Sadequain: Artist Extraordinaire
By Dr. Ahmed S. Khan
Sadequain (1930-1987) was an artist extraordinaire: he was not only a great artist, but also an accomplished calligrapher, a visionary thinker, a sensitive and romantic poet. After twenty years of his passing away, a new wave of appreciation of his work is traversing the global village.
Sadequain used an array of forms and media --- calligraphy, modern painting, and classical sculpture to modern sketches --- to convey his points, messages, commentaries, and satires on the society. Paying tribute to Sadequain’s skill and craft, Le Monde, Paris observed, “The multiplicity of Sadequain’s gifts is reminiscent of Picasso” (Le Monde et. lavie, Paris, April, 1964). According to Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Sadequain was a visionary whose phantasmagoric creations expressed the emotional and social unity of all material things caught up in an upward struggle.
Sadequain used cool colors to depict realism, impressionism, and abstraction in his work. He practiced his art all over the globe. His quest to enhance and augment his skills and art took him from Amroha to Karachi, London to Paris, and Washington to Tokyo. In the 1960s his work was very much admired on both sides of the Atlantic.
Sadequain synthesized his observations and ideas using various forms of lines, contours, and colors. His characteristic style of using wavy lines in his illustrations is very effective in portraying his subjects’ struggle to adjust to new environments and changing times. Nature had given him special tools to practice his craft: a very fertile and imaginative mind, and hands with long brush-like fingers. His fertile mind synthesized the beauty of the cosmos around him, and his fingers transformed his synthesis of ideas and observations into exquisite depictive forms. But it appears that Sadequain’s quest to express the beauty that he found around him remained always elusive. His struggle, to capture and express the beauty of his environment and cosmos, parallels that of the expression by poet Tulsi Das:
Sita sobha kahe bakane:
Mukh bin nain, nain bin bane.
How can one describe the beauty of Sita
A mouth has no eyes,
And eyes cannot speak.
In an attempt to capture and express this elusive beauty Sadequain used different forms of expressions and media: drawing, sketches, paintings, sculpture, miniature calligraphies and murals.
In his sketches Sadequain has depicted human failure to be moral, and man’s inability to adjust to its changing social environment. Commenting on this dilemma, Mazher Yousuf in the publisher’s note of Sadequain, a book that documents sketches and illustrations by Sadequain (published by Editions Mystique, Karachi, in 1966) observes, “Sadequain feels that man is not the same as he was. Man survived the ages as he adapted himself to nature and mastered the primitive world. But now, due to his own modern discoveries and inventions, he is getting out of gear with the world of his own thought, experimentation and creation. His nervous system is being strained to limits. Sadequain sees this and shows this.” He further observes, “His men and women, wrung out of shape and contour, and scattered as chaff in the whirl-wind of their own creation, are the ugly testimony to the irony of fate they had hoped was their destiny. This mastery of depiction gives Sadequain a ranking amongst the unforgettable artists of the world of today and tomorrow.”
In the same title, Faiz Ahmed Faiz also observes that “with the commencement of his phantasmagoric exploration of form and substance, there emerges a series of abstract visual statements, strong and subtle, stripping, anatomizing and recreating the skeletal forms beneath the visual flesh --- skeletons of streets and cities, weeds and plants, men and women. In the process, he also evolved a new essential unity of material credo of the essential unity of material things, all caught in the agonizing toils of an evolutionary process of struggle goading them upwards.”
Sadequain’s new hybrid technique of mixing Naksh and Nastaliq calligraphy with abstraction gave a new life to Islamic Calligraphy. He got critical acclaim for his renditions of the verses of the Holy Qur’an. Sadequain’s artistic renditions of the verse “Which of your Lord’s blessing would you deny?”(55:16, The Qur’an), a refrain repeated 31 times in Surah Al-Rehman (The Merciful), is regarded as the masterpiece of his calligraphic work.
Sadequain also created a unique niche for himself in his murals, which can be found on every corner of the globe. Presently, some of Sadequain murals in Karachi and Lahore are in desperate need of restorative work. He also brought forth the meaning of poetic expressions of Ghalib, Iqbal, and Faiz through his artistic renditions. Sadequain also tried his hand at poetry by writing Rubai (a genre consisting of four lines generally used in Urdu and Persian poetry). Like his paintings, his rubiyyat address different facets and domains of the human nature.
Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi was born on June 25, 1930 at Amroha, UP. He hailed from the Naqvi family of Sadaat-i-Amroha. After matriculation in 1944, he graduated from the Agra University in 1948. He joined the All-India Radio as a staff artist in September 1944, and served until September 1948, when he became an Art teacher at the I.M. High School, Amroha, where he served until June 1948 when he migrated to Pakistan.
In September 1948 he joined the Agriculture College, Sarkand, and served there until March 1951. From March 1951 until February 1952, he wrote scripts as program assistant at the Radio Pakistan, Karachi. In 1954, he held his first exhibition of paintings at Quetta. In July 1955 his second exhibition of paintings was sponsored by Mr. H.S. Suhrawardy. In October he painted murals in the Jinnah Hospital, Karachi. In April 1957, he held a one-man exhibition sponsored by the Arts Council of Pakistan at Frere Hall. In October 1957, he held another exhibition at Quetta. In December 1957, he did murals for the Karachi airport and paintings for its lounges.
In December 1958, he set up a studio in Gadani, a beach spot near Karachi, and executed a mural titled “Smuggler,” which was unveiled at C.E.L.C. Club, Maripur. In July 1959, he executed a mural for the Mangla Dam committee room. In November 1959, Sadequain executed another mural titled “Quest for Knowledge” at the Services Club, Karachi.
In February 1960, he set up his studio at Sandspit beach, Karachi, and in March he was awarded “Tamgha-e-Imtiaz” by the president of Pakistan. In July 1960, he won the first prize in the All Pakistan National Exhibition of Paintings, and in September he held his one-man exhibition sponsored by the Arts Council of Pakistan, Karachi.
In December 1960, Sadequain visited London, and in January 1961, he arrived in Paris on the invitation of the French Committee of the International Association of Plastic Arts. In September 1961 he executed a mural at the Headquarters of the State Bank of Pakistan, Karachi. In September 1961 he participated in the Second Biennale of Paris, and in October, he was awarded “Laureate Biennale de Paris.” In March 1962, he was awarded the President’s Medal for “Pride of Performance.”
Shamim Ahmed, in his book titled Sadequain, throws some light on how the accomplished artist found fame by discovering a new art form: “Breaking though the cliché-barrier, Sadequain has discovered a new art form for himself which he calls Mystic Figuration. The new art form got a flying start when the first attempt at mystic figuration The Last Supper won Sadequain the Biennale (1961) award in Paris…The way of all discovery, mystic figuration was discovered by accident, or be more precise though as series of accidents, which landed Sadequain on the wild shores of primitive Gadani, 35 miles west of Karachi. Before the discovery, Sadequain was what environment made him” (Sadequain published by Pakistan Publications, Karachi, 1963, p.7).
In 1962, June-July, Sadequain held an exhibition at Musee-Maison du Culture, Le Havre, France. In October 1962, he held another exhibition at Galerie Lambert, Paris. In 1963 the London Times declared, “There is an impressive fund of energy in his works.” (The London Times, November 7, 1963). In 1963, from May to August he visited the United States, and offered an exhibition at Henry Gallery, Washington. Commenting on the art of Sadequain, the Washington Post observed, “Like every born artist Sadequain thinks in term of form rather than of subject-matter. His drawings are sophisticated and knowledgeable” (The Washington Post, August 11, 1963).
From October to November 1963, Sadequain offered an exhibition at the N.V.C. Gallery, London. And in December 1963, he participated in the 5th Salon of the “Young and the Great Artists” at the Museum of Modern Art, Paris. In February 1964, he offered an exhibition at Galerie Presbourge, Paris, and was selected to do color lithographic for special publication of Albert Camus’ Outsider. In 1964, Raymond Cogniat, a prominent art critique paid tribute to Sadequain thus: “Sadequain adds up the impression of space, density, volume and the reality of matter, which transforms an abstract thought into a material fact in plastic.” (Le Figaro, Paris, October 10, 1964)
In 1965, Sadequain offered a number of exhibitions of paintings at various places in Paris. During the year he worked on a mural titled “War and Peace” in Karachi. In May 1966, he offered an exhibition of drawings at Hotel Intercontinental, Karachi. In 1967 he executed a mural titled “Saga of Labor” at Mangla Dam and another mural titled “The light of the book” at the Punjab Public Library. In 1968, he completed a mural titled “Quest for Knowledge” at the University of Punjab. In 1969, he exhibited his artistic renditions of Surah-Rehman at the Karachi Arts Council. In 1970, he exhibited his work of calligraphy at the State Bank of Pakistan headquarters on the occasion of International Islamic Conference. He also exhibited artistic renditions of the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ghalib.
In 1974, Sadequain exhibited one-man shows in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Jeddah, Cairo, Damascus, Amman, Kuwait and Baghdad. In 1975 he wrote Rubiyyat, did line sketches and painted two murals at the sports complex, Islamabad. In 1977, he calligraphed the 99 names of God for the Lahore Museum. In 1977 he generated around two hundred line drawings based on the poetry of Allama Iqbal. In 1978 and 1979 he did mostly calligraphies. In 1980, he exhibited his work at the Hijra celebration in Karachi. In 1981, an arts gallery dedicated to Sadequain was inaugurated in Islamabad.
Indian Prime minister Indira Ghandi was an avid admirer of Sadequain’s craft. She invited him to India to paint several murals at various historic buildings. In 1981, he visited India and arrived in Amroha, his birthplace, after 33 years. In 1982, he executed a number of paintings, drawings and murals in India. Some of his prominent works include Aligarh Muslim University, Jamia Millia Islamia New Delhi, Banaras Hindu University, Ghalib Academy, and Institute of Islamic Studies, New Delhi.
In 1983, Sadequain focused his energies on composing rubiyyats, and in 1984 he started writing his autobiography. The next year, he did a rendition of the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz. In 1986, he painted calligraphic mural at the Shah Faisal Mosque, Islamabad, and also started painting a mural at the ceiling of Frere Hall, Karachi. It was Sadequain’s last major project. Before he could finish it he fell ill in January 1987, and passed away on February 10, 1987. Sadequain was buried in the Sakhi Hasan Graveyard in Karachi.
Sadequain was a simple, humble and down-to-earth person. Through his art he reached the zenith of fame, but he never forgot his roots and never tried to distance himself from ordinary people around him. He never sold any of his paintings; most of them were given away as gifts or were stolen. He believed in sharing his gift with the society; he gave away his gift of art in the form of big murals at public buildings. In a nutshell, his paintings depict the complex snapshots of human struggle on a continuum of time and space. As he has eloquently said in one of his of rubai published in Bayaz-e-Sadequain (p.85):
Qar’tass pay jab Naqsh bana’yah maiN nay
Toh Umer ka Sar’maya laga’ya maiN nay
Aik Jaal Lakee’rooN ka bu’nah aur iss maiN
AurR’tay hu’way lam’hooN ko phansa’ya maiN nay
In depicting images on paper
I have invested capital of my lifetime,
I have spun a web of lines, and in it
Captured the passing moments of time
[Dr. Ahmed S. Khan (email@example.com) is a senior Professor in the EET Dept. at DeVry University, Addison, Illinois. He is the author of The Telecommunications Fact Book (2E) and the co-author of Technology and Society: Issues for the 21st Century and Beyond (3E)]