On October 16, 2014, Julius Bryant, the curator from Victoria & Albert Museum, gave a talk at the National College of Arts about John Lockwood Kipling, the first Principal of Mayo School of Art. He described how the English artist, art teacher and museum curator spent most of his time in British India and started the art school in Lahore, where children of artisans were encouraged to learn, practice and preserve the tradition of their elders’ crafts. Similar to this, other art schools were established by the colonial government in different cities of India, in which European art was taught, and students were trained in making oil paintings on canvas, sculpture and drawing in European classical conventions.
This produced a certain kind of art education that followed the aesthetic principles and styles of Western art, an aspect that can still be observed in our art institutions. From foundation course in drawing to final year specialised subjects, a European mode of representation is preferred, along with the medium and techniques adopted from the West.
One wonders, what would have happened if the British had not occupied the subcontinent or even if they did, they were not interested in art or building art schools to spread European art education. The art would have flourished the same way as before the colonial period with artists making miniature paintings for the courts of the Mughal Empire.
Colonised or not, it was evident the local courts were not capable of supporting their artists in the same manner as in the past. One presumes that the artists, once deprived of patronage from princes, would have ventured into other venues, by creating works in different formats and for varied markets. Possibilities are that without this contact with the British, there would be no figurative drawings in charcoal and pencil on paper, study of anatomy in oil on canvas, rendering of still life as an independent genre, or casting of human bodies in plaster or carving heads in stone and wood. On the other hand, artists from our region would still be making murals and miniature paintings with each area and school having a different style.
However, in the midst of this, an exposure to Western art as an alien art practice could have generated examples perhaps not too dissimilar to Chinese art, which discovered European painting as a late option, rather than an imposed and only means of visual expression, and used it as an extension of its indigenous pictorial vocabulary. And who knows that a few amongst us, who composed their canvases in the Western custom of using oil, canvas, concentrating on natural representation and two-point perspective, would have been considered as exotic and significant — like today’s modern miniaturists. They would have been despised, too, for forsaking their heritage and imitating the art of outsiders.
Another point of doubt is what if Pakistan was not divided in 1971. In that case, not only would we have a considerable population of Hindus but a broader concept of culture, with dance and music as integral expressions of a society. Likewise, the disappearance of Bengali artists from the narrative of Pakistani art changed the course of Pakistani art. For instance, the strong component of abstract art would not have faded away. Painters in East Pakistan, like Mohammad Kibria, Hameedur Rahman, Aminul Islam, Rashid Chaudhry and others were mostly engaged with non-figurative imagery. This kind of imagery had its counterpart in West Pakistan too, and that included artists such as Lubna Agha, Rummana Said, Raheel Akber Javed and Mansur Rahi (actually a painter from Bengal who chose to stay in Pakistan).
If Pakistan’s geography had not changed, arguably the issues of forging identity through relying on Muslim heritage and reviving Mughal culture that dominated in the 1980s and ’90s, would have not existed as much or would have been dealt with differently.
The third aspect of history’s reversal relates to an event which transformed not only the political geography of the globe but affected the art of Pakistan a great deal. What if there was no 9/11? How would our art be viewed in the Western world? In a way, the art from Pakistan in the 21st century could be heavily indebted to the militants who planned the destruction of Twin Towers. It was after that that the interest to know Islam and the urge to find the artistic expressions from the country that was said to be breeding jihadis of all types became increasingly popular. Artists, particularly those who have been employing violence in their imagery, became recognised and successful. Although some artists from Pakistan were well-respected even before 2001, may be in the absence of 9/11 their entry into the international art scene would not have been so smooth.
In a way, 9/11 provided a context for the practices of artists to their viewers in the West, just the way it offered a potent theme for artists in a country that also suffered the worst kind of religious fanaticism and violence. The civil war and Taliban’s atrocities and bomb blasts within the country, in the absence of 9/11, would probably not have made the artists interested in violence as a subject nor the curator and collectors across the world would be intrigued about what was produced in this country.
All this makes one ponder on what if the man in the prehistoric ages had never thought (at whatever level thought existed in those times) about painting the walls of caves where he resided, or decided to shape a stone in the form of a woman’s body or some animal by chiselling away bits and pieces. Interestingly or sadly, if our ancestors had not attempted it, one would never have the idea of art nor would humanity have missed it ever.