The Subtle Subversion Of Sadequain

The master artist, considered among the four most gifted names Pakistan has bequeathed to the world, would have turned 90 today. A commemorative volume on the painter, calligrapher and poet shines a spotlight on the artist and the man. 

Like many of my generation, my introduction to Sadequain – who was born 90 years ago today, June 30 – came through oblique references to ‘owning a Sadequain’ that one had read or heard about from connoisseurs, or when we at the Progressive Writers Association organised a function to celebrate the 88th birthday of the master artist, calligrapher and poet a couple of years ago in Lahore. It was then that I discovered that art was only one of the facets of this gifted humanist. I was hardly eight years old when he passed away in Karachi, in 1987.

Sadequain is one of the four most gifted artists Pakistan has bequeathed to the world, the other three being Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Shakir Ali and Gulgee. However, unlike the other three in this hallowed quartet, Sadequain left behind no school or students to carry on his work. For this reason alone, the edited volume, Sadequain: Shayir, Musavvir, Khattat, is of interest as it seeks to give a rounded picture of the man.

The very first thing one notes in the biographical details given at the very beginning is that Sadequain’s date of birth is given as June 30, 1930. This may seem a minor detail but is important because Wikipedia gives his birth year as 1923.

Sadequain: Shayir, Musavvir, Khattat
Compiled and edited by Syed Sultan Ahmed Naqvi
Fazlee Books, Lahore

The book is divided into four parts: the first part offers more personalised tributes; the second part consists of hitherto unpublished sketches and essays on Sadequain; the third part contains his own reflections on various subjects; the fourth part consists of reflections on his art; and the concluding section has evaluations of Sadequain’s rubaiyat (quatrains).

A piece by the poet and short-story writer, Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi, opens the first section, occasioned by a visit to a Sadequain exhibition in Lahore, wherein the former notes the artist’s new approach to art, which has two facets – namely,  he shows the unity of man and woman; and, secondly, the artist has now begun to see himself as a representative of universal ideas rather than a conveyer merely of anguish.

One of the best essays in the volume is by Nurul Hasan Jafri, who was a senior bureaucrat and the husband of Pakistan’s pioneering female poet, Ada Jafri. His essay is a testament and tribute to many of Sadequain’s often contradictory traits which are corroborated throughout this volume in one way or the other: his bohemian appearance; his love for the ‘daughter of the grape’ to the detriment of all other kinds of food; his worship of beauty and seeking of and popularity with beautiful women; his magnanimity, highlighted by his act of gifting thousands of his paintings and calligraphic works to seekers, admirers, friends and hangers-on; his self-love and narcissism which paradoxically did not border on arrogance but humility; and his workaholic work ethic, both in terms of his art as well as his poetic verses.

What is particularly revealing and heartbreaking in this essay is an account of his last days in Karachi and the notion that Sadequain could have been saved by preventing his access to alcohol and the kind of company that encouraged it. It made me think of how too many of our great writers – Majaz, Manto, Saghar Siddiqui and Miraji – went this way.

Watch: The Story of Sadequain, People’s Painter and Calligrapher

Munir Ahmed Shaikh’s essay poses the interesting thesis of the end of Sadequain as a painter in 1960 and the rise of his more saleable calligraphy. He sees the iconic painter surrendering to the forces of puritanism and conformism.

Urdu writer and satirist Mujtaba Hussain – who passed away in Hyderabad (India) last month – perhaps has the only humourous piece on Sadequain in this collection, where he describes the transformation of the walls of Sadequain’s rented house in Delhi (during his 14-month sojourn in India) to a veritable telephone directory and address book, quipping,

“I should mention in passing that some undesirable elements from whom I wanted to conceal my telephone number, found it on the wall of Sadequain’s house. It’s a different matter that the addresses of some favourite elements, which I was searching for long, I found from the wall of Sadequain’s house.”

Zaheda Hina provides an interesting anecdote in her piece about Sadequain’s encounter with the formidable Ismat Chughtai who was visiting Pakistan – how the artist who had been surgically critiquing her short stories just prior to meeting her became so deferential upon seeing her that he preferred to sit at her feet rather than alongside on the couch!

Sheikh Aziz’s essay christens Sadequain as our modern-day Prometheus and, contrary to Munir Sheikh’s aforementioned essay, he says that the artist “painted against obscurantism and stagnation all his life.”

The compiler of the book, Sultan Ahmed Naqvi, who also happens to be a nephew of the book’s subject, not surprisingly supplies one of the best pieces in the volume. Decoding the secret of Sadequain’s raison d’être, Naqvi says, “The objective of his work was to make prominent his creative abilities or salvation from the anguish of the creative process.”

Here I am tempted to present my own translation of one of Sadequain’s rubaiyats which he wrote in honour of a young cleaning staffer in the hospital where he was being treated:

Go peek bohat thook rahi thi Lachhmi
Khidmat men kahan chook rahi thi Lachhmi
Ispatal ke is viraane men
Koel ki tarah kook rahi thi Lachhmi’

(Though there was much of Lachhmi’s betel spit
Her service was not lacking in spirit
In this desolation of the hospital
She was cooing like a cuckoo with true grit)

Naqvi also informs us that in his early days Sadequain had authored a collection of poetry which, regrettably, has been destroyed.

In this painting of Sarmad by the Pakistani artist Sadequain, the medieval mystic holds up his head - severed at Aurangzeb's insistence - while continuing to defiantly be himself.

In this painting of Sarmad by the Pakistani artist Sadequain, the medieval mystic holds up his head – severed at Aurangzeb’s insistence – while continuing to defiantly be himself.

Another piece in this section is a wide-ranging interview of  Naqvi, which is the most personalised piece in the volume, providing information about Sadequain’s domestic life and shattering many myths in the process such as the nature of his ‘friends’, who turned out to be little more than opportunists.

A great revalation

A great revelation is Sadequain’s will which stated that his body should be committed to the sea rather than be buried, the reason being that he was against individual ownership of land to such an extent that as in life, in death too he did not want that there be two yards of land in his name and he be its occupant. Needless to say, his will was not honoured.

Another piece, Sadequain Ka Naya Roop (The New Face of Sadequain), by Hasnain Javed is as entertaining as it is instructive. It refers to an exhibition of ‘lewd paintings’ by the ‘devilish artist Sadequain’ at the Punjab Arts Council in Lahore sometime during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s ‘Islamic turn’ in the mid-1970s, and proceeds to lambast Sadequain for his apparent ‘abandonment of Islam’ and his series of paintings on kissing.

Because there is no reference as to where the piece was originally published, the reader cannot tell whether it is a satirical piece from an admirer or a serious one intending to morally police artistic creation. If it is indeed the latter, it reminds one of Manto’s essay, ‘Allah Ka Barra Fazal Hai’ (Allah is Very Kind) in the 1950s, about a fictional, artless dystopia imagined by the writer. It also brings to mind events more real in the present day Naya Pakistan such as the recent cases of Adeela Suleiman’s wrecked exhibition in Karachi or the ban on Sarmad Khoosat’s film, Zindagi Tamasha.

The section on unpublished sketches and essays on Sadequain does not add anything substantial to our knowledge of Sadequain and therefore seems unnecessary to the central concerns of the volume. Instead, one is inclined to read with greater interest what he himself has to say about his work and experiences. In this respect, the first essay on Indian art may be more useful for art connoisseurs and art historians.

A Google doodle to mark Sadequain’s birth anniversary.

The delightful preface

However, the Muqqadima (Preface) to his rubaiyat is an absolute delight. The initial part of the preface is essentially apologetic and concerned with technical details like the demands and requisites of sketching, pages and scripts, but once the reader is able to negotiate this minefield, he finds that the writer is delightfully candid about his creative process regarding his less discussed rubaiyat.

According to Sadequain, “I do not call my rubaiyat poetry.” The following lines remind one of Manto who in his famous talk at Bombay’s Jogeshwari College, in 1944, responded to the critics who questioned the ugliness and realism in his stories.

Sadequain’s response is worth quoting in full:

“The artificial and cosmetic empty smile of some profiteer’s concubine on his decorated throne is meaningless for me. When a naked and hungry man searches for offal thrown on a dustbin and when he succeeds in his struggle, the impression of his face appears meaningful. I am indeed the artist of the gutter, not the marble minaret. I search truth within the stench of the dustbin, not from the decorative environment and fragrance of thrones.”

The publisher has remarked in the introduction to this volume that after reading the Preface of Sadequain, the reader would fall in love with him.

The next piece in the volume is an incomplete autobiographical account by Sadequain of his apprenticeship in Delhi as a teenaged master calligrapher and budding poet in the making and his meetings with and cameos of important people like Urdu poet Miraji and singer Iqbal Bano. One wishes that he had had the time and inclination to complete it and not left it abruptly at his critique of the Naya Adab movement that had just gained traction in colonial India.

In his piece, Safarnama-e-Sadequain (Sadeqian’s Travelogue), exploring the background to his trip to the Middle East for an exhibition of his work, the artist raises an interesting point about the influence of geography on the flourishing of various industries, arts, crafts and movements, hinting at his own industriousness as emanating from the waters of the Ravi.

This travel piece, too, like the aforementioned autobiographical one, ends abruptly, leaving the reader desiring more. The last piece in this section, Sher Kya Hai? (What Is A Verse?), is significant if one wishes to understand Sadequain’s poetic philosophy. For students of poetry at any stage of their craft, it has the additional value of putting in verse the answer to the question of the title according to Plato, Omar Khayyam, Goethe, Carlyle, Herder, Arnold, Chateaubriand, and Shelley, though one is disappointed not to find Faiz and Ghalib – Sadequain’s beloved subjects – in this imagined pantheon.

Also read: Form and Meaning in Modern and Contemporary Pakistani Art

He rounds off the piece with his own answer to the question in verse. This appears to be a piece from his early days because the essay mentions his earlier nom de plume ‘Sidq’ before he settled for Sadequain.

The section on the analysis of Sadequain’s poetry is peppered with fine essays by Sibte Hasan, Farman Fatehpuri and Khatir Ghaznavi. It is difficult to disagree with Fatehpuri’s concluding thoughts that while Sadequain’s art and calligraphy achieved worldwide fame and the good fortune of having deserving critics, the same cannot be said of his rubaiyat. They need to be translated into English like the rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – which inspired Sadequain and on which his verses were modelled – in order to rightfully claim their place in the pantheon of poetic achievements

One wishes that the opinions of Sadequain’s great predecessors in the rubaiyat genre, namely Firaq Gorakhpuri and Josh Malihabadi (both of whom were living at the time when Sadequain’s rubaiyat were published) had also been included in the volume.

This is a great volume commemorating one of Pakistan’s – nay the world’s – great citizens and artistic ambassadors, its value enhanced by the sections on Sadequain’s own writings and rubaiyat and memorable photographs of its subject provided at the end of the book. In places, shoddy editing and proofreading errors mar the appeal of the book. Perhaps a future edition might also include some samples of Sadequain’s fabled calligraphy and rubaiyat in his own hand.

Also missing are the opinions and impressions of some of his other contemporaries from Europe and the Middle East, where he spent considerable time before returning to make Pakistan his permanent home.

I suggest including some material in the book which is in English (or can be translated into English) to make this edition bilingual and enhance its appeal to a younger generation not familiar with Sadequain’s work beyond the confines of art and calligraphy.

One also feels an under-representation or downright absence of some illustrious contemporaries of Sadequain in this volume – and not just from the art world – like the artists Shakir Ali, Satish Gujral (who passed away earlier this year) and playwright Enver Sajjad; and many others who are still living — writer Mustansar Hussain Tarar, poet Kishwar Naheed, poet and musician Gulzar (Deenavi), writer Jilani Bano, human rights activist I.A. Rehman, poet Zehra Nigah, writer Masood Ashar and poet Iftikhar Arif to name a few.

Satish Gujral. Photo: Facebook/Satish Gujral Design Awards

The absence of any references, dates and sources regarding the essays throughout the book was startling, even though it is mentioned by the publisher in the introduction that many of the essays in the book appeared first in the ‘Sadequain Number’ of the Tuloo-e-Afkaar journal. Still, for literary historians and younger readers alike, the value of proper references is not one of mere academic interest.

Perhaps this volume could be the beginning of a definitive biography of Sadequain, written in time for his birth centenary in 2030. Who better to write it than his dedicated and beloved nephew, Syed Sultan Ahmed Naqvi?

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at: