It was a drizzling monsoon afternoon during 1984 when I bumped into the great artist at the erstwhile Sadequain Art Gallery in the F-6 sector of Islamabad. Circumstances surrounding that memorable meeting between a seventeen-year-old uncouth Lahori and the great artist merit a detailed description.
Having just flunked my intermediate examination in those days, I used to roam the serene streets of Islamabad, gate-crashing foreign embassies without purpose. In those days, the capital was unencumbered with security concerns and one could walk into the embassies with minimum hassle. Some Eastern European embassies were a special haunt, where I explored my chances of getting some sort of scholarship to one of those countries.
On my way to the embassies, I would invariably pass through a small, attractive residence, carrying a rather low-key signboard, Sadequain Art Gallery. My sole source of information about Sadequain was a feature that had appeared in an ‘ideological’ Urdu newspaper which was bent on busting myths about some well-known personalities of the time. The ‘investigative piece’ carried a photograph of the legendary artist Sadequain in Lahore’s premier arts college, surrounded by pretty girls. The caption of the photograph could be roughly translated as “Faqir Sadequain in the midst of a galaxy of divas”. It also made pointed references to some of the “consumptive habits” of the artist with “long hair”.
I headed towards Sadequain Arts Galley as someone on a solemn mission. Once inside, I passed through several rooms, all carrying colourful murals and sketches which appeared every bit surreal in the late afternoon sun rays entering through several glass windows. Discarding these alluring treasures, I headed straight for the room from where hushed voices could be heard.
No sooner had I entered the room through its partly-open door and looked straight into the eyes of the great artist, a shiver passed through my whole body. Sadequain was sitting in an easy chair wearing a shining white kurta and pyjama, surrounded by a dozen or so young women alongside a somewhat aged man, all seated on the floor. “A rising sun amidst twinkling stars” — the thought flashed across my mind. I later learned that it was a group of amateur students from a nearby art gallery who had come to meet the maestro with their teacher.
I still remember the bemused look which Sadequain cast towards me as I sat close to the group of young girls. “Are you also a student from the art gallery?” he asked in a hushed up voice. “No sir, but I have studied drawing for a few months when I was a student at Government High School, Lahore.” The mastero, for the first time, cast a detailed look at me (I was wearing a deep red Awami Suit — a relic of Bhutto era) and a gradual smile spread over his face.
I referred to my teacher who was unfit for the job and how we were spared the torture once Zia ul Haq introduced Arabic as an optional subject in government schools. All boys in the class quit leaving behind the ‘hell-bound’ art teacher and two Christian boys.
Read also: The subversive Sadequain
As I ended my narrative in a victorious manner, Sadequain put the glass he had been holding and sipping from on a side table and asked me why I thought the drawing master and Christian boys were hell-bound. “Drawing sketches and that too of women is immoral sir! Our Qari Saheb (the Arabic and Urdu teacher) told us.” By way of abundant caution, I also made references to the journalistic piece I had read on him.
For the next few moments, the room rang with endless laughter from the great master. Then he abruptly stopped and gazing in my eyes asked, “Have you heard about Madho Lal Hussain?”
I blushed, suddenly realising that I was also wearing a bright red dress.
Seeing my predicament, Sadequain looked towards one of the girls who mechanically handed him a few sheets of paper. Taking a black marker, he suddenly set about drawing and writing something on those paper charts, with the electric movement of his fingers. In a few minutes, he was done with three of those and then beckoned me towards him.
As if in a trance, I reached for his seat and saw all three sheets; one carried holy verses, another four lines of poetry and the third one a sketch of a woman. “Which of these would you like to have?” asked a still-smiling Sadequain.
“Sir, I cannot take the one with holy verses as I have not done my ablutions.” More smiles and Sadequain gently handed the calligraphic work to one of the girls.
He then took up the one with a Quartet (Rubayee) and asked me to read it aloud. As I started reading the lines starting with In Nargisi Ankhoon ki chamak to dekho, I uttered the word “lit” (coil of hairs) and he suddenly interrupted. “Goof, it is lut and not lit.” “But Sir, our Arabic and Urdu teacher Qari Saheb would read it as lit.” My protestation had everybody smiling yet again and Sadequain handed over that beautiful piece of poetry to another girl, remarking that she had Nargisi eyes and deserved it better.
We were left with the last piece, carrying the sketch of a woman. Sadequain then asked my name, added “Mehboob key liye” and handed me the sketch which I hesitantly accepted. ‘’Don’t worry too much Mehboob Mian as this won’t take you to hell but please ask Qari Saheb, your Urdu teacher, about the story of Madho Lal Hussain, you red-clothed Ahmeq.” I knew it was time to leave and so I shook Sadequain’s extended hand (I still remember how his fingers looked strangely curled and curved, resembling the scriptures).
Indoctrinated by the advice of Qari Saheb, I had all these years been hoping that the sketch of the comely woman done by Sadequain for a red-clothed goof would one day become distorted like the picture of Dorian Grey. But the beauty of this work – its simple and alluring lines – have only become more enchanting with time. Perhaps, it’s the Madho Lal connection, I daresay in the words of Sadequain uttered three decades ago.