The joy of being in audience with veterans like artist Ajmal Hussain is that they are able to create a vibrant and blossoming Pakistan that seems so divorced from our current reality. But while the memoirs may seem like mythology, they still give one hope that somehow, one day we will be able to retrace our steps back to a Pakistan where attempting to paint a nude (as the artist Nagi did in Murree) will result in a hurly-burly and not public flogging.
“I don’t know how young people feel about this country,” says Hussain nostalgically, “but we felt a certain way when we first stepped foot here. Despite the ebb and flow of politics in the country currently, Pakistan has continued to strive in poetry and the performing arts and I am hopeful that we will excel to achieve greater feats.”
And while Hussain narrates his own tale (“in Karachi, I felt a renewed vigour to paint”), he inadvertently paints a picture of the zeitgeist of a young, floundering, but sanguine Pakistan where the state took active interest in promoting the arts, such as when Prime Minister Bogra personally auctioned paintings to raise funds for the Arts Council building.
Hussain, whose father was editor of Dawn in the 1940s, began his artistic career as a cartoonist and became the first artist to exhibit abroad. “Most of us were self-taught,” says Hussain, as he narrates vignettes of his ‘dear friend’ Gulgee who was an engineer by profession. “Gulgee didn’t like his job as an engineer and so started dabbling with photography and then his friendship with a lady artist, pushed him towards exploring abstract art,” he narrates, adding that, “Gulgee was more of an artist from the heart than the canvas. He would love to dress as an artist with clothes splattered with paint.”
Hussain describes Sadequain with similar familiarity and mirth, “One could see him hanging from ceilings trying to paint a mural. He had great nervous energy that he converted to painting,” he says, also mentioning what the ‘Holy Sinner’ said of himself, “I’m like a thin electric wire on high voltage.” One can only wonder if and when more ‘high voltage’ artists will be produced in Pakistan and Hussain’s hopes will become reality.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 28th, 2011.