Overview on 20th Death Anniversary
By Salman Ahmad
San Diego, CA
This February, it
has been twenty years since Sadequain passed away.
At the time of his death he was painting the panels
of the mural designed for the ceiling of the historical
Frare Hall in Karachi. To the credit of the authorities,
they decided to mount the unfinished panels on the
ceiling of Frare Hall and amazingly enough the huge
ceiling mural does not look incomplete after all.
To compliment the lofty ceiling of the Hall the
mural’s theme is “Creation of Universe”
and the artist in his characteristic style has depicted
stars and planets spinning and orbiting in space
in a galaxy of colors.
Sadequain was the most prolific painter of the post-partition
Pakistan and perhaps of our times. He was constantly
at work and he worked on large scale. He repeatedly
stated that he was not interested in decorating
drawing rooms of the rich and the powerful. He worked
tirelessly on large murals for public buildings,
symbolic of the collective labor of humanity, and
his work was mostly donated to the public.
His murals adorn the halls at State Bank of Pakistan
(100 x 15 ft), Power House at the Mangla Dam (200
x 30 ft), Lahore Museum, Punjab Public Library and
Staff College Lahore, Aligarh Muslim University
(70 x 12 ft), Banaras Hindu University (70 x 12
ft), Geological Institute of India (40 x 12 ft),
Frare Hall Karachi and Abu Dhabi Power House, to
name a few.
Best known for his calligraphies, Sadequain painted
abstracts, drawings, and sketches on thousands of
canvases, volumes of paper, and multitudes of other
conventional and unconventional materials.
Calligraphies by Sadequain
(Collection of Salman and Riffi Ahmad)
Sadequain was responsible
for the renaissance of Islamic Calligraphy in Pakistan.
He was one of the greatest calligraphers of our
time and helped transform the art of calligraphy
into serious expressionist paintings. He claimed
that his transformation into a calligrapher was
manifested by divine inspiration. He did not follow
the tradition and created his own style of script.
His alphabets exude motion, mood, and paint vivid
pictures of the message of the word. Sadequain claimed
that many of his paintings, especially after the
seventies, had been based on calligraphic forms
to portray images of cities, buildings, forests,
men, and women.
In Pakistan, the art of calligraphy was relegated
to a second-class status until Sadequain adapted
this medium in the late nineteen- sixties. Until
then a few painters experimented with the medium
but it remained as just that, an experiment. After
Sadequain transformed the art of calligraphy into
a mainstream art form, most of the known Pakistani
artists followed Sadequain and calligraphic art
now dominates the art scene.
Many painters have copied Sadequain openly and widely
and even the fakes fetch large sums for the copiers,
an irony since Sadequain himself hardly ever sold
his paintings in spite of offers from the royals
and the common public. In a recent auction in London
one of his painting was sold for $90,000. His masterpiece
rendition of “Sureh-e-Rehman” has been
copied widely by many known painters of the modern
era and it can even be found adorning the facades
of many houses in Karachi in exacting resemblance
of Sadequain’s signature script.
In the nineteen-sixties, Sadequain was invited by
the French authorities to illustrate the award-winning
novel “The Stranger” by French writer
Albert Camus. Sadequain also illustrated on canvas
the poetry of Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz as homage to
their place in classical literature. Sadequain wrote
thousands of quartets, which address a common theme
of social and cultural dogmas and published them.
Illustration of a verse by
Ghalib (Collection of Salman and Riffi Ahmad)
A special word is
warranted about the large murals Sadequain painted,
which are spread all over the subcontinent. His
murals depict man’s struggle, achievements
and persistent thirst to discover his endless potential.
His murals are full of activity, ideas, and they
read like an unfolding story about their particular
One of his most powerful works is the gigantic mural
measuring 200'x30' for the Power House of Mangla
Dam. He completed it in an incredible period of
three months during which he worked day and night.
Aptly titled "The Saga of Labor," the
mural, one of the largest in the world, portrays
the history of mankind. Its pays homage to its characters,
which are exclusively laborers and worker, facing
and struggling against the powerful elements of
Portion of the Mural at Mangla Dam, largest mural
in Pakistan 200 ft x 30 ft
a social commentator. He crafted his message on
canvas by the aid of powerful symbols and rich colors.
Characteristically he would address particular situations
through a series of paintings, which would follow
a common theme and yet maintain their individuality.
His symbols transformed with time as he adapted
to the changing conditions.
During nineteen sixties he stayed in interior Sind
in areas surrounded by desert where nothing could
grow except cactus which would break through the
rugged sandy ground. The sight of the wild cactus
growing in scorching heat and surviving the harshest
of conditions left a lasting impression on Sadequain.
He adapted this symbol to depict labor, struggle,
and persistence against natural elements of resistance
and triumph of hard work.
Sadequain sketched numerous drawings titled Cobweb
Series, Crow Series, Christ Series, Hope Series,
and Sun Series during the sixties, which were commentaries
on the prevailing social and cultural conditions.
Sadequain saw cobwebs engulfing our society rendering
it speechless and motionless. The Crow Series projected
men as timid worshippers of scarecrows because they
have lost self-respect and spirituality. Crows however
are not intimidated and gang up on humanity in flocks
and pick on lifeless humans. In the Christ Series
Sadequain showed the crime being committed in front
of the Christ while he was still alive on the Cross.
Contrary to man’s images portrayed in Cobweb
or Crow Series of drawings, Sadequain glorified
the hard work and labor of ordinary workingmen by
showing them struggling with primitive tools during
the stone age, developing agricultural land, discovering
scientific breakthroughs, and exploring the universe.
He sometime used the Kufic script to form human
images and carried that theme through vast canvases.
One of the representative works of this genre is
titled “The Last Supper,” which was
awarded the prestigious Binnale de Paris award in
France. Sadequain was awarded the first prize in
the National Exhibition of Pakistan in the early
sixties. He was bestowed with several awards and
medals in Pakistan as well as foreign counties.
But he seldom attended the award ceremonies, nor
accepted the award money.
Sadequain had commanding knowledge of literature.
He wrote thousands of “Rubaiyats,” which
he published in several books. These verses have
been described as unique and critically acclaimed
by literary circles. Like his paintings, the verses
also address the topics of human nature, virtues
and weaknesses of society.
During his lifetime Sadequain exhibited his works
on all continents. His exhibitions in foreign countries
were sponsored at State levels and were attended
by large audiences of all walks of life. A “faqir”
at heart, he gave away most of his paintings to
friends and foes, and painted gigantic murals in
public buildings at no cost. He declared the giveaways
as gifts to the citizens of the cities where the
public building were situated.
Sadequain has been covered in the print and electronic
media extensively such as the TV series “Mojeeza-e-Fun”
which highlighted his work in a masterful documentary.
“The Holy Sinner” is a book published
in 2003, cataloging a number of his paintings, which
were exhibited at Mohatta Palace, Karachi during
the same year. The massive book is one of the largest
and heaviest ever-published in Pakistan and it also
has a collection of articles about Sadequain which
appeared in magazines and papers over the course
(The author is the founder of Sadequain Foundation,
a non-profit organization to preserve and promote
Sadequain and can be contacted at email@example.com.)