Sadequain: An 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 theme.
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 nature.

“Saga of Labor”
Portion of the Mural at Mangla Dam, largest mural in Pakistan 200 ft x 30 ft

Sadequain was 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 of years.
(The author is the founder of Sadequain Foundation, a non-profit organization to preserve and promote Sadequain and can be contacted at sahmad1@san.rr.com.)


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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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