On a hot Karachi day, about a month ago, the Seaview Beach seemed to be more crowded than usual. That day, over 200 people, including families and students, thronged the beach to witness mostly amateur attempts at carving images in the sand. It was a sandcastle building competition — the second annual event by Let’s Build On. While many sculptures were made that day, it was Arif Hussain, a lone artist working at a distance from his fellow competitors, who stole the show — even without competing in it.
People frequenting Seaview have probably seen amazing renderings of the Taj Mahal, Quaid-i-Azam’s Mazar and Babri Mosque sitting out on the beach, and may have wondered who makes them. But if you ask any camel-driver, shop owner or tea-seller, they all know him well. In their eyes, he is a celebrity — constructing anything from mosques to life-like camels using nothing but his bare hands and boundless imagination. The accuracy and finesse of these structures is wondrous. After several attempts to catch him in the act, I finally got the opportunity to settle down on the beach and have a cup of steaming chai with this slightly built and soft-spoken artist to hear his story.
Some people see building castles at the beach as a hobby, but for Arif it is art; it is his calling. Arif Hussain is completely unassuming in his demeanour and his speech is interspersed with wise-sounding proverbs followed by well placed dramatic pauses. Arif is a spiritual being and seems to exist in a permanent state of zen — unhurried by the breathless pace of Karachi life, talking slowly and softly, with very evident faith in Allah’s will. He has never been to art or design school nor has he been trained in any way to do what he does. For him his art is both divine inspiration and a survival mechanism.
He comes from a village near Rahim Yar Khan where, as a child, he somehow always stood apart from the other children — and usually took pains to avoid large crowds. Often by himself, he would pass time by making his own toys out of sand: trucks and cars and whatever else he could think of. Often ignored by children his age, he thought that if he could make the best toys in the class, the other students would realise that his friendship was valuable. He was always creating to impress — whether it was toys in the sand or self-designed gadgets and machines, some of which would fail, or worse, explode, getting him into trouble.
His life took a dramatic turn when his father died ten years ago, unleashing a family-wide dispute which caused him to run away from home. His departure was so abrupt that until he re-connected with his family three years later, they had all mourned him for dead. Trusting in an uncle to educate and look after him, he moved to Karachi to try and start a new life, but was left high and dry when his uncle refused to support him. This estrangement from his family and abandonment by his uncle led to difficult trials. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and sometimes brings out the best in you — as it did for Arif. After trying to find a job in the city with no skills or education, he gave up and found himself wandering aimlessly around Karachi. “One day, tired and frustrated, having eaten no food for three whole days, I arrived at the Seaview beach,” he says, reliving that tough day. Collapsing from exhaustion in the July heat and amongst strange people, he lay down on the sand and slept.
When he woke up he was confronted by a rush of activity, finding himself amidst a sea of people. Playing nearby were a group of children. With nothing else to do and nothing to lose, he got up and started to do what he had always loved doing in his childhood — he started to build something that would entertain them. Like any true artist, Arif always wants his work to be acknowledged. After a few hours of working diligently and using a scrunched up newspaper picture of the Taj Mahal for inspiration, he had created a startlingly life-like sculpture out of the same sand on which he had collapsed hours ago. So absorbed was he in his work that when he finally looked up, he found people smiling at him in admiration. Next to his castle, he saw a formidable pile of currency notes people had left as a token of appreciation for his art. He was able to eat for the first time in three days. Since then, he has been regularly coming to Seaview to build his sand sculptures.
Throughout our conversation, he kept glancing back nervously at his “spot” where he had built the Quaid-i-Azam’s Mazar accompanied by a life-size mermaid — worried that someone might disrupt, or worse, steal his design that had taken him over ten hours to master. Every day before he goes home, he completely erases the images from the sand, leaving a formless mound in its place, so that no one can copy them.
Arif Hussain is that bit of good news from Pakistan which reaffirms our faith in the formidable reservoir of talent the people of this country possess. He wants to give out the message that there is talent in Pakistan, and that this nation has something to offer. He makes these national monuments because people like them, but his talent has much more variety. He can make anything; all he needs is a picture, some sand and his hands. On good days Arif earns Rs2,000-3,000, and he is well aware of how profitable his skill can be if used correctly. “From afar when you see this sand, all you see is dirt. But to me, and in my hands, it is like gold,” he says with a smile.
Though Arif may have finally received a measure of recognition, others have not been so lucky. Arif reminisced about a fellow artist and friend, who who could be found at the beach at all times. This man had both arms amputated and was famous for making spectacular drawings on the pavement with his feet. He passed away several years ago, unknown and unsung. When asked where he sees himself in ten years, Arif sadly remarked that even great artists suffer and go unnoticed by the world at large. However, he is optimistic and has faith in his talent which has been both, his guiding force and a gift. His art, which had been his only companion in his childhood, has become his source of livelihood in the big, bad city. But true to his artist’s soul, the money he makes is nothing compared to the pure joy he finds in bringing form out of chaos.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, November 11th, 2012.