When Hal Bevan Petman (1894-1980) looked at people, he really saw them. Arguably the best portrait painter who lived, painted and died in the Indian subcontinent, Petman left an indelible mark on those familiar with him and his work. His portraits exude an almost incandescent radiance, warranting more than a mere glance.
In a fitting tribute to the artist, one of his ardent followers Romano Yusuf screened a documentary “The Forgotten Society Painter” at Kuch Khaas on Tuesday evening. Directed by Taqi Shaheen and researched by Romano, the film unearthed details about Petman’s career coalesced with his private life.
Petman and his wife Berylle settled in Pakistan after the partition. They lived in Murree for some time. As the montages progressed, they left one longing for “a country that no longer exists”. Such was the grandeur of the 1950s and 1960s, away from the political upheavals and crises as we know them now. A select group of women narrated their interaction with a painter who made them look “prettier” than they actually were, to an extent that they barely recognised themselves. That was perhaps his forte, to behold an essence that permeated plain sight.
His effortless brush strokes brought out glamour and poise in petite, doe-eyed women. The pastels added softness to his portraits, nuanced with emotion. He has been criticised as being frivolous and blatantly flattering. His was a wide canvas — he painted generals, nawabs, maharajas and maharanis in large numbers.
His paintings found home in households and army messes as he went on to become the official painter of Pakistan Army in Ayub Khan’s era. As Romano noted, Petman and Berylle were a team; he the creator and she his talent scout, much like Gulgee and his wife. Through a long career, his illustrations of poster girls for the British press came to be known as the “Petman Girls”. His reportage includes illustrated landscapes of Kashmir. In the discussion that ensued, many of the featured women and their families reminisced about the delight of owning Petman’s work. Each painting spurred a story, an anecdote as the people shared fond memories attached to the timeless pieces of art.
While commenting on the display, Samar Minallah, a documentary maker, stated, “I just loved it. The whole effort to support the project is extremely commendable since one really misses such events these days.” She appreciated the juxtaposition of poster girl to Asian beauty as Petman’s signature style.
Tahira Abdullah, a social activist, observed, “[The documentary] brings back memories of yesteryear and makes one nostalgic for a progressive, liberal, enlightened and moderate Pakistan.”
Chris Cork, editorial consultant for a leading newspaper, remarked, “We all learnt something about Pakistan that does not exist anymore. There are fewer and fewer people who have cherished what’s truly worth remembering.”
Despite his contribution to the art scene of the country since its very inception, few people have valued Petman’s genius. On the other hand, his contemporaries Allah Baksh and Chughtai have a massive following throughout the world.
The screening was a part of an effort to preserve the legacy of Petman. His work can be viewed at www.halbevanpetman.com
Published in The Express Tribune, September 6th, 2012.