Meet the artist making Abdul Sattar Edhi’s commemorative coin

Artist Saeed Akhtar is making Abdul Sattar Edhi portrait for State Bank of Pakistan’s commemorative coin

Akhtar has sculpted the late humanitarian’s picture in plasticine. PHOTO COURTESY: USMAN SAEED

LAHORE: Walking into artist Saeed Akhtar’s room in his studio is a veritable lesson on Pakistani history. Among his recent undertakings of sculpting humanitarian Abdul Sattar Edhi’s portrait for a commemorative coin laid his impressions of Quaid-e-Azam and Allama Iqbal, the pictures with which we recognise these leaders today.

Following his demise, Edhi was given a state funeral with most of the top government functionaries flying into Karachi to attend it. Soon the State Bank of Pakistan announced that it will issue a coin in his honour.

“The day Edhi died, a news channel came to me and asked for a sketch of him so I complied. A friend of mine who is one of Pakistan’s foremost stamp designers, Adil Salahuddin, decided to make a stamp of the same sketch,” he told The Express Tribune.

Salahuddin said State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) Museum and Art Gallery Director Dr Asma Ibrahim sent a request to Pakistan Mint, recommending the government task its old-time collaborator Akhtar with the job of doing the coin. “Now, he’s designed it and we’re waiting for Pakistan Mint to proceed,” the stamp designer added.

When approached, SBP Chief Spokesperson Abid Qamar said work on the coin is underway and the media will be apprised on the development soon.

State Bank to issue special coin to honour Abdul Sattar Edhi

While the coin portrait awaits action on part of the state treasury, the stamp has already been forwarded to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by Pakistan Post director general. “There is too much red tape involved so these things rarely happen on time,” Salahuddin said.

Unique milestone

Akhtar is an artist whose works have seen a home in almost every pocket, wallet, purse and piggy bank in this country – he has made portraits for every coin issued by the Pakistan state since 1976, the year of the Quaid centennial. He even made Iqbal’s portrait that was stamped on coins issued in 1977 but these were soon discontinued.

Before 2008, there was not a single president or prime minister’s portrait on any Pakistani coin until the government issued a Rs10 coin in memory of Benazir Bhutto and this time, Akhtar refused.

“They told me to make it in a few days, but the process takes months so I told them to do it themselves,” he quipped.  “Some things are commissioned work but other things you do from your heart like this Edhi work but the government is not very supportive.”

Quaid painting

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took oath as president under the watchful eye of a Quaid-e-Azam painting that once stood tall at the Lower House. “I got a chance to meet him and he told me that it was the most beautiful painting of the Quaid that he had ever seen,” Akhtar recalled.

Under direct orders of the president, who took personal interest in the endeavour, Akhtar was summoned to create paintings of heroes of the past for the Aiwan-e-Sadar.  “He told me I would be provided with all the references I needed so I started with Muhammad bin Qasim and Tipu Sultan’s paintings.”

By the time Benazir Bhutto came to power, the Quaid painting was not in the best of conditions. “Her cabinet refused to pay Abbu for a new painting to replace the old one. Instead they hired some other artist to produce a copy of the original,” said Usman Saeed, Akhtar’s son and a photographer and painter himself.

The original was soon dumped and today it is present at the National Database and Registration Authority Islamabad office in a sorry state. Usman shared that he visited Islamabad, took multiple photographs and tried to garner attention for its restoration but it did not help much. “Zulfikar Ali Bhutto used to respect the artists of the country. It was all downhill from there,” Akhtar pitched in.

Like most people of the arts from his generation, Akhtar too today cannot help but lament the state of affairs. “There is no cultural body, no one to understand the power of art and the fact that art and politics have always progressed together.” He feels the government today has no sense of the arts.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 7th, 2016.

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