THE WAY IT WAS: Sexing up paintings —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Sadeqain’s studied manner, lazy intonations, dramatic pauses and unexpected asides, would leave the listener mystified. Those who were jealous of his articulate skills called it verbosity. I think he was eloquent and could occasionally be amusing

In the late fifties when it became fashionable for artists to sex up their paintings with abstract elements, Sadeqain’s vision was not affected by the trend. He selectively absorbed certain aspects of Cubism but favoured a descriptive rather than an analytical approach. Sadeqain demonstrates a great narrative skill in his canvases and murals. He is more concerned in readily expressing his concerns rather than setting about to solve aesthetic riddles.

In those days everything associated with the West was considered unquestionably smart and anything that even remotely reminiscent of our self was perceived as old and rusty. Many of our painters, and some even now, had no hesitation in adopting forms and mannerisms of modern art. culling them from books and magazines.

Sadeqain was an incorrigible talker, a phrase that I borrow from Ali Imam, who often used it to describe one of his own gifts. When Sadeqain or Ali Imam spoke, everyone else listened. They both spoke rather well, but Sadeqain was in a league of his own. His commitment to himself and his work was absolute. He could weave words into an ornate narrative and embellish it with phrases, lines from Mir, Ghalib, and Iqbal, and of course from his own rubayats — some of which were in Punjabi.

His studied manner, lazy intonations, dramatic pauses and unexpected asides, would leave the listener mystified. Those who were jealous of his articulate skills called it verbosity. I think he was eloquent and could occasionally be amusing. However, most people couldn’t make head or tail of what he said when he thoughtfully declaimed his ideas. The leisurely pace and solemn tone in which he disdainfully held forth, was enough to convince the listener that what was being uttered was irrefutably of grandiose proportions.

During his speech Sadeqain would often go silent abruptly, and stare through the thick lenses of his spectacles at the captive audience. His gaze seemed to search for a response, asking, ‘have you understood anything?’ The response was usually in the form of an ingratiating smile, followed by an evasive reply such as, “Sadeqain sahib, kia baat hai aap ki.” I am sure Sadeqain did this deliberately to overwhelm the people devoted to him.

Generally people held Sadeqain in high esteem and idealised him in their own ways. Sadeqain never hesitated to cultivate a unique image of himself, projecting not one but many different personas. In private life for instance he shunned women, but publicly he tried to establish his image as a romantic, with a keen eye for feminine beauty. On other occasions he would promote an inebriated bohemian image of himself, but rather soberly he cultivated the right people in the right places. That is why many of his contemporaries didn’t particularly care for his social commitments. Yet the Pakistani painters owe so much to Sadeqain.

I vividly remember a commemorative meeting organised by the National Council of Arts for Sadeqain at the Islamabad Hotel, Islamabad after his death. Ahmed Faraz, our famous Urdu poet, praised Sadeqain but at the same time expressed his resentment that Sadeqain had not stood by those who struggled against Zia’s terrible dictatorship.

Faraz is not known for mincing words. Recently at a dinner in Islamabad he confided in me that that during those days, there wasn’t a military officer’s wife Sadeqain had not sketched. Each evening was spent pandering to a general or a colonel. All said and done, Sadeqain was responsible almost single-handedly for the popular appeal of art and introducing new subjects and social issues, which painters had hitherto not touched or treated.

Many painters and critics even today are not ready to accept the facts of history through which they have lived. I will not name any — many of whom are still alive — who spurned the human image. They insisted that the purpose of painting was to address the pure aesthetic realities not the verbal ones. A painting they argued must focus on colour and line and nothing external to the canvas. The human image and the problems pertaining to it were best addressed in literature and should therefore be expelled from painting.

Painting should not create illusionary images but original forms created by line, colour and texture. Some artists insisted that painting should be even cleansed of texture, which being a tangible element belonged to the sphere of sculpture. Texture turned painting into a relief, destroying the two-dimensional ‘sanctity’ of the flat canvas surface. This is how the highbrow ideologues of Modernism in Paris and New York argued. Later even the rectangular canvas was rejected and replaced with shaped canvases, followed by painting off the museum and gallery walls itself, and so on.

Let us try to stretch the argument a little further. Can it not be argued that if describing things by painting is not high art, then how can describing people, things or events through the medium of words be proper literature. Logically perforce description should be left to illustrators, journalists and advertisers. People and events by this argument should be only presented live, on a stage.

However if in the words of Shaw a playwright can present to an audience a battle scene on ‘bare boards’ that the audience can assume to be real, why is it not proper for a painter to depict a lion hunt on a canvas, which surely is not possible in a theatre. A lion hunt on a screen in a cinema or television is surely visually more convincing but it nevertheless remains an illusion. Should cinema also be ousted from the domain of high art? If the cinema is to be forgiven should the theatre be closed down?

Many artists who once believed in this incessant aesthetic rubbish, which successively achieved the status of an ideology, have since the invasion of pop art and post-modernism, re-espoused the human image and popular causes — the causes that are of course approved by the neo-liberal elite because everything else is still termed as gross propaganda. In the final analysis art is not a matter of technique, style or content, nor a question of what it is, or what it is not or should be. It is really a matter of what it does, and how it affects and where it takes you.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist