Sibtain Naqvi, Author, Head University relation at Habib University
1 Article written as a tribute to author’s relative the Legendary Sadequain. Originally Published in Dawn, EOS, February 19th, 2017; reprinted with author’s permission
In 1965, Gen Ayub Khan’s military dictatorship was secure. Ayub’s biggest threat, Fatima Jinnah was ruthlessly sidelined in 1964 and would pass away soon enough. The economy was seemingly going well. Pakistanis artists, new on the world’s stage, wanted to glorify the country. Madam Noor Jehan and Mehdi Hasan sang passionate songs to inspire their compatriots while Faiz Ahmed Faiz would soon join the ministry of information and broadcasting in an honorary capacity.
The Lahore Group, which included artists Ahmed Parvez and Ali Imam, had adopted modernism, a representation of technological and industrial progress that would lead to economic freedom. The imagery was compatible with Iqbal’s philosophy of khudi and most artists wanted to articulate the dreams of a generation poised to enter a glorious era.
Artists such as Zainul Abedin who focused on realism to prick social conscience were rare exceptions. State patronage and narrative aside, visual art was not seen as a public vehicle or a means of protest. It reached a rarefied audience and was considered elitist. A few paintings on modernism were enough to satiate the tastes of collectors and a lack of private galleries left little space for new ideas.
Into this becalmed environment arrived Sadequain after a long period of work in Paris, where he was exposed to new ideas and the heady dynamism of a free and socially-aware society. While his early works had received acclaim and admiration of PM Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, until the ’60s Sadequain hadn’t quite become the social critic he later evolved into.
Sadequain’s 1965 exhibition in Karachi highlighting the social and political tribulations of the Ayub era caused a furore at the time. On the occasion of the artist’s 30th death anniversary, Eos takes a look back at the polarisation it caused
In 1965, Pakistan would go to war but it was already in the midst of another one, even more critical — the war of ideas. What could art do? There was a sneaking feeling, even among art lovers, that art is a luxury. While paintings are not quite handmade bags, most people stop short of admitting that art is essential. Sadequain, however, saw it as a means of protest. Others had done so in developed countries. In the US, artists had addressed politics at the time of the Great Depression and influenced society. They had raised money for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting fascists in Spain and brought Picasso’s Guernica to New York where it remained until the death of Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator.
However, the question arises: does political art have an impact? The right-wing response is to say that art never stopped a war. But art does not exist in a vacuum. It keeps the flame of justice burning and represents the struggle of mankind. This was an important distinction for Sadequain. He wasn’t fooled by the way capitalism co-opts art. He painted to remind us of the possibilities we are forced to forget. Peace or war, we need those alternatives and he created them.
The Pakistan He saw had lost its bearings. The economy was doing well but this is the same era that led to mass inequality and societal disconnect. Fragmentation and marginalisation of large sections of citizens created conditions that would lead to the dismemberment of the state and lasting bitterness in all provinces. He was determined to shake up the numbed world that had accepted the status quo. His Rubayi depicts his thought:
I have arrived with gusts of wind,
The snoring people are completely unaware,
Beating my drum, I come to create noise,
In the silence that pervades the dome.
Sadequain’s exhibition at the Arts Council, Karachi in August 1965 encapsulated his horror. The paintings showed scarecrows, cobwebs, crows, covetous ladies and headless men. Sadequain was at his most grotesque and, arguably, most proletarian. He saw cobwebs all over society; saw them around young men and modern ladies, around lovers and paramours, constraining thinkers and intellectuals, in the mouths of men and women who dare not speak. The pervasiveness of cobwebs reached such nightmarish proportions that people — intelligent and cultured people — began decorating their homes with them.
“I paint ugly things because in ugliness, in grotesqueness, in immortality, I seek the truth. I am a painter of the expression of hunger and pain. I am not a drawing room artist. I am a painter of the dustbin, of the gutter.”
Explaining the phenomenon, Sadequain said in an interview, “Abandoned and haunted houses, houses which are dumb, dark and dirty are ideal habitat for the spiders and the like — whatever it be.” The cobweb according to the artist is, “A metaphor which stands for the basic inactivity, our state of resignation, for the rusting and rotting that one sees in the core of our society. It can be even the false values we worship, the fear that benumbs us all and blinds our vision; it can be an idea without meaning, an ideal without nobility.”
Sadequain was able to view the societal decay and recognised the cancer. He was unimpressed with the mills and export licenses that were benefitting only a few. He was the fakir, immune and oblivious to the pandering of the cobwebbed rich and sat above it all, aware but disdainful.
People were spellbound with what the neoliberals call ‘progress’ but he was the artist of the common man, “I paint ugly things because in ugliness, in grotesqueness, in immortality, I seek the truth,” he said. “I am not inspired by the smile of the mistress of a black-marketeer (sic) or a smuggler posing against the backdrop of roses in a vase or pick curtains.
“What inspires me is a person who has gone hungry for three days and is rummaging through rotten food in the dustbin. The expression that lights his face at the end of that hunt when he has finally found some scraps, that is what touches me. I am a painter of the expression of hunger and pain. I am not a drawing room artist. I am a painter of the dustbin, of the gutter,” added Sadequain.
The paintings raised a furore. Art critic Sultan Ahmed wrote in a local English newspaper, “For all the mills we are setting up, bonus license cars that are crowding the roads, neon signs that are breaking up the darkness of the night and the blazing new saris that are advertised every day, are we really making progress? Progress in the crucial sectors of life? No, says Sadequain, Pakistan’s foremost artist.”
Not everyone was happy with the critical theme. Members of the artistic fraternity took cause against his ‘negativity’ and among them was Ahmed Pervez. According to him, Pakistan was a result of Divine intervention, a favour from heaven rather than a feature of history. He had written, “Pakistan became my land with the mighty breath of God.” He believed that the military dictatorship was a time of great development and prosperity and corrupt politicians had been put in their place.” If anything, the cobwebs that had become prevalent by 1958 had been kicked aside by army boots and darkness given way to light coming from shiny brass.
Pervez wrote, “The sketches of Sadequain appear to me as more appropriate to the time when there was something really wrong with our society.” Whither the need for highlighting pain and sorrow? Writing about the exhibition, he said, “At that time and in those days you and I blew off the webs and there was martial law! In a matter of a few months we suddenly realised that the webs were really blown off and the crows no more nested on our heads.
“In that period we looked for a saviour and he was suddenly there. We cleaned our roads and thoroughly swept them and whitewashed the stone along the paths. The saviour was a stern soldier with a tender heart at first and then a worldly man. You liked him and I loved him.
“His heart was thrown into the hands of our people and they hopped for it as if it was a cricket ball and just as suddenly all paths of life became flowery!” He believed that to question the status quo and present it as morbid and macabre was doing injustice to the achievements of past few years.
Ahmed Pervez’s write-up polarised the public and artistic community. There were as many people ready to crown Sadequain as for hanging him. His detractors were quick to accuse him of being anti-state. Articles and letters went back and forth with much of the supporters directing their criticism towards Ahmed Pervez. Among these were artists Bashir Mirza and Shakir Ali.
Mirza wrote in a column “I wish the drawings made by Sadequain stir our society as intensely as they have one person — Ahmed Pervez — though in this case the wrong way. Let me tell you I fully agree with the viewpoint expressed by Sadequain. I now see the cobweb break although another artist has asserted that the cobweb is not just there, and there is only sunshine and music in all our land.”
The public debate went on for months. The Illustrated Weekly of Pakistan and The Leader carried letters and editorials until mid-1966. All this only served to whet the audience’s appetite. Until then art was mostly for art’s sake, not art for a cause. Here was a much-celebrated artist confronting the dictator. The exhibition was a cause célèbre unlike any in Pakistani art and suddenly art had transcended its elitist place in society. People flocked to view the exhibition; according to media accounts thousands of people visited the exhibition.
The only person who refused to get involved was the man who had started the furore — Sadequain. Like Sarmad he was more ready to get beheaded than cower down. Through this exhibition, he announced himself as the artist of the gutter, the speaker of truth. He would go on to make many more works that question and shame society’s hypocrisy and greed. ‘The Card Series’, ‘Faiz Series’, ‘Cactus Series’, his poetry and illustrations of his own poetry would all return to these subjects again and again as if he were calling on people to shake off their cobwebs and break the chains.
Sadequain’s paintings would prove to be prophetic. The progress others were seeing was just a façade of shadows. The Ayub era would lead to mass inequality and societal fractures in both wings of Pakistan. A few years later Ayub Khan would celebrate his ‘Decade of Development’ and soon after he had to leave due to mass protests. The country would go on to fight a civil war and lose its eastern half. Sadequain’s paintings had become the Delphic Oracle, sometimes misunderstood but accurate. As in many instances, he would have the last word. Years later, he would remember the Ayub era work: “There were lizards, cobwebs, rats and sealed lips. All that happened in 1966 — the Ayub era. It was as big as it should have been.” Sadequain was right, the state narrative as often happens proved false and misleading.
The fakir was triumphant, the king was dethroned.