Aman ki Asha : Sadequain’s Gift to the Indian Nation
By Dr Salman Ahmad
San Diego, CA
This February marks the 24th anniversary since Sadequain passed away and 29th anniversary of his return to Pakistan after a one-year stay in India. This article is a tribute to Sadequain on his anniversary.
Aman ki Asha: Pakistan’s most celebrated artist, Sadequain (1930 – 1987) spread the message of peace in his own way twenty-eight years ago in 1982, when he stayed and painted in India for over one year, and at the end, left all his work, worth hundreds of millions of dollars - if sold in the current market - as a gift to the Indian nation. It was a gesture of friendship and peace of unprecedented nature that has not been matched since.
Preeminence: Poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz complimented Sadequain as follows: “He is a preeminent artist, but more than that he is a thinker.” Faiz added, “Sadequain attained this distinction because he operated at a higher stratosphere with total command over the fundamental tenets.” 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.”
If art measures the pulse of a nation then Sadequain 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.
International presence: In the October 16, 1962 edition, newspaper Le Figaro of Paris stated that “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.”
Two years later, when Sadequain had established his footing in French art circles, Le Monde et La Vie, Paris, reported in its edition of April 1964, “The multiplicity of Sadequain’s gifts is reminiscent of Picasso.” A comparison of a young Pakistani artist to a giant like Picasso, and that too on the home turf of Picasso, said it all, a unique distinction indeed. While residing part time in Paris during the 1960s, he was chosen to illustrate the novel, The Stranger written by Nobel Laureate Albert Camus – an extraordinary achievement for a Pakistani artist by any measure and he was also awarded Laureate Biennale de Paris for his painting, titled, “Last Supper.” Sadequain never looked back, and while shuttling within Europe and to Pakistan during the mid-1960s, created the most significant body of work in about five years that alone should place him among the most significant artists of the era.
Sadequain’s creed: Born in the city of Amroha, UP, self-proclaimed “faqir,” Sadequain was outside society’s worldly greed or hypocrisy and called himself “speaker of truth.” He donated most of his work to public institutions, friends and strangers at no cost. In an interview he said, “People ask why I don’t paint flowers, butterflies and landscapes? I tell them that I seek the truth and I am after reality. I am not inspired by someone posing against the backdrop of roses in a vase or pink curtains. What inspires me is a person who has gone hungry for hours and is struggling for survival. The expression that lights his face at the end of the day when he has finally found some scraps, that is what touches me. I am a painter of the expression of reality.”
Indian homecoming: Sadequain traveled all over the world long before it became fashionable and accessible to his generation. His paintings were widely displayed on five continents and received praise from public and connoisseurs alike and commanded generous press coverage.
His long awaited visit to India had a special significance and he called it as his homecoming. In December of 1981, Sadequain was invited to visit India. Upon his arrival in Delhi, he commented that the distance between Lahore and Delhi can be covered in forty-five minutes, but it took him 33 years. Sadequain stayed in India for over one year, and painted several large murals, paintings and calligraphies.
During his stay in Aligarh, Sadequain designed and completed a large mural for the Maulana Azad Library and an abstract mural in metal cutouts for the wall at the entrance to the Department of Geography. In Delhi, he held a major exhibition sponsored by the State Lalit Kala Academy at Rabindra Bhavan. Before returning to Pakistan in December 1982, Sadequain painted and gifted murals to Urdu Ghar, Indian National Geophysical Research Institute at Hyderabad, and a large mural titled “Quest for Reality” to Banaras Hindu University, to name only a few.
One of the most significant calligraphic works was the rendition of the ninety-nine panels of Asma-e-Husna (The Beautiful Names of God) that he inscribed on the circular wall of the rotunda, which stands an imposing five stories high in the Indian Institute of Islamic Studies at Delhi. The approximate length of this calligraphic work is seven hundred feet and the surface area is close to 4,000 square feet.
In addition to the calligraphic work at the Indian Institute of Islamic Studies at Delhi, Sadequain painted or sculpted several other calligraphic works in India at Aligarh Muslim University, Ghalib Academy, Urdu Markaz, and the Tomb of Tipu Sultan.
In addition to painting the murals and calligraphies in India, he exhibited his works at Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Aligarh, Banaras, and several other cities.
In later years, Sadequain always fondly remembered his visit to India. One pleasant experience of his visit was documented by Munir Sheikh, who was, at the time, posted at the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi. According to him, on the day after his arrival, Sadequain was given an invitation on behalf of the Indian Prime Minister, Mrs. Indra Gandhi, to visit her office on the following day, as she was preparing to leave on a foreign visit the day after.
Sadequain arrived at the prime minister’s office at 11on the morning of the appointment. He was received by the personal secretary to the prime minister and invited to have a seat in the waiting room for a few minutes. In the waiting room were three Indian army generals, who had a prior appointment with the prime minister at the same time, but they were advised to wait until she had completed her meeting with Sadequain.
The meeting between the prime minister and Sadequain lasted for forty-five minutes. At one awkward moment, Mrs. Indra Gandhi protested that Pakistani newspapers held a bias against her in their reporting, to which Sadequain responded, “Madam, I am a faqir by nature, and we faqirs seldom pay attention to the newspapers; I cannot say much about the slant of the political publications.”
After responding to the query, Sadequain pulled out a pad of drawing paper 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, that his hand was permanently reconfigured in the form of holding a pen. He then pointed his fingers upwards and said, “Miraculously, my fingers seem as though they form the word ‘Allah’ when pointed upwards, and if I turn them sideways, they form the word ‘Oom.’”
Mrs. Gandhi, at one point, picked a calligraphy that had the inscription of the word “Allah,” and signed it for Sadequain. Later, when in Islamabad, Sadequain related his visit with Mrs. Gandhi to a newspaper reporter and showed him the calligraphy that she had signed. The reporter inspected the calligraphy and said that it must be worth a fortune, to which Sadequain responded, “Do you want it?” The newspaper reporter was giddy at the offer and, with utmost care, placed it in his briefcase.
Sadequain is perhaps the only Pakistani artist who is on display at public buildings in India, and no Indian artist is on display at any public building in Pakistan. By extension, that makes him the only artist of the Indian sub-continent - out of a population of well over a billion people - who is on display in public buildings across the border in the sub-continent.
For the first time in the last twenty-eight years since Sadequain left India in February 1983, Sadequain’s generosity has been acknowledged by the Indian authorities in a befitting manner.
As the National Geophysical Research Institute of India celebrates its golden jubilee, its commemorative brochure displays Sadequain’s gigantic mural on its cover with full glory. A faqir, who never sold his work, Sadequain would cherish the fruits of his labor in time for his 24th anniversary in February 2011.