by Mashaal Gauhar
In commemoration of what would have been his 85th birthday, Pakistan’s most influential artist, Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi, was honoured with a Google doodle last week. A prolific painter, poet and mystic, his enduring legacy still resonates across the world.
Born in 1930 in Amroha, India, Sadequain was born into a family of Koranic scribes. After training in the art of calligraphy, Sadequain studied at Agra University where he read Art History and was also a member of the Progressive Writers and Artists Movement. He moved to Karachi after completing his degree where his art attracted great interest. Most notably, he was recognised for shifting calligraphic art into the abstract.
The transcendent quality of his work was appreciated beyond Pakistan. In 1980, the UAE newspaper The Khaleej Times paid him rich tribute, “A mystic artist from Pakistan who has become a legend in his own time. The remarkable story of Sadequain, who did not seek, but was endowed with divine inspiration.”
The French newspaper Le Figaro in 1962 wrote, “Sadequain adds up the impression of space, density, volume and the reality of matter, which transforms an abstract thought into a material fact . . .” In the 1960s, the French government selected Sadequain to illustrate Nobel laureate Albert Camus’ novel L’ Etranger. He was also awarded the Laureate Biennale de Paris for his painting The Last Supper.
With an artistic career spanning over three decades, his retrospective at Karachi’s Mohatta Palace entitled the Holy Sinner 1954 — 1987 was the longest running exhibition with the largest attendance ever in the history of Pakistani art.
With several of his masterpieces inspired by the writings of literary giants such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Allama Iqbal and Mirza Ghalib, his paintings represented a unifying point for art, Urdu literature and mystical thought. Like the great poets who inspired him, Sadequain’s work was steeped in the literary tradition of attaining union with the Beloved.
‘Sadequain adds up the impression of space, density, volume and the reality of matter, which transforms an abstract thought into a material fact . . .
At a time when the art world was steeped in commercialism, Sadequain’s otherworldliness made him stand out as a true embodiment of a malang, detached from the world. This explains why he described himself as a faqeer, removed from the trappings of the material world. Though he had much of the affluent art world at his feet, he never sold his prized works, instead gifting them to friends and art institutions. He insisted that his work was for the people and would exhibit his art on pavements and industrial areas of Karachi so that they could be viewed by all.
His preoccupation with human suffering informed much of his work. In an interview he once famously asserted, “People ask why I don’t paint flowers, butterflies and landscapes? I tell them that I seek the truth and I am after reality. I am not inspired by someone posing against the backdrop of roses in a vase or pink curtains. What inspires me is a person who has gone hungry for hours and is struggling for survival. The expression that lights his face at the end of the day when he has finally found some scraps, that is what touches me. I am a painter of the expression of reality.” As a painter of ‘reality’ and with his deep knowledge of the Koran and sufi literature, it is notable that the technical term for love in the Urdu ghazal is ‘haqiqi’ meaning ‘real’. This is also perhaps why Pakistan’s great poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz described him as more of a thinker than an artist.
His time spent in Sindh during the 1960s also influenced his artistic career. The austere desert landscapes of Sindh were often depicted in his art and in particular the cactus plant which formed a symbol of resilience against deprivation and adversity. Similarly, his Cobweb and Crow series were powerful social commentaries on social injustice and inequality. In spite of the value of his paintings, Sadequain died without money but always maintained he did not want for anything.
Deeply loved and admired in Pakistan, he was awarded the country’s highest honours: the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and the Sitara-e-Imtiaz. His artistic vision set modern art in Pakistan on a radical new path which is why he is so aptly described as the father of modern art in Pakistan.
The writer is the founding editor of Blue Chip magazine. She tweets @MashaalGauhar
Published in Daily Times, July 9th , 2017.