The way it was: End of a graceful innings Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Ali Imam could hold forth on almost any subject. He was an ‘incorrigible talker’ as he put it himself once. But he was also quite uncompromising. For him to be aesthetic was equal to being moral, clean and good

They are all dead and gone on to new hunting grounds. First, Safdar, then Ahmed Pervez, followed by Shemza, Moyene Najmi and now Ali Imam.

These artist in the fifties formed The Lahore Art Circle which inspired and sensitised a whole generation of painters to the ideals of Modernism. I will always remember them as spirited young men, angry and a bit lost to themselves and others.

They were restless and always on the move. Ali Imam who outlived them all is also back in the pavilion. He played a steady inning, kept his eyes on the ball, played on the front foot and kept a steady head. In the game of life, though, unlike cricket, the rules are slightly different. Everyone is declared ‘out’ in the end.

It was in the mid-fifties that Moyene Najmi introduced Ali Imam to me and a group of other “geniuses” at Aitchison aspiring to greatness in the field of painting. Moyene Najmi was our teacher and had an infectious way of provoking our imagination towards endless pursuits of creative experimentation.

Ali Imam in those days had employed himself as an art teacher at Lawrence College Gora Gali. In those days Murree was a different place. Everybody who considered himself of any intellectual or social consequence, at least from the Punjab and the Frontier, came to Murree to spend the ‘season’ or a good part of it. Ali Imam visited Murree almost every day because it was not an unbearable walking distance from the school. Moyene, Safdar and Shemza came all the way from Lahore while Ahmed Pervez would come from Pindi.
In Murree, these artists stayed at the Marina Hotel. The rules of hospitality were very clear to everyone. When the money ran out, no one was to borrow but quietly leave. Getting money in those days was not easy; it has only become more difficult today.

Luckily, one of Ali Imam’s painting, perhaps titled ‘Marina Hotel from the Murree Mall’, was reproduced in colour in a foreign magazine. The artists invaded the office of the proprietor of the Marina Hotel and insisted that he give them special rates because they have been instrumental in making his hotel internationally famous. Those were good days and the proprietor gracefully agreed to their demand.

In those days Mariana Hotel was visible from the Mall. It was situated on a mound about thirty yards away across a depression. In order to reach the hotel one had to go up a winding road adjacent to the church on the Mall and then turn left on a friendly slope, which led straight to the hotel entrance. Next to the hotel were gravel tennis courts where you could rent a racket and play a set or two with the marker. Payment was by the hour and not by the number of sets. After a long absence when I was there the last time I discovered that the pair of tennis courts had been converted into a car park, Marina Hotel incidentally, is no longer visible from the Mall, because some offensive structures have come up blocking its view. This part of the Mall was once called the ‘sunset point’ where people made a point of coming to see the sun go down behind the distant hills, never doubting that it would not rise again to usher in another day, little knowing that everything comes to an end at its own appointed time.

I cannot imagine that Ali Imam did not pause and ponder over a sunset. In those days Ali Imam painted common sights in an impressionistic style leaning towards greater simplification and stronger palette of the post-impressionists. I enjoyed Ali Imam’s work of that period immensely. He demonstrated a great flair in application of colour and a firm grasp of design. His paintings of the Murree period are extremely chaste in both their conception and execution. Almost all the paintings are in watercolour done on paper.

I am reminded of another painting that is now in Shahid Jalal’s possession, which presents a most cheerful prospect of Murree. I wonder who owns a small watercolour of Murree Brewery that was burnt down by the patriotic locals, who could not think of a better way of making their contribution to the struggle for independence. I don’t mean to offend Minu Bhandara, who I claim as a friend after only three recent encounters at Nathiagali, but thank God they didn’t burn down the Lawrence College hidden behind the pines, further up on the same hill. I think the memory of this small elegant work has remained embedded in my mind because of its brevity of conception and simplicity of contrasts. The walls facing the sun are expressed by lemon and the shaded side of the broken stonewalls, with their collapsed wooden roofs, rendered in aquiline blue, which endows it with a tangible presence.

From the hills, Ali Imam descended to Sadiq Public School at Bahawalpur, where he taught for a while. It is quite interesting to observe how a simple change of place and environment can alter a person’s aesthetic ambience. In the Hills there were painted wooden houses with sloping tin roofs and pines with mountain winds coursing through them. At Bahawalpur the houses were built of mud and ochre bricks with dust storms blowing into them. At Bahawalpur the colour and mood of his paintings changed dramatically. Cool arboreal prospects with bright habitations made way for dusty buildings with their stoic demeanour thriftily enlivened by wooden balconies and incidental architectural decoration. In the closing period of his stay in the Murree Hills Ali Imam’s interest in structures had become visibly evident. In these paintings one finds him forsaking vivid colour and tones of impressionism for his cerebral interest in form. These forms were usually simplified and defined with the minimum of means as employed by cubism.

At this point of his life I believe Ali Imam must have felt the desire to more closely acquaint himself with modernism. I presume he must have by then also got quite fed up with Sadiq Public School where the students spoke Punjabi in an even more peculiar manner than those around Lahore or even Pindi. I met Ali Imam only once in London when I was enrolled at St Martin’s School of Art. Unfortunately, St Martin’s and I could not appreciate each other. The school head, without giving me an opportunity to express what I thought of him, unilaterally terminated our association.
With a sense of relief I left London and proceeded to Cambridge for a degree in English Literature. How Ali Imam gained from his presence in England is a matter of conjecture as far as I am concerned. In his paintings of the late sixties his interest in form had shifted from structural aesthetic interest in buildings to the human figure. Like the buildings, the human figures, mostly women, were huddled together in pictorially engaging compositions. Later in the seventies the tangible reality of human form dissolved into colour and texture. The viewer could now only catch glimpses of the human images through an ivory façade. Ali Imam’s work of this period is extremely chaste and deftly crafted and can be a source of immense satisfaction to a patient observer.

Ali Imam could hold forth on almost any subject. He was an ‘incorrigible talker’ as he put it himself once. But he was also quite uncompromising. For him to be aesthetic was equal to being moral, clean and good. He was an aesthete, an art critic, owner of an art gallery that held art above commerce. But above all, he was one of our great artists who must be separated and salvaged from all else that he achieved in his long innings before gracefully striding back to the pavilion.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He was awarded the “President’s Pride of Performance” in 1992. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee