My first real meeting with Shahid Sajjad was in the form of an argument, with a number of other artists present as silent observers or occasional participants. Although I had met him earlier too (he was the external juror for my thesis at NCA), that formal and academic encounter was long forgotten. The debate, not exactly heated but quite intense, was about the origin of thought and whether thinking process is confined to language or exists beyond the limits of words.
Now, almost two decade later, I can’t even recall the outcome of the discussion. What I distinctly remember is the rare feeling of being in the company of an artist who was not just grandiose in work but was equally eloquent in thoughts. It is not often that you get a chance to have a philosophical discourse with a person known for making objects with his hands.
In the personality of Shahid Sajjad, these two streaks existed side by side. On one level, he explored and analysed complex concepts, reality of existence, origin of universe and the phenomenon of creativity, and on another level he produced works of art that touch the senses and aren’t loaded with burden of theory. His sculptures have a defined physical presence and are endowed with a sense of tactility: the textures almost invite the viewer to touch, feel and enjoy the works.
To an ordinary man, these two aspects or poles of a creative person may appear odd. In the case of Shahid Sajjad, it was the intensity of engagement that linked both sides of his self.
In 1997, while researching for a book about Pakistani art, I had interviewed him sitting around his kitchen table, surrounded by a collection of tiny items which betrayed the sophisticated taste of the user. That three-hour recording is packed with philosophic reflections on life, art, mind and universe. For Sajjad, there was hardly any difference between art and life, or mind and universe. His interests flowed seamlessly from one thing to the other.
When I went to his studio later that day, I was simply shocked to see the sheer volume of work and the extent of planning that went into fabricating those pieces. Shahid Sajjad was a solitary worker in his studio who had devised systems — to facilitate bronze casting, to move large-scale sculptures and to use various materials. The studio was filled with sculptures in round and relief displaying the multiple concerns of the artist — from figurative to stylised forms to abstract imagery.
For many, the greatest contribution of Shahid Sajjad is that he continued to create sculptures in the ‘Islamic Republic’, or that he himself made the casts of his bronze pieces. In retrospect, these may not be as important as some of his other aesthetic talents. One was his role in liberating the sculpture from the shadow of Henry Moore (the English artist who — like the British Empire — left his imprint across continents so that the history of modern sculptures of many regions bears his unmistakable mark). In Pakistan too, many sculptors have been rehashing Moor-ish imagery in metal, stone and plaster. With this kind of pictorial baggage, Shahid Sajjad chose to carve his own vocabulary. His works — even those based on human element — are distinct and unique.
This was possible because he was a self-taught artist perhaps who never went to an art school. Some of his bronze pieces reflect an innovative approach towards depicting the human body. The fleeting figure in hard material offers interesting paradoxes. Likewise, the native features and primitive forms (inspired from the artist’s travels and work with tribal people in Chittagong, East Bengal) portrays the artist’s quest to explore the essence of human beings (A search that was complimented by his regular reading of J. Krishnamurti). Even though the works appear exercises in aesthetics, the expressions on the faces, the arrangement of characters and the composition of other elements suggest the artist’s response, comment and criticism on the conditions of mind and society; especially the wooden sculptures from the series Hostages delineate the state of fear in our times.
In his personal and public life, Shahid Sajjad was never afraid or reluctant to remark on an issue that concerned him. Yet his approach was not of a person who utters statements or judgments, declaring things good or bad. Instead of suggesting a solution, he addressed the basic issues and indicated the factors or reasons behind a scenario. This distinguished him from others who are eager to proclaim/present their opinions as eternal truths. For him art was not supposed to provide an answer but just pose a series of inquiries in all dimensions of existence.
Born on March 29, 1936 Shahid Sajjad was a person who believed in himself and had created a world of his own. He had life-long friends including Zahoor ul Akhlaq and Dr Akbar Naqvi (author of Shahid Sajjad’s Sculptures: Collected Essays). He was equally accessible to artists of younger generations. His simple way of living, openness and energy made it possible for him to continue with his work. More than a personal endeavour to materialise his vision in different substance, it was the artist’s determination to work in his chosen genre that will be remembered.
In a country where sculpture is discouraged for multiple biases, Sajjad continued practising his art. Some of these were nude female figures but he believed in the sacredness of his art — a belief that made him unique and special. During his lifetime, he was recognised as one of the major sculptors of this nation and was awarded several prizes.
In our situation, one does not need to proclaim political positions. One only needs to continue working as per one’s vision and the product turns into a political comment, statement or stance. In that sense, Shahid Sajjad was a rebel of some sort. Throughout his life, he defied conformity. He was the perfect example of Andre Gide’s comment that an artist always swims against the current. This act of resisting the outside world and having confidence in his personal vision made Shahid Sajjad a significant artist. It will keep him alive as a source of inspiration for other artists and everyone who believes in life after death.
(Shahid Sajjad passed away on July 28, 2014)