Book Review
The Legend of SADEQUAIN - Renaissance of Calligraphic Art in Pakistan


The SADEQUAIN Foundation of San Diego, California recently announced the publication of a book titled, The Legend of Sadequain – Renaissance of Calligraphic Art in Pakistan. This book, the first of its kind about Sadequain’s calligraphic art, presents biographical notes and a collection of over 160 calligraphic paintings by the legendary artist, including the picturesque verse, Sura-e-Rehman, referred to as the adornment of Quran.  

This book captures the circumstances of the epiphany that lead Sadequain on the holy grail of reinventing the traditional art form that in turn transformed him into a legend and larger than life figure. In a short period of time during the 1970s, Sadequain turned the calligraphic world upside-down and ushered in a calligraphic revolution in the country that created a wave of aspiring calligraphers, now engaged in new experiments and thus redefining the centuries-old art form.  

In its June 20, 1980 edition, the daily newspaper Khaleej Times of the UAE stated,

“Renaissance of Islamic Calligraphy - A mystic artist from Pakistan who has become a legend in his own time. The remarkable story of Sadequain, who did not seek but was endowed with divine inspiration.” Sadequain is arguably responsible for the renaissance of Islamic calligraphy in Pakistan . A review of the history of calligraphic art in the country during the decades of the 1950s and 60s reveals minimal activity in this genre of art form. Syed Amjad Ali writes in his book, Painters of Pakistan, that after Sadequain’s first exhibition of calligraphies in December 1968: “For next fifteen years or sixteen years, a veritable Niagara of painterly calligraphy flowed from his pen and brush.” He further stated, “He (Sadequain) initiated painterly calligraphy and set the vogue for it in Pakistan .”

Sadequain was a volcano, which erupted and left behind in its wake an ocean of rare gems. For geniuses like Sadequain, work is akin to worship and it lies within their genetics to apply themselves to the last fiber in the service of their passion. Such rare individuals do not engage in self-promotion and seek no reward. What makes them immortal is not their marketing skills, but external factors and those dedicated souls who believe in the cause. It takes a Theo to preserve the legacy of Vincent Van Gogh, or a vocalist like Mehdi Hasan or Noor Jahan to popularize the poetry of an accomplished poet. The Legend of Sadequain provides an array of Sadequain’s rare calligraphic works, which had so far not been cataloged, and thus brings forth the artistic treasures for all to cherish.

The book argues that in the past, calligraphic art had enjoyed a revered status in the sub-continent, when it reached the pinnacle during the glorious days of the Mughal Empire. But after the downfall of the empire, calligraphic art became a victim of neglect, and fell so far out of favor that in post-partition Pakistan, it was considered to be a mere vocational skill and not a serious genre of creative art. As a result, it was not part of the mainstream curriculum in art schools, and few, if any, established artists practiced it. It would be fair to say that a few painters, in the early years of post-partition Pakistan , experimented with the medium but it remained just that: an experiment confined to the studios of the artists, and very little archival material exists of those works.

Quoting an article by Hasan Askari, Press Officer at the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi, the book relates one of many interesting anecdotes about Sadequain’s visit to India: “Upon arrival in New Delhi on November 2, 1981 , Sadequain was given an invitation on behalf of the Indian Prime Minister, Mrs. Indra Gandhi, to visit her office on the following day, because she was preparing to leave on a foreign visit the day after. The meeting between the Prime Minister and Sadequain lasted for forty-five minutes. On one occasion Mrs. Gandhi protested that Pakistani newspapers had a bias against her. Sadequain responded, ‘Madam, I am a faqir by nature, and seldom read the newspapers, therefore, cannot say much about the slant of the political publications.’ After responding to the pointed query, Sadequain spread out a pad of drawing paper on the table and drew several calligraphies for her, all the while relating fond memories of his ancestral town of Amroha . He then raised his right hand and explained to the Prime Minister that because he was so preoccupied with his work, his hand was permanently reconfigured in the form of holding a pen. He then pointed his fingers upwards and said, ‘Miraculously my fingers, as though, form the word Allah when pointed upwards, and if I turn them sideways, they form the word Oom.’”

 During his one-year stay in India, Sadequain painted eight gigantic murals and donated them to Aligarh Muslim University (2 ea.), Banaras Hindu University, Geophysical Research Institute of India, Islamic Research Institute of India, Urdu Ghar in Hyderabad, and Ghalib Institute in Delhi (2 ea.). In addition he painted more than 200 calligraphies and paintings and held 10 exhibitions in 10 cities during the year. All the work completed in India - worth tens of millions of dollars at current market value - was donated by Sadequain to Indian institutions and individuals. It can be argued that Sadequain initiated Aman Ki Asha in 1982, long before it became a slogan of necessity in 2010.

On the occasion of Sadequain’s calligraphic exhibition in Delhi , artist M.F. Husain wrote: “Very seldom I use words. That too for a painter of my time. With great reluctance my felt-pen begins to roll on a virgin white paper. An absolute trespass. Wish the instrument had been a Chinese brush, not pen. Sadequain has drawn inspiration from medieval Arabic calligraphy. His present phase is heavily etched with Quranic scriptures. Part of it was well displayed at Pakistan pavilion at Pragat Maiden in New Delhi . The first major exposure in India of Pakistan's major painter.”

If art measures the pulse of a nation then Sadequain (1930 - 1987) had his fingers on this pulse and he recorded it for posterity. Sadequain was arguably an embodiment of the spirit of Picasso, grandeur of Michelangelo, poetic prowess of Omar Khayyam, and calligraphic skills of Yaqoot. The Legend of Sadequain quotes extensively from Sadequain’s own writings including a selection of his rubaiyyat. These rubaiyyat were composed in response to the bombing of Sadequain’s exhibition by right wing agitators in 1976, who deemed modern art against the tenets of religion. The book contains 59 rubaiyyat and their English translation in a stinging rebuke, in which Sadequain exposed the hypocrisy and self-serving delusions of the misguided lot, which refuses to drag itself out of the dark ages.

Poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz has praised Sadequain’s work in several articles. In one of his articles, he said: “Calligraphy, an amalgamation of passion and tradition, is affiliated with the Muslim nation and embodies the virtues of its believe system. For centuries, it did not witness a dedicated visionary, who would remove the shackles of the past traditions, tear down the artificial and antiquated walls of tradition and dare to explore new possibilities with bold experiments. Sadequain attained this distinction because he operated at a higher stratosphere with total command over the fundamental tenets.”

Faiz  added, “He (Sadequain) is a preeminent artist, but more than that he is a thinker. It has been said that when Sadequain’s pen moved, not only the universe, but also the past, present and the future moved with it.”

 The 250-page book is the fourth publication by the SADEQUAIN Foundation in recent years. The Foundation is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to discover, preserve, and promote the art of Sadequain. To that end, the Foundation is poised to publish a 12-volume catalog of Sadequain's work, comprising of over 1,000 pages of text and over 1,800 images; it holds regular exhibitions of Sadequain's works, and conducts seminars at museums and universities to raise awareness about Sadequain’s prodigious palette.


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.