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A close encounter

A blend of autobiography, history of Pakistani art, memories of friends and colleagues, Rashid Arshed’s book is an impressive addition to the literature on Pakistani art

A close encounter

An aeroplane is a perfect place to read a book. You cannot put the book down to pick another one or step out for a walk or check your messages on you cell phone or get on social media while flying. If the flight is long, chances are you would finish reading a volume of 200 or more pages in one sitting.

Coincidently, in one such book you come across a personal account of watching 9/11 on TV. The author comments: “The world will never be the same again, I said to myself, shaking my head”. These words were uttered by a Pakistani artist living in the US since 1975, though not at that hour in his home in Nashville, Tennessee, but in Peshawar. The chapter titled ‘A Close Encounter with Al-Qaida’ is part of Rashid Arshed’s recently published book ‘Art Scene of Pakistan: The Unwritten Chapter’, in which he narrates experience of travelling with his wife to Peshawar. Due to the threatening situation, the couple could not stay more than one day in a town which “was the same city where, on March 22, 1964, Jacqueline Kennedy rode in an open car in the fabled narrow Qissa Khawani Bazaar”. They returned to the US.

A blend of autobiography, history of Pakistani art, memories of friends and colleagues, travelogue, and comments on art world, the book is an impressive addition to the handful of literature on Pakistani art. Published by Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore in 2018, it begins with a Foreword by Salima Hashmi and a Preface by the author. Along with his words are visuals of his art works from different periods, as well as some of his contemporaries and other Pakistani artists such as Chughtai, Shakir Ali, Ahmed Parvez, Sadequain, Bashir Mirza and others.

It also includes photographs of the author with his associates, contemporaries and educationists. In fact, the text testifies to the writer’s photographic memory. He starts the story with his admission to the Mayo School of Arts, his being the last class that graduated before the institution was upgraded to the National College of Arts. Names, dates, people, places and details of incidents from half a century ago are so vividly recalled that one wonders if Rashid Arshed always carried a notebook next to his sketch pad while he was a student, a young artist, a traveller and a teacher.

Certainly, the most entertaining and informative part of the book is when he talks about his years at 4 The Mall Road Lahore: how he witnessed the school being transformed, anecdotes about tutors and students, conditions at the campus and hostels. He comments on Shakir Ali’s role as a teacher and principal, on the art of Chughtai, and Allah Bux, on the personality of Ahmed Parvez, BM and Sadequain. Unlike most of us who eulogise the departed souls, Arshad’s analysis is realistic and balanced. He criticises the works of acclaimed masters such as Allah Bux: “His weightless, theatrical, and almost always identical figures are conveniently positioned irrespective of the dictates of the subject.” And praises others: “Chughtai, the most important among the early Pakistani artists, and the first to gain international recognition and admiration.”

The text offers amazing phrases like: “Like all the rivers in Pakistan, the flood of unemployment also flows towards Karachi.” After his graduation from Mayo School of Art, he moved to Karachi and taught at the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts (CIAC), before he became its principal. Arshed mentions his predecessor: “Promoting art and artists was the most significant contribution of Ali Imam for Pakistani art. Credit goes to him for bringing all important players of art, artists, collectors and art enthusiasts to one stage…… He also educated people through public lectures, articles, art criticism and individual interactions.”

When one reads about the NCA of early 1960s, college hostels, rivalries, bullying and bigotry, one realizes little has changed. Reminiscing about the torments a Christian and three students from East Pakistan had to face from students who treated them as ‘untouchable’, he recalls: “When the bullies rested their case, Qazi Rafiq Ahmed who was supervising hostel affairs, asked them to bring Shaukat Masih and Bashir Masih, two Christian brothers who did the cleaning jobs in the hostel, including the latrines. ‘Let them wash their hands and I will eat with them right now’. This judicious answer left the students thunderstruck.”

A major component of those years consists of contribution of Mark Sponenburgh who as principal of the college brought huge changes in the teaching structure and system, as well as introduced art history classes and curated exhibitions such as ‘2000 Years of Horse and Rider in Pakistan’ (1959), ‘Swat Folk Art Exhibition’ (1961), and in 1959, ‘Scope’, the exhibition of faculty’s works (a tradition that still continues at the NCA).

Rashid Arshed remembers leaving Pakistan and surviving as a practising artist, initially doing works for some companies who paid him meagerly for art-based projects till 1999 when the Museum of University of Tennessee at Martin held a retrospective exhibition that covered 25 years of his work comprising paintings, drawings, etchings, and ceramics.

In an informal but insightful tone, he talks about aspects and elements of his art, especially his calligraphy-based works (his first exhibition ‘The Manuscript’,1970) invoking the history of calligraphy, as well as his other series, including ‘This is My ID’, 2015, which reminds of his earlier mixed media ‘Visual Gesture’, 1991, and subsequently ‘Passport Series’, 1992, in which the artist used impression of his hand and pages of his old Pakistani passport. These works chronicle a person’s life at different stages and locations; at the same time, they refer to religious and racial separation in our country that he had to face during his tenure at CIAC when a group of artists “opposed my appointment on various grounds, sectarian and ethnic included”.

This didn’t end here: “The people who opposed my appointment as a lecturer, now, after I had become the Principal, had a bigger task ahead of them. Articles appeared…. demanding my dismissal. Referring to my religious penchant, an article in an Urdu weekly demanded that ‘I should be tried and hanged by the neck in public’.”

The best thing about an aeroplane is that it is devoid of these divides: sectarian, ethnic, and even gender (both male and female use the common toilets in an aircraft!). Like planes, books also take us to different destinations, mainly to our inner self. It is said that an autobiography is hidden inside a novel. Likewise, one can read Arshed’s autobiography as an engaging story, because often facts are more interesting than fiction.

Title: Art Scene of Pakistan: The Unwritten Chapter
Author: Rashid Arshed
Publisher: Sang-e-Meel Publications, 2018
Pages: 216
Price: Not mentioned

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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