KARACHI: Amid a few tailors' shops in a shopping mall that has seen better days, sit two men who have dedicated themselves to keeping the art of hand-painting alive. A stone's throw away from the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, their surroundings are still a far cry from the flash and glitter of the city's commercial art galleries.
Till the late 1970s, Karachi's cinemas were not only a source of entertainment for the city but also a means of livelihood for numerous people such as artist Yousuf Shah. Painting the backdrops for these theatres as well as the portraits of the characters, Shah believed this to be his true calling. Now, though, he has been replaced by a click of a button and computer software.
"When the cinemas met their decline, I started designing backdrops for school events and stage performances," he explains. Today, he paints portraits, abstracts and landscapes, using a palette of acrylics, watercolours and oil paints as his three primary elements.
While art in Karachi often seems confined to one particular end of the metropolis — the domain of the posh and wealthy, a small number of whom dabble in patronising it — Shah's artistry extends to more practical realms. Although he mastered his skills through fulfilling contracts for schools and event venues, he also paints landscapes for residences and office buildings.
"I would say that a little — if not much — understanding of art has seeped outside Defence and Clifton. Now, you even get to see street art here and there, something that was entirely absent before," he points out, adding that the middle-class just has a different take on art.
Upstairs in the same shopping mall, Abdul Jabbar has seen his share of commercial exhibitions, both as a participant and a solo show host. He insists that art for the middle-class used to exist — before Karachi became, in his words, a warzone. "There were days when I used to visit Lyari and katchi abadis on the outskirts of the city, capturing photos so I could paint them later," he remembers. "It is impossible for me to do this anymore after repeated snatchings."
Despite the odds Karachi imposes on its inhabitants, these two men continue to keep their craft alive, when many of their fellow cinema artists abandoned the profession never to return.
"There were many of us, similar cinema artists who were disheartened by the changes that came with time," discloses Jabbar. "Some took to the streets as rickshaw drivers; others set up small shops. But we kept going, despite everything."
Shah is more optimistic with a firm belief that there is still much demand for work by the hand and brush. "People who are serious and particular about the work they want do look for painters like us," he asserts, gesturing at the vivid canvases that surround him. "Nothing is a substitute for hand-painting — it has become a rare finding in this age of photoshopped skills."
Published in The Express Tribune, April 16th, 2015.