World Artists

‘About suffering they were never wrong’

8 March 2015

Miniaturist Saira Waseem is the latest exponent in a long list of Pakistani artists resisting the country’s political, cultural and social erosion.

Saira waseem4Passion Cycle, 2005

Pakistani art going global is a remarkable story, for it typifies the ineffable contradictions of the country. In part it is a testament to the country’s creative expression, an explosion of sorts; and partly a mode of resistance to the anti-art ideology that is permeating the social fabric. It’s not just painting or the booming art galleries, there is a revival underway of the moribund television drama, the resuscitation of cinema and continuous experimentation with music.

Salima Hashmi, a leading arts academician and practitioner noted in a recent essay that the “proverbial worst of times are certainly the best of times for contemporary Pakistani art.” Our foremost historian, Ayesha Jalal in her latest book “The Struggle for Pakistan” views the creative expression as a resistance to Pakistan’s forced Islamisation. Jalal writes:

saira waseem5

Ethereal I, 2014

“The globalization of Pakistani music has been accompanied by a remarkable leap in the transnational reach of the creative arts…a younger generation of painters are making creative uses of new ideas and technologies to both access and influence a diverse and dynamic transnational artistic scene. The dazzling array of new directions in the contemporary art, literature, and music of Pakistan displays an ongoing tussle between an officially constructed ideology of nationalism and relatively autonomous social and cultural processes in the construction of a “national culture.”

Jalal as a contemporary historian reminds us that the domestic battle of ideas and ideologies is not over and is assuming newer shapes. At the same time, the issue of a crumbling Pakistani state haunts the future trajectory. Is the arts and literature renaissance of sorts an antidote to a state unable to fulfill its basic functions such as securing the lives of its citizens? There are some immediate examples from the subcontinent that come to mind: The reigns of Wajid Ali Shah and Bahadur Shah Zafar in nineteenth century India were also remarkable for their artistic endeavours before the final takeover of the British. Not entirely relevant, these are important phases of our recent history to be remembered.


Through the looking glass

21 February 2015

After a decade of epistolary exchanges, I finally met Shahzia Sikander, Pakistan’s most celebrated global icon of the arts, ironically unsung at home.

SikanderShahzia Sikander Selects, 2009, Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, New York

“Not to be boxed in, to be able to transcend boundaries: for an artist, it’s essential.”

It is a pity that I got to discover Shahzia Sikander’s work only when I left Pakistan. After her initial successes in the 1990s, with her migration to the United States, she slowly disappeared from the local art scene and the narratives within her country of birth, almost rendered invisible, like the mythical characters one reads in the folklore. In a different country, she would be celebrated for being a global icon, intensely original and gifted. Not in her country of birth where talent is subjugated to the cliques that define ‘excellence’ and where history has to be doctored to make the present legible and comfortable.

sikander2The Scroll, 1989-91

Sikander graduated from the National College of Arts in 1991. Her innovative work struck everyone since she had done something remarkable with the miniature form. Reinterpreting the format of a traditional Indo-Persian miniature, she crafted a personal relationship and in a way liberated it from the clutches of ‘tradition’. Prior to her work, the late Zahoor ul-Akhlaq inducted postmodern ideas during the 1970s and 1980s and suggested how miniature remained a relevant form for ‘contemporary’ artists. In his own work he borrowed elements of the miniature form and merged them with the abstract style he practiced. Sikander went beyond and using miniature as the foundation for her work created something new. Her teacher Ustad Bashir Ahmed encouraged her and thus began the great revival. Later, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Ambreen Butt, Saira Wasim and many others took this movement forward and they are all globally celebrated artists in their own right.

Journey to change

30 January 2015

In referencing N M Rashed, clay pots, paper boats, the river Ravi and the lost garment ‘Saddri’, Pakistani artist Sabah Husain creates a seamless whole out of seemingly disparate objects.

sabih hasanBoats made of drawings and paintings on paper. Inkjet prints

Sabah Husain, the accomplished artist of Pakistan, is a trendsetter. Currently affiliated with the School of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Sabah displayed her recent works in Washington DC where the Pakistani Embassy showcased her works for art lovers in town and also reiterated how important cultural diplomacy is for our missions abroad.

As someone who has followed Sabah’s work for some time, I have always been intrigued by her fusion of Pakistan’s rich literary and cultural traditions into her oeuvre of printmaking and paperworks. The exhibition entitled ‘Mapping Waters’ (January 22-27, 2015) presented a range of paintings, prints and photography.

sabih hasan2Sabah Husain at XVA Gallery in Bastakiya Art Fair

Four distinct, yet interwoven, sensibilities were curated at the exhibition: first, Sabah’s enduring conversation with Urdu’s best known modern poet Noon Meem Rashid and his epic poem ‘Hassan Koozagar Ke Naam’; the second layer invoked her interpretations of the once popular but now in virtual disuse ‘saddri’ (men’s waistcoat with Central Asian origins); the paper boat; and Lahore’s dying River Ravi. At the outset these layers may appear to be incompatible but essentially they represent non-linear, complex journeys of an artistic vision.

In his celebrated poem, Rashed identifies himself with Hassan the koozagar (the potter). In material terms most ancient civilizations display pottery as both a daily convenience as well as an expression of the collective creative spirit. At a metaphysical level, clay symbolizes the material for creation shaped by the “creator”. Thus all three are one in the Sufi parlance of Wahdut ul Wajud (Unity of Being) and best represented by the famous line from Jalaluddin Rumi:

“Khud Kooza O, Khud Kooza Gar O, Khud Gil-e-Kooz; Khud Rind O Subu Kush; Khud Bar Sar-e-Aan Kooza Kharidaar; Bar Amad Ba Shikast O Ravaan Shu.”

He the vessel, its creator and also its clay;

He is the reveller drinking from it…

And is the one who buys it and breaks the vessel having drunk from it

The mythical Hassan from Rashed’s poem was a resident of Baghdad and invoked during his long soliloquy, the banks of River Tigris, the boat and the powers of his creativity, poverty and longing. The poem also reminds us of the cycles of personal and civilizational growth and decay. Sabah interprets the poem and its metaphors – the river and the boat – and locates them in contemporary settings. This is where it all comes together: the poet and the artist both identify with Hassan who on the banks of a River muses on Time and its various manifestations. One such manifestation for Hassan’s successor, Sabah Husain, is the forlorn piece of garment Saddri (Sabah in a conversation told me that she owns and wears them too).


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…)

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