Like the Sufi mystic poet Rahman Baba of the Khalil-Mohmand tribe, the great warrior poet Khushal Khan Khattak, chief of the Khattak tribe and the famous contemporary Urdu poet Ahmad Faraz, Gulgee is a Pathan. Ismail Gulgee was born in Peshawar on October 25, 1926. His father and grandfather had moved there from Attock, while his mother was from Hazara. Attock is near the Punjab-Pukhtoon border. It is also famous for the fort built there by the third Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great astride the confluence of the two rivers Indus and Kabul that meet in a deep gorge. The word ‘Attock’ means ‘to get stuck’ and Akbar named it so because this is where invading armies coming through the fabled Khyber Pass could get stuck. It is an awesome sight, the mighty Indus with its crystal clear cold waters having just left the towering Himalayas and the muddy rapids of the Kabul having just left Afghanistan crashing into each other and becoming one, flowing for miles together yet separately, the pristine waters of one distinct from the brown waters of the other before they finally mix. If you stop your car after crossing the Attock Bridge with the railway line going above it and go down to the banks of the two rivers where both meet, you will find fishermen there who will ask you whether you want Indus fish or Kabul fish. You can even have it cooked there or take it home. Most people don’t know this and obliviously drive past. Gulgee of Attock might like to do a painting of this point, unless he already has. Another surprise is that Gulgee belongs to the Ismaili community, followers of His Highness the Aga Khan. You normally don’t associate this sub-sect of the Shia with Pathans. Peshawar, though, had a vibrant Ismaili community. Gulgee’s father studied at the Muslim College Peshawar. He was an engineer employed with the government and Gulgee traveled with him a lot. His grandfather was a Sunday painter. Gulgee first studied at Peshawar Convent School and then went to finish high school studies in Lawrence College situated in the Himalaya Mountains in a place called Ghora Galli near the British hill station called Murree.
I had gone to Karachi to meet and talk to Gulgee. I do my best to avoid travel, having done more than a normal person would in two lifetimes, but a call from the last of our great masters galvanized me into action. In any case, Gulgee had known my late father Mr. Altaf Gauhar, who had been a patron of the arts. He was the one who founded the Arts Council in Karachi and the Gallery for Contemporary Art in Rawalpindi. Great artists like Zainul Abideen, Shakir Ali, Zubeida Agha and Sadequain were his friends and he helped many of them when they were struggling and unknown. I remember Zainul Abideen in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) living with us on our launch ‘Molly’ while my father traveled through the district of which he was magistrate. He would sit on the small deck of the launch and paint in watercolour before lunch while Molly sailed on a river they called Padma. Every morning boatmen would surround our launch to sell groceries and fruit, mainly bananas and kathal or jackfruit, and I remember my late mother negotiating with them. Our daily fare was — you guessed it — fish. The one I loved was curry made of tiny fish the size of Whitebait. Zainul Abideen also lived with us in Karachi in the District Magistrate’s House just across from the Karachi Gymkhana on Club Road. It is now the Commissioner’s House. I remember Zainul Abideen sitting to my left during lunch rolling up his chappati and dipping it in curry and biting chunks off. My sister Naveed and I copied him, much to the annoyance of our mother. Then there was the young Sadequain, sober as a saint, who also lived with us in the same house. He would wear off-white cotton sherwanis with a cap made of the same fabric, like the one that Nehru wore. Every morning he sat in our drawing room making sketches, including of me and my sister. Altaf Gauhar introduced him to Prime Minister Suharawardhy and under his patronage he got his break. Zubeida Agha was our best family friend from amongst the artists. I have little memory of Shakir Ali, except that I remember him walking up the drive of our house in GOR Lahore with a huge painting strapped to his bicycle. It was a present for my father, a still life that is considered his best. I do remember hearing that Shakir Ali’s Czechslovakian wife, now sadly deceased, had left him and married the journalist and labour leader Minhaj Barna, older brother of the politician Mairaj Mohammad Khan, whom she got to know while he was underground, hiding from the police in Shakir Ali’s house. Minhaj Barna was later to work with us in South, the magazine my father and I published from London, which is when I also met his wife. She was a wonderful lady. May God rest her soul in peace.
Here I was writing about Gulgee but there I have gone telling you stories about Pathans, rivers and other artists. So back to Gulgee.
“I wanted to be a painter and my parents were planning to send me to Paris to study art. Like all children I used to draw. I was a painter right from the day I was born. It is said that I was painting even in my mother’s womb. Like a person who is madly in love with a woman and could do anything for her, I was madly in love with painting. But things got bad and my parents could not afford to send me anywhere.”
Gulgee’s father suggested that he take up such subjects for studies that would give him a chance to win a scholarship. “So I opted for mathematics and engineering and won the scholarship.” Gulgee earned a scholarship for Aligarh University and then won the scholarship for postgraduate studies at Columbia University. He studied engineering and later taught at Colombia. When asked whether he had ever taught painting, he said, “No. You can either paint or teach.” (I thought Gulgee was going to say, “You can either paint or you can’t”, which I also think is true, at least for the great artists. The master batsman Viv Richards once said in an interview: “You either got it or you ain’t got it.”).
Gulgee continues: “I was teaching mathematics to graduate students of engineering at the Aligarh University when I was 20 years old. All my students were older than me without exception. I would go in my slippers and talk to them. We were good friends and they liked me. We remained friends afterwards.”
When I asked whether he couldn’t have got a scholarship in art, he got animated: “Art mein koi miltey hai? Shukar karo maar naheen daitay.” [Does one ever get a scholarship in art? Thank God one is not killed.]
But he stressed that he did not feel the need to study painting. “I never had a problem there. My training had all been in mathematics. It doesn’t sound very modest but I have been very good at whatever I attempted, whether it was mathematics, art or engineering. In engineering, I got a first class and came first in Aligarh University. I got an average of 86.6 percent. And the person who came second with a 200 marks difference became a famous engineer who later joined the United Nations.”
Has his background in mathematics helped him in painting? “I think so,” said Gulgee, his brow furrowed. “Apparently the two [painting and mathematics] are very different but they are very much the same. My field was mechanics.” He explains what mechanics is about: “You are standing here, 20 feet to that side and 10 feet down, what is the effect of my standing here at that time?” I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.
After the teaching stint at Aligarh, Gulgee went to study at Columbia. “Uss waqt mil bhee jatay thay scholarship” [In those days one could get a scholarship]. When I went for the interview for the scholarship, I told them of my project which I had dedicated to Aga Khan Sultan Mahomed Shah. One of the persons there said, ‘But the Aga Khan is not an engineer.’ I said, no, I was doing it in my personal capacity, out of respect. I got the scholarship without knowing anybody. And that was a big thing, three years of fully paid scholarship. It included not only fees but lodging and other expenses too.
“I was looking to do a PhD from Harvard but the government took me off to look at the design of Warsak Dam” — for which Gulgee worked with a company in Sweden. “I participated in the actual design of the dam and spent a year-and-a-half with HG Acres and Company, which was assigned the designing work of Warsak.” In the early Fifties Gulgee held his first exhibition in Stockholm where his paintings were sold before the exhibition opened. Back in Pakistan Gulgee joined government service but wanted to resign after only a few months. Prince Karim Aga Khan’s grandfather, Sultan Mahomed Shah, persuaded him to keep the job. “He said to me, ‘What your country needs at the moment is engineers and there are not that many people with the kind of background that you have. Why don’t you work for five years and then you can still do your paintings?’ ”
Gulgee worked with the Central Engineering Authority and apart from the Warsak Dam, he also worked on some dams in East Pakistan. “I worked on every aspect of designing and wrote a series of reports which was very useful information because all the engineers were there. [The report covered] all the designs they did, the assumptions they used and the kind of tests and investigations they had to do to arrive at the kind of assumptions.”
But not all his work hours were spent in mechanical calculations. He was often officially asked to do portraits. The last five years at work “I was mostly painting…doing portraits. Kabhee kisi ko khush karna hae [having to please a person at times]. And I was very happy. Mazedar zamana tha [Those were enjoyable times]. Engineering to karnee par rahee thee [I had to do engineering, of course]. I also had the chance to do what I liked doing.” It is like the wazeefa in the Mughal period.
Gulgee continues, “Then the government sent me to Afghanistan to do a portrait of King Zahir Shah. They desperately wanted to make good relations with Afghanistan. I was asked to do a very flattering portrait of the King that would please him. I told them that I would try to make a flattering portrait but when I do a portrait I have no control over it. I react to the person. So if you want to make sure it is a flattering portrait you have to go to some other painter who only makes flattering portraits. Luckily, Zahir Shah was also an artist. He used to paint. He invited me to Kabul and I stayed there for three years. I made portraits of the King, his granddaughter, Wali Khan, his uncle and of Sir Mahmood Khan Ghazi.”
“Was that the time when Aslam Khattak was the ambassador?” I ask.
“Exactly,” Gulgee replies. “I stayed at the Kabul Hotel and Aslam Khattak walked in and told his men to carry all my luggage and follow him. What a lovely gesture!”
In Afghanistan, he did sketches as well as portraits in oil and had an exhibition in Kabul of nearly 100 drawings. “It was a wonderful experience,” he says. “They are lovely people. The land as well as the people are beautiful.”
But were there any cultural activities at that time? “Here and there.”
“But not much?” I press.
“Idher kon see much hotee hain [How many do you get to see here],” replies Gulgee.
After continuing for 10 years he left the job to pursue art. At that, he says, his parents felt that, “bechare kee kismet kharab hae [Poor thing, he is ill-fated].”
He met Zaro, who later became his wife, for the first time in Dhaka. “I was doing a portrait of Karim Aga Khan and was traveling with him to Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Chitagong and then to Paris.” They got married in Paris. The magnificent portrait of her that hangs in his sitting room was done a couple of years after their marriage.
ON HIS WORK
Earlier Gulgee was more interested in portraits. Doing portraits becomes easier if you like the person, he says. These days he “doesn’t do that many sketches.” On switching from portraits to calligraphy, he says that he uses the same colours. “I paint the whole day, from 11 am till around 8 pm. My brush moves like a quill. My earlier calligraphy was classical. In calligraphy you have to go back to your roots. I can write in any of the styles of the old masters. But I have given it a new direction. In Islam soch mein to agae gae [we progressed in thought].” But not in calligraphy, he says. Whatever our painters did it was still spiritually classical calligraphy. “It is not something that goes in another direction.”
He believes that there is a great deal of artistic talent in Pakistan. “People think that an artist should be natakee [performer]. They like that kind of thing. People are more impressed with their personality, their image. Many artists are like that and tend to do nothing. There should be genuine involvement in the work.” He himself, he said, was a “seedha saadha” [simple and straight] person.
Abstract expressionism was the rage in America when Gulgee went to study there. He visited galleries and “anyone could do that”, was his impression of the abstract expressionism. “They were not all great painters. The desperate need of the people for heroes in art made them into painters of substance, whether there was any depth or not. Talent was there. But they can make their little talent go a long way in making it a big happening.” He wasn’t that fascinated by it but “liked the free and easy way of working.” In his own work, he says that not only the hand moves with freedom, but there is content too. “Art critic Eric Gibson came to my exhibition in Washington [in 1993]. He came only because it was in a museum. He said, ‘Mr Gulgee you don’t need to come with me, I like to see the paintings on my own. Matlab dafaa ho jayo teri zaroorat naheen hae [Meaning, get lost, you are not needed]. I said, I would like to ask you one favour: spend a little time with at least one of my paintings. He came running back and said, ‘Gulgee what have you done. Our artists have been doing the same work. But you have got something in your work which they don’t get.’ Then I took him along and said in these works you need a connection beyond…call it nature, God…us ke bagher naheen hota.” Gibson wrote in The Washington Post: “Mr Gulgee began as a portraitist, moving into his colour abstractions only in the past 20 years. These paintings are by far his most interesting. In them, the artist is attempting to fuse two traditions: Islamic calligraphy, in which writing both carries a religious text and decorates a page, and the Western style of Abstract Expressionism, with its movemented brushstrokes. These paintings combine the two traditions with grace and elegance, and at the same time manage to transcend them. The paintings stand as more than the sum of their sources.”
Quranic words “mein jadoo hota hae [have magic]”, he says. The way the words move along dovetailing each other, “us mein maza aata hei [gives a great sense of pleasure]. Mine is a new direction in calligraphy.” The previous work was not spiritually different from what had gone before, he says. “You have to merge yourself in the husn [beauty] of that writing and in that kefiyat [state] you write.”
He says he is building up a museum of his work at his house. “For this I didn’t get any money from the government or anybody else.” He laments that there was no place where paintings could be preserved and displayed. “These paintings are not for sale. Now they are asking me to pay a tax for Rs 700,000 for three months on this.”
His mosaics are done with thousands of pieces of lapis lazuli put together with no glaze or colour used. He points to a portrait of Prince Karim Aga Khan done in mosaic which took a year to complete. “It is like the work of Rembrandt but a thousand times more difficult to do,” says Gulgee. “Italians have done mosaics in stone but they are so incompetently done.”
His son, Amin Gulgee, has already established himself as one of Pakistan’s leading artists. “I am very proud of him. I have not taught him anything. We don’t discuss paintings or sculptures. We do our own work. He has learned from me in the sense that he saw me work. I neither discouraged nor encouraged him. He is one of the most talented artists living today.”
Paksitan’s greatest living artist, Gulgee has witnessed the fall of the British and Soviet empires, the creation of a country and its painful division in 1971. Does he look back at our history in sadness or does he still retain that original spirit of hope?
“My biggest wish was that in my country, a time would come when people start having respect for artists. That hasn’t happened. Artists are so vulnerable. Their profession is so difficult. Zindagi, rozi kamane ke liye kitna mushkil hae [Life, it’s tough to earn a living]. How much they sacrifice to be an artist. Except for respect, there is nothing else they can get.”
Gulgee reminds me of our great history when artists were accorded great respect by the rulers of the day. “In the days of Hafeez Usman, when Hafeez was doing calligraphy, the ruler of that time would carry his inkpot for him. When the king said that there would never again be another Hafeez Usman, he replied, ‘No, if there are rulers like you, itnee khater karne wale [who are so caring], then there would be thousands of Hafeez Usman. This is all there is to it.”
by Humayun Gauhar