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Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – Man Kunto Maula

March 10th, 2010|Music, South Asian Art, Sufi poetry, Sufism|6 Comments

Faiz’s Shaam

Faiz’s poem Shaam with a translation by Agha Shahid Ali.Thanks to Junaid for the contribution.
Iss tarha hai ke har ik perr koi mandir hai
koi ujrra huwa, benoor, puraana mandir
dhooNdta hey jo kharaabi ke bahaaney kab se
chaak har baam, har ik dard ka dam-e-aakhir hey
aasmaaN koi prohit hey jo har baam taley
jism pe raakh maley, maathey […]

February 11th, 2009|Poetry, Translations, Urdu|5 Comments

Rediscovering Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999)

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 […]

Lahore’s oldest guide

My piece published in the Friday Times

The interior of Data Darbar

The grave of the saint

Outside the shrine,

The shrine at night

Perhaps the greatest of the experiences at Data Darbar is to find oneself connected to a stream of humanity, shoulder to shoulder, with a shared sense of spirituality that cuts across ethnicity, sect, ritual and even religion at times. Despite the mayhem, the serenity of the place is soothing

“To traverse distance is child’s play: henceforth pay visits by means of thought; it is not worth while to visit any person, and there is no virtue in bodily presence”

Last week, accompanying a visitor from the Mecca of Sufis, Delhi, I reconnected with the Data Darbar or the royal pavilion of the great saint of Lahore, Ali bin Usman Al Hajveri. This shrine is the oldest and perhaps the most vibrant cultural marker of the past one millennium in Lahore. The title of Ganj Bakhsh was bestowed by the saint of the saints Khwaja Moin ud din Chishti of Ajmere, whose ascendancy in the Chishtia Sufi order is recognised by all and sundry. Pilgrimage to Ajmere by itself is a matter of spiritual attainment for the majority of Muslims in the subcontinent. It is not difficult to imagine then what the stature of Lahore’s Data Darbar is in this esoteric yet real and lived Islam in South Asia. While Khwaja Moin ud din Chishti honoured the Lahori saint with the title “bestower of treasure,” ordinary folk on Lahore’s streets were more direct by naming the saint as Data, the one who facilitates the fulfilment of aspirations.

Living nearly 11 centuries ago, Syed Ali bin Usman Al Hajveri was not a Lahori but a resident of Lahore’s cultural step-cousin, Ghazni, until he arrived in India and wandered in northern India before settling in Lahore for the last 34 years of his life. This was the time when mystics from Central Asia, in their constant urge to discover new vistas of spiritual exploration, started to travel and settle in different parts of the Indian subcontinent. It remains a mystery as to why Data Ganj Bakhsh would have chosen Lahore as the final stop in his life long journey. Perhaps the secular interpretation could be that Lahore was an inevitable stop over for all the Central Asian and Turkic caravans and armies and provided the right kind of environment for a foreign mystic to amalgamate into. A little before Ganj Bakhsh’s arrival, Lahore had been resurrected from the earlier ravages of time by the Ghaznavid ruler Mahmood and his son Masood.

Lahore’s fame had also spread deep into the rugged, mountainous climes of Central Asia. Its old fortified city, the banks of a gushing river and the motley collection of artisans, masons, artists, poets and musicians were all too well known.

During the 34 years of his Lahore residence, Ali Hajveri became the most revered of dervishes whose inclusive and tolerant mystical path attracted the majority of its non-Muslim population. Let us not forget that the non-Muslim population was also a subject of a pernicious caste hierarchy where access to templar gods and clerical blessings was denied to a good number of the population. This was the beginning of a centuries’ long process of peaceful conversions. Islam’s egalitarianism and its larger message of equality before God was quite a magical idea for many, not to mention that the Sufi path did not require conversion per se. This is why Data Darbar has been a hub of inter-communal quests for spiritual attainment.

Other than that, Ali Hajveri’s important contribution to the corpus of documented mystical thought is the treatise that he authored and left for posterity. Known as Kashf- al- Mahjub, or “Unveiling of the Hidden,” it is a monumental document striking for its communicative tone and systematic way of discussing mysticism.

Through the dynasties that were to follow Mahmood Ghaznavi’s controversial military campaigns, the primacy of Ali Hajveri’s shrine continued. Its centrality to the evolution of Muslim rulers meant that the origins of Islam were paradoxically not rooted in the capture of power. Voluntary conversions at Sufi khanqahs and dergahs were a constant process. The Sultans of Delhi and the Moghuls were all enamoured by the mythical might of the saint, and while the imperial grandeur continued, the ordinary Lahoris had already renamed Lahore as “Data ki Nagri”- Data‘s city. Khawaja Moin ud din Chishti undertook 40 day long meditative exercises at this shrine before he moved to Ajmere to carry on the Sufi mission of spreading love, tolerance and harmony and of re-emphasising the indivisible equality of man. The Moghul prince and heir apparent Dara Shikoh, like his great-grandfather Akbar, was also a true devotee of Data Ganj Bakhsh.

The decline of the Moghul Empire did not impact the energy of the shrine. In fact, the formidable Punjabi leader, Maharaja Ranjit Singh, like his predecessors, invested in the upkeep and expansion of the shrine complex. The rulers dare not afford the wrath or displeasure […]

December 1st, 2008|Personal|1 Comment

Nahaj ul Balagha – Looking back to Get Ahead

Raza Rumi

Fahmida Riaz is Pakistan’s premier female poet. She became a sensation in the early 1970s when her bold, feminist poetry created a stir in the convention ridden world of Urdu poetry. Riaz was expressive, sometimes explicit, and politically charged. She created a completely new genre in Urdu poetry with a post-modern sensibility. Later, she remained prominent with her defiance of General Zia’s martial law, her exile to India and the continuous evolution of her fiction and poetry.

Since the late 1990s, Fahmida Riaz has discovered Jalaluddin Rumi, the 12th century Turkish poet and jurist, and now an international celebrity. Her recent publication – Yeh Khana-e aab-o-gil – is a unique translation of Rumi’s ghazals in the same rhyme and meter. Since her navigation of the Rumi universe, she has explored another dimension of her individual and cultural consciousness, where the influence of Islamic scholars and Sufis is paramount.

Last winter, she read a letter by Hazrat Ali bin Abi Talib (AS), the fourth Caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), while browsing a translation of Nahaj ul Balagha (a collection of sermons, letters and sayings of the Caliph). Later, in an email, she related to her friends across the globe how angry she felt for not knowing about this letter all her life, and how the real jewels of Muslim history were concealed “generation after generation.” […]

Hazrat Ali’s letter on governance and citizenship

The common stories about Islam or Muslims have to do with the chopping of arms and killing of infidels. We are told that Muslims had a great empire, after many conquests and subjugation of the ‘infidels’. And what have we learned in the textbooks: Ali (AS) was a brave general with a legendary sword? Have we heard this:

Do not close your eyes from glaring malpractice of officers, miscarriage of justice and misuse of rights, because you will be held responsible for the wrong thus done to others. In the near future, your wrong practices and maladministration will be exposed, and you will be held responsible and punished for the wrong done to the helpless and oppressed people.

Fahmida Riaz is Pakistan’s premier female poet. She became a sensation in the early 1970s when her bold, feminist poetry created a stir in the convention ridden world of Urdu poetry. Riaz was expressive, sometimes explicit, and politically charged. She created a completely new genre in Urdu poetry with a post-modern sensibility. Later, she remained prominent with her defiance of General Zia’s martial law, her exile to India and the continuous evolution of her fiction and poetry.

Since the late 1990s, Fahmida Riaz has discovered Jalaluddin Rumi, the 12th century Turkish poet and jurist, and now an international celebrity. Her recent publication “ Yeh Khana-e aab-o-gil” is a unique translation of Rumi’s ghazals in the same rhyme and meter. Since her navigation of the Rumi universe, she has explored another dimension of her individual and cultural consciousness, where the influence of Islamic scholars and Sufis is paramount.

Last winter, she read a letter by Hazrat Ali bin Abi Talib (AS), the fourth Caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), while browsing a translation of Nahaj ul Balagha (a collection of sermons, letters and sayings of the Caliph). Later, in an email, she related to her friends across the globe how angry she felt for not knowing about this letter all her life, and how the real jewels of Muslim history were concealed generation after generation.

At the time she was preparing for a Conference at Heidelberg, Germany. Lo and behold, she made a dramatic speech about Ali’s (AS) letter at the international moot. Thereafter she showed the text of the letter to Dr Patricia Sharpe, a US-based writer who was impressed by it and immediately paraphrased and uploaded it to on her website under the title Good Governance Early Muslim Style.

Ali (AS) had written a comprehensive letter  articulating principles of public policy for the guidance of the newly appointed Governor to Egypt, Maalik al Ashtar. In this fascinating directive, Ali (AS) advises the new governor that his administration will succeed only if he governs with concern for justice, equity, probity and the prosperity of all. There is a timeless applicability of this famous letter. Selected passages from the text are reproduced below:

Religious tolerance: Amongst your subjects there are two kinds of people: those who have the same religion as you [and] are brothers to you, and those who have religions other than yours, [who] are human beings like you. Men of either category suffer from the same weaknesses and disabilities that human beings are inclined to; they commit sins, indulge in vices either intentionally or foolishly and unintentionally without realising the enormity of their deeds. Let your mercy and compassion come to their rescue and help in the same way and to the same extent that you expect Allah to show mercy and forgiveness to you . […]