Remembering Shakir Ali: One of Asia’s greatest painters

Today marks the hundredth birthday of one of Pakistan’s greatest painters, Shakir Ali (1916-1975).

Raza Naeem March 06, 2016
Today marks the hundredth birthday of one of Pakistan’s – and according to the equally legendary Intizar Hussain, Asia’s – greatest painters, Shakir Ali (1916-1975). 2016 is deservedly being celebrated as Ali’s birth centenary year and the occasion should not only refocus attention on the enduring legacy Ali has left behind in his works inspired by modernism and the progressive tradition, but also in the form of Lahore’s National College of Arts, whom Ali single-handedly transformed into an institution of excellence.


Ali is also singular in that, unlike his other legendary contemporaries Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Sadequain and Gulgee, his students now populate the art scene across Pakistan and abroad, and carry his legacy forward. In the hopes of rekindling interest in Ali’s life and work, I am here presenting a translation in English of a tribute to Ali soon after his untimely death in 1975 written by one of his dearest friends, the eminent Marxist and secular intellectual and activist, Sibte Hasan, who like Ali, is also celebrating his birth centenary this year. It is Hasan who described his friend Ali as ‘The Anguish of Oppression, the Voice of Art’,
“Shakir Ali has passed away. Lahore has become desolate and the country has lost a great artist, a very beloved human being.  Shakir loved Lahore a lot. He had made the city his homeland and its earth eventually embraced him in eternal rest. Shakir studied art in Bombay, London, Paris and Prague, but it was in Pakistan where his skill shone. Its individuality and beauty of self-expression achieved prominence here.

He was the leader of abstract art in Pakistan. He persuaded the local artists towards abstract art. The artists of the new generation revered him like a sage. Actually some of his qualities were like monks and ascetics. His personality had such a magnetic pull that his students, countless number of writers, intellectuals and artists became his devotees. His sudden death left everyone in tears.

As a painter, Shakir Ali was world-famous but he was as happy painting as he was witnessing the emergence of creative abilities in others. In 1953, when he was appointed lecturer at the Mayo School of Arts, this historic institution was in very bad shape – obscurantist teachers who had no interest in the arts; and those students who could not get admission elsewhere. The environment of the school began to change gradually because of Shakir. He would paint in the room all day or would talk to lads by mingling with them; but he neither blew the trumpet of his high competence nor exercised pedantic intimidation.

Every other competent teacher became a part of the Mayo School due to Shakir’s untiring efforts and eventually, Mayo School transformed into the National College of Arts. He remained the principal of what was known as Mayo School and then the National College for nearly 15 years, but his attitude towards students and teachers always remained friendly. It was due to him this school became the most respectable arts institution in the country. He was already an institution himself but he left behind an educational institution which will never forget his services.

Shakir never possessed artificiality or show even in name. He was neither proud of the greatness of his skill nor did he ever talk about himself like narcissistic artists. Modesty and self-effacement were his nature. To move forward by pulling others down or chasing fame was not his style. He spoke little and the softness, slowness and simplicity in his disposition is also reflected in his paintings.

Shakir was an embodiment of love. He did not know how to trouble a soul. The whole system of his thought and feeling danced around love and affection. This love was his life as well as his art. Love for beautiful things, the good traditions of Eastern culture, flowers and birds had entered every particle of his aesthetic sense. The Gautam Buddha and Jesus Christ, Mother and Child, a naked female body, egg-hatching sparrows and colourful flowers all are different signs of love and creativity.

Shakir was never tired of the quest for artistic truth and his art was never affected by stagnation or obsolescence; in fact he kept carrying out new experiments till he passed away and departed from this world while shaping his sensory experiences in the form of colour and lines with great sincerity and truth.”

Raza Naeem

The author is president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. He is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and translator. His translations of Saadat Hasan Manto have been re-translated in both Bengali and Tamil, and he received a prestigious Charles Wallace Trust Fellowship in 2014-2015 for his translation and interpretive work on Manto. He is presently working on a book of translations of Manto's progressive writings, tentatively titled Comrade Manto.

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