute of Technology Japan and in those rich environs she also studied the art of papermaking and printmaking. As a student of National College of Arts and Kyoto National University of Fine Arts & Music in Japan we have a rather curious artist-activist whom Lahore can only be proud of. (more…)

Iqbal Bano sings Nizami Ganjavi (Persian Sufi poet, 1141-1209)

20 March 2010

Iqbal Bano sings Nizami Ganjavi-Mara ba ghamza… by razarumi1

Mara ba ghamza kusht o qaza ra bahana sakht
Khud sooy e ma na deed o haya ra bahana sakht (more…)

In memoriam – Asim Butt (1978-2010)

1 March 2010

He was a man, take him for all in all,

I shall not look upon his like again

(Hamlet, Shakespeare)

It is only when Asim has gone that one takes measure of the legacy he has left for his troubled and torn country. A decade long association was lost on the fateful day of January when we heard of his untimely exit from this world. For hours, I sat in my office, numb. Not that Asim’s suicide was a surprise, for he had warned us all many times of this inevitable dénouement to his dramatic life.

Five years ago, when I wrote a piece on the Pakistani poet Mustafa Zaidi and the romance with nurturing a death wish, Asim wrote to me and said that I had no clue what this was all about. His words were: “loved and was deeply moved by your piece on Zaidi… saw so much of myself in his life story, hoping I don’t die unsung and on the fringes, and wondering why you of all people would have a death wish.” Asim had suffered and struggled with his inner demons with an intensity that most of us will never appreciate. This was the first time that I knew about the seriousness of his other side: a dialectical dark side to his otherwise cheerful, loving and warm persona. Asim cannot be mourned; he can only be celebrated. He would have hated the melodramatic statements that I am inclined to write in this remembrance.

Two of my dearest friends were close to Asim in a way that is difficult to understand. Nearly a decade ago I met Asim at Ali Dayan Hasan’s home in Karachi. I was passing through on one of my occupational breaks from my assignment in Kosovo. Ali had returned from England and joined the monthly Herald and was piecing his life together. I met this lean and quiet young man who had big, bright eyes and a unique smile. We did not talk much except for a small argument over something, perhaps about a book, but I could not help being thoroughly impressed with his viewpoint. Since then I have had a series of exchanges, verbal and electronic, in which Asim was always animated, off-beat and extremely gifted with words and ideas. No wonder his art work and many of his writings are a formidable legacy for us all.

Born into a regular upper middle class family, Asim Butt was always an exception. He was different, as he would tell me. Rejecting convention, tradition and the confines of societal expectations was therefore something that started way too early with Asim. To be fair, he did pursue a path chosen for him. He attended the Li Po Chun United World College where his gift for painting became polished, and at some level he had chartered his future course. There was some meandering: a degree in the first batch of B.Sc. in Social Sciences earned from the Lahore University of Management Sciences; and later an unfinished PhD in History from the University of California, Davis. He returned to Pakistan, wrote for the Herald and other publications, and finally enrolled himself at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.Not surprisingly, Butt graduated with distinction in 2006. (more…)

Madam Nur Jahan

4 January 2010

(Published in The Friday Times) – The twentieth century trajectory of Pakistani music and stardom are epitomised in the life and works of Madame Nur Jehan (1929 – 2000) also known as Malika-e-Tarranum. Had there been no partition of boundaries, musicians and composers in 1947, she would have been a subcontinental diva. A common Punjabi aphorism, loosely translated, states that there never was and never will be anyone like Nur Jehan. With her incredible talent, fiercely independent persona, flamboyance and ingrained humility, she surpasses even the best of global icons. The complexity of her life and times have yet to be appreciated: breaking with convention, she defined a new set of rules in the patriarchal entertainment industry, manipulating it where possible to ensure that she would not become the archetypal exploited South Asian singer. Her wit and lust for life remained till the end, and with the exception of not having died in her beloved Lahore, she died with no regrets.

When nine years ago, the Queen of Melody breathed her last breath in a Karachi hospital, the circumstances of her death were considered peculiar by Believers. Even in death she achieved what ritualistic Muslims seek all their lives – to die on the holiest day of the year. The twenty-seventh night of the holy month of fasting is widely believed as a night when all prayers are answered and the gates of forgiveness are let open. This is reportedly the reason that her Karachi-based daughters hastened her burial. (Other less spiritual accounts explain it as a consequence of conflict among her children by different husbands, and the struggle to control family assets). (more…)

Picasso on indifference

19 March 2009

My dear friend Isa D, has refreshed the memory of this fabulous quote from Pablo Picasso.

This quote is extremely pertinent to the current times when the choices are quite stark and paths unclear. Yet, silence shall not be the right response.

… Artists who live and work with spiritual values cannot and should  not remain indifferent to a conflict in which the highest values of humanity and civilization are at stake.” ~ Picasso

The image on the right is Picasso’s self portrait… courtesy

Rediscovering Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999)

3 February 2009
Raza Rumi asks if Pakistani state and society are ready to reclaim the great artist on his tenth death anniversary

Zahoor ul Akhlaq: “the most significant influence on contemporary art”

Akhlaq with his daughter, Jahanara

Sheherezade, and a guest lighting a lamp on the tenth death anniversary

Zahoor ul Akhlaq and Sheherezade: reflections of times past

Jinnah from Akhlaq’s Triptych

Friends at Akhlaq and Jahanara’s tenth anniversary: Naazish Ata-Ullah, Naeem Haq and Salima Hashmi (inset) the dancing lamps

Ten years ago, on a grey, brutal January day, the great artist, Akhlaq, and his gifted daughter, Jahanara were shot dead … the innate humanism of Akhlaq and his family was shattered to bits, much like the splintered state of Pakistan, where art and life are either marginalised, silenced or blown to pieces

We as a society excel at tottering on the shores of forgetfulness; and as a state we are constantly in denial, quick in erasing history lest it haunt us and ask unsettling questions. The National Art Gallery in Islamabad, built after decades of inaction, needs to reclaim Akhlaq’s work and bring it back to Pakistan

It is not easy to write about Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999), an artist whose life and work in so many ways encapsulates the troubled soul of Pakistan. Ten years ago, on a grey, brutal January day, the great artist Akhlaq and his gifted daughter, Jahanara, were shot dead. This was not a run-of-the-mill incident. The innate humanism of Akhlaq and his family was shattered to bits, much like the splintered state of Pakistan, where art and life are either marginalised, silenced or blown to pieces.On this January afternoon, Shahbaz Butt, an acquaintance of Pappu Sain, shot Jahanara and her fiancé, Al-Noor. Jahanara, 24 years old at the time, fell on the ground, to die. The noise, alarming Akhlaq and his fellow artist Anwar Saeed, sent them rushing in to see what had happened. Anwar Saeed was injured by Shahbaz, who shot Akhlaq. He died on the spot..Shahbaz now languishes in jail, while Pakistan is deprived of two inimitable souls. It is unclear what prompted Shahbaz to wreak this senseless violence: drugs, inability to cope with life or an extreme sense of inadequacy that could only be corrected through violence.

A decade later, Akhlaq’s immense legacy is all but invisible, thus marking a post-death demise. How and when did we come to such a pass? This is what the conspiracy of circumstance and the context of Pakistan have done. “The single most important influence on contemporary Pakistani art,” in the words of Salima Hashmi, renowned artist and Akhlaq’s close associate, is absent from art discourse. It is this apathy that I wish to remember on his tenth death anniversary, along with the infinite spaces that his art nurtured and created for generations to come.

As an avid student of Pakistan’s avante garde modernist, Shakir Ali, Akhlaq was destined to radicalise the sensibilities of art movements and pedagogy at Lahore’s famous National College of the Arts (NCA). The young artist, Akhlaq, had the good fortune to live in Shakir Ali’s home in Lahore’s Garden Town suburb for quite some time, and this is where he imbibed the iconoclasm and poetry of Ali’s work and continued the experimentation right into the mainstream of art education. Akhlaq’s early work bears testimony to the influences of the newly emerging school of modernism shaped by the visions of Shamza, Ali Imam, Ahmad Pervaiz, Moyene Najmi and others.

For this writer it was a gargantuan challenge to recount his legacy and re-discover him. Walking into the room where Akhlaq and Jahanara were ruthlessly murdered gave rise to mixed feelings. Akhlaq’s wife, the eclectic potter-artist Sheherezade has been struggling to deal with a life permanently altered on that fateful day of January 1999. The house, painted in bright colours, displays the vibrant world that Sheherezade has created; memory mixed with longing, recreating Jahanara’s dance, using colours from Zahoor’s palette for embellishment.

As we commenced our conversation, we soon found ourselves lost. The little corners of silence between sentences were filled with the mysteries of Akhlaq that still remain undiscovered, at least in large measure. Sheherezade told me about his journeys from Delhi to Karachi in the forties and eventually to the NCA in the sixties, where he found his voice. In 1966, Zahoor was awarded a British Council Scholarship and joined the Hornsey College of Art, to be followed by a stint at the Royal College of Art. This is where the interaction with the British Museum and its priceless, tragic collection of Mughal miniatures opened new vistas for Akhlaq. Once back in Pakistan, he started to imbibe the miniature forms, spaces and poetries into his style, as well as setting up the miniature department at the NCA.

As an exuberant and bohemian student, this was the time when Sheherezade met Akhlaq, found herself under his spell and defied her family to marry him at the Karachi flat of Shahid Sajjad, the eminent sculptor. Jamil Naqsh was also there and the group of friends had a long, fun-filled day on the shores of the salty Arabian Sea. Sheherezade had a glint in her eye as she narrated the event before she remarked: “Zahoor was the first and perhaps the last interesting, ah the most interesting, person I have ever met. I have never found anyone as enchanting as him.”

Akhlaq was a man of few words, another trait he might have inherited from Shakir Ali. Space, silences and reflection defined much of his time. This is not to say that he was not sociable. His closest friends were at the NCA, with whom he spent a fun-filled time when he was not delving into philosophy, or creating his masterpieces in states of frenzy, intoxication or exceptional lucidity.

Sheherezade further mused how the NCA and Zahoor developed a symbiotic relationship that was mutually transformational. Akhlaq was a “peculiar and an unusual husband, but he enabled me to develop a parallel life and thus expanded my life-experience”. Like his other relationships, the marital partnership was also intense yet parallel to his inner life. Zahoor needed a lot of space, “the space of night” in the words of his biographer, and sometimes he did not get it. It was one of those extraordinary experiences that entail a life of one’s own.
Added to this was Zahoor’s immense knowledge, spanning subjects as varied as art, history, philosophy and calligraphy, a discipline in which received training from an early age from the renowned calligrapher, Yousaf Dehlavi. His appreciation of the skill and intimacy with discipline therefore were passed on to him in his childhood. Behind the screen of tradition, and going back to the roots, was also the classic scar of migration and uprooting. Akhlaq’s family left their beloved Delhi for Karachi at the gruesome moment of Partition in 1947. The nostalgia and the sense of separation which underlies Akhlaq’s work were pervasive. Later, his various travels to different parts of the world intensified both the rootedness and the contemporaneousness in his work.

Such profound influences – of heritage, training, travel and intense relationships – enabled Akhlaq’s work to straddle both the traditional and the contemporary, encompassing visual traditions that represented as well as defied the geographical and political boundaries of Pakistan. Akhlaq could concurrently weave the discipline of Islamic geometry, the iconography of the Mughal manuscript, the well-worn genres of European painting and Pakistan’s colonial heritage all into one space, and yet there was space left over to express the contemporary artist of today. There is not a single moment when his work is bound by the constraints of the past or the woes of the present; there was synthesis, a fluid one, merging the thousand years of Pakistan’s heritage onto speaking canvases. Rashid Rana, the young artist of global recognition and an avid student of Akhlaq narrated how the latter helped his generation liberate itself from the onerous baggage of tradition by reinventing ‘tradition’ itself.

Along the fascinating journey of Akhlaq’s creativity, the two daughters of the couple, Jahanara and Nur Jehan, help deepen that quest for equilibrium, the synthesis of the old and the new; of creativity and the institution of marriage. Concurrently, Akhlaq’s genius flourished as an outstanding sculptor, printmaker and painter, and he received multiple awards within Pakistan and abroad. By the 1980s, he was criss-crossing disciplines and art forms, thus delving deeper into Islamic art, painting, printmaking and sculpture.  In 1989, Akhlaq joined Yale University, USA, to pursue post-doctoral research at its Institute of Sacred Music, Religion and the Arts. After retiring from NCA as the head of the Fine Arts Department in 1991, Akhlaq proceeded to Bilkent University, Ankara, as a visiting professor, and by the mid nineties, the family had landed in Canada. Here, Akhlaq received an appointment at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. The return to Pakistan in the late 1990s was the finest of hours, when he (more…)

Abida Sings Shah Latif Bhitai

29 January 2009

Naveed Siraj has sent the captioned audio link. The track is originally by Ustaad Manzoor Ali Khan who belongs to the Gwaliar Gharana. The track is called “Khutaa Keenjhar kinaray, tambo tamachee jaam ja” which NS has translated as: “At the banks of (Lake) Keenjhar, the King (Jam Tamachee) puts up the camp”. Here, we can visualise the mighty ruler of the land arriving at the Keenjhar with all the pomp and protocol and is received by poor mohanas.  This track as is mesmerising.

While taking me through the audio journey, I learnt about Khuta Kinjhar kin (The King puts up camp at Keenjhar). This is Shah Latif’s Sur Nooree-Jam-Tamachee & it is simply describing the scene of the King Jam Tamachee falling for the simple fisherwoman Nooree.

So it starts with Shah giving voice to Nooree who cries out to the Samoo King “You are the supreme lord, I, a lowly fisherwoman, full of blemishes, pray do not foresake me and turn your back on me in view of our abject poverty. (more…)

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