The way it was: Writers and sweating painters

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Anarkali fell for a vagabond Mughal prince and was enclosed alive in a brick wall. How awful! But I have often wondered why the father couldn’t keep his son in place instead of picking on a harmless little girl

Writing is so much easier, at least much more comfortable than painting. Micheal Angelo would lie on a wooden plank for hours, high up under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, painting frescoes with pigment dripping on his face, sometimes getting into his eyes. He was back up there again the following day. Besides the talent and effort of painting, just climbing up there required his old muscles to be in good shape.

Sitting in a chair letting the imagination run wild is one thing, standing in the smouldering sun addressing life is something else. Sniffing a flower while balancing words is one thing, contrasting colours and comparing tones, drowned in the smell of turpentine and sweat is another condition of existence.

Then there is the small matter of carrying the load around, an easel, a canvas, a sketchbook, and tubes of paint, pastels, and drawing material etcetera etcetera. What does a poet need? Literally nothing! Many of them are not even literate. At best what they may need is a piece of paper and something to scrawl with. The best poems, I am told are written on scraps of paper. The very best are dashed off on discarded cigarette packets picked up from café floors, while sipping tea at someone else’s expense. Who would give a labouring artist a cup of tea, innocuously surveying a rural prospect or a façade in a street? The ordeal of an artist who stands for hours riveted in one place like a statue is no less fatiguing.

Painting is not just a matter of creativity; it is also something physical. Van Gogh ate a lot of bread to keep himself strong. He wrote to Theo, his younger brother, that he should do the same. I wonder why our people don’t eat enough bread. And if there is not enough bread to go around, as the French Queen had once wisely enquired, why can’t they eat cake. But jokes aside, she lost her head for it.

Sadeqain and Moyene Najmi were the only painters who looked starved, but they were tough because both compensated themselves with nourishing fluids. This is the only similarity, which they shared. Moyene talked little and painted even less after much application of thought. I can remember each one of the few paintings he did, from his impressionistic Nila Gumbad and Qilla Gujjar Singh paintings to his stylised later works like the Mughal Gardens and Anarkali — not the famous Lahore street but the pretty naive girl who fell for a vagabond Mughal prince and was as a consequence of his wilful parent’s orders enclosed alive in a brick wall. How awful! It was perhaps a common occurrence in those days. But I have often wondered why the father couldn’t keep his son in place instead of picking on a harmless little girl.

Sadeqain on the contrary painted so profusely that I can only recall the ones I liked best, ranging from drawings where crows are nesting and laying eggs on human heads, to huge murals spanning the entire evolution of man. Sadeqain loved to talk. He never ceased weaving yarns about himself and his work. It was best to only listen while he talked.

I was once asked to interview him for the television and radio. It was the simplest thing I have ever done in my life. I cannot recollect if I was given the opportunity to introduce him. He just took off and went on at his own leisurely pace, talking of this and that, narrating rather engaging episodes and incidents which quite often fell to his benefit. He was smooth with words and substantiated everything he said with a couplet — an irritating habit with most other people. Frankly a couplet can often confound an average person about what is fairly plain to him in simple prose. But Sadeqain had such a smooth voice and manner of weaving one phrase with another that it would verge on inducing stupor. In this particular engagement I was brought to myself when the programme producer not so politely nudged me.

Sadeqain unlike Moyene painted feverishly, spasmodically with both hands and often in a hurry without thought. He was so good with his line and could render his familiar male and female types without blinking. Once in order to show off his skill, he delineated his usual woman type in a matter of seconds. What made the demonstration impressive was that he started at the top on a large sheet of paper with the feet and then proceeded down from the ankles to the knees, to the hips on to the navel, the breasts, and then finally down to the neck, the head and the hair.

After he was finished he turned the sheet upside down for the audience to see what he had almost disdainfully accomplished. Everyone applauded. It was a brilliant performance of his great skill, which occasionally could stand in his way. Having this easy facility he would often do things without reflection. He was so fluent both with his words and line that I wonder if he ever stopped to think things over, was ever inclined to speculate or pushed to conceptualise what he espoused. I knew Sadeqain fairly well and considered him a friend but there have been lots of things, which have remained unsaid.

Sadeqain was one of the best things, which could have happened to Pakistani painting. He reasserted the importance of the human image and insisted on declaiming the real issues of the time. Sadeqain’s best works express hope and brotherhood of man. They are not based on a personal sense of loss, which is characteristic of much of modern painting and literature. Most Pakistani abstract painters, under the impetus of western modernism were taking a path, which would have led to a cul de sac. They eschewed living issues and advocated instead expression of private sufferings, escape into figments of their individual imagination or sought fulfilment in transcendental aestheticism divorced from meaning and the important ideas of their time.

But coming back to our present concern, it takes a lot of physical effort to paint. The instruments of painting are themselves concrete and material, unlike words, which are non-tangible. In a painting if an ounce of turpentine is used, along with it goes a litre of sweat. One is of course not being dismissive of the achievements of our poets in their clean shirts but simply bringing on record what is so abundantly true that unlike the versifiers, painters have to sweat for whatever they do.

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