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Zahoor at seventy-eight

Although 20 years have gone by since Zahoor ul Akhlaq passed away, no one is more alive today in Pakistani art than him

Zahoor at seventy-eight
Zahoor ul Akhlaq: Shah Jahan Triptych, 1981.

In the German film Run Lola Run, a girl is shown running, passing by several pedestrians. During that sprint, photographs are interjected in the narrative, showing her with those pedestrians in different situations, if only she had stopped and met them. The movie dwells on a significant obsession of human mind: pondering on the outcome of possibilities that were lost for various reasons.

Zahoor ul Akhlaq would have turned 78 on February 4 this year. Although 20 years have gone by since he passed away, it is still difficult to imagine him as dead, largely because no one is more alive today in Pakistani art than him. Maharaj Ghulam Hussain Kathak was once inquired by someone in the audience at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts after a performance: “Why have we never seen you dance?” He replied. “It was me who just danced in front of you — in the performances of Nahid Siddiqui, Nighat Chaodhry, Fasih ur Rehman and Jahanara Akhlaq [Zahoor’s daughter]”. Zahoor ul Akhlaq too continues to produce art, in the form of his students and followers who are extending his ideas, pictorial concerns and aesthetic vocabulary. Rashid Rana is the most illustrious example.

Zahoor ul Akhlaq: Farman, 1971.

Zahoor ul Akhlaq: Farman, 1971.

But if Akhlaq were still with us, what kind of work would he have been doing. He might have been experimenting with the new modes of expressions, perhaps digital or video. One tends to believe this because the kind of work he produced in the 1970s and ’80s can rightfully be defined as avant-garde, not only in technique and mediums (I recall seeing Akhlaq painting with acrylics in the early 1980s as well as using charpoy’s legs for his mixed media sculptures), but in imagery primarily for its minimal quality, sophistication of rendering and link with history.

Jorge Luis Borges in his essay ‘Kafka and His Precursors’, writes: “The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future”. The art of Zahoor ul Akhlaq contributes to developing a better understanding of his predecessors such as A.R. Chughtai, Shakir Ali and Mughal miniature painters. Likewise, it offers clues for comprehending the revival of modern miniature painting in Pakistan.

In retrospect, one discovers a few important elements recurring in his paintings, prints, drawings and three-dimensional structures. Apart from the oft-mentioned grid, and the format of illuminated manuscript, figure and space from Indian miniature painting, there is a surge to develop a pictorial language derived from the past but rooted in the present.

I remember seeing Akhlaq painting a tryptic that looked like a large Mughal miniature at NCA in 1981. But it was in acrylic paint and, unlike most colourful miniatures, was rendered in shades of blacks, greys and whites. The work, in essence, reflects a postmodernist approach. As Thomas McEvilley describes “India was a post-Modern culture before it was a Modern one”, Akhlaq was a postmodernist painter before we became conscious of modernity. The work, an appropriation of ‘Three Princes’ from Shah Jahan’s period, showing the Emperor’s sons riding on horses, is drawn on three panels. In each section, there is variation in terms of covering the entire pictorial area, by leaving one part mostly white along a few patches of dark hues.

Today, one can fully grasp the genius of Zahoor ul Akhlaq, glimpsed in his works and those of his former students and followers. They keep informing us that an artist is not caged within a body, not confined to a family, nor contained within a school.

To many young artists, this painting as well as his other works contains a number of options: it guides them on how to tackle tradition; how to shift from western academic training; and how to position oneself in one’s space as well as in one’s time. Akhlaq’s imagery is connected to the course of Indian court painting, and the practice of inscribing sacred texts and ruler’s decrees. But the way it is ‘remade’ suggests a sensibility, possible only through exposure to American Abstract Art of twentieth century, the discourse on ‘open work’, and the painterly quality that deeply depends upon ‘oil and acrylic colours’ imported from the USA and Europe, in contrast to conventional gouache on wasli paper.

In a broader sense, the art of Akhlaq relates with the fiction of another contemporary, Intizar Husain, who infuses passages from the Old Testament, tales from Buddhist Scriptures, narratives of Hindu mythology, sections of old Sufi texts in his novels and short stories to address existentialist issues, alienation and identity crisis of a modern man.

The prime claim of postmodernity is that it does not have a singular style, nor does it respect or recognise the supremacy of one pictorial solution. Akhlaq, too, after making a naturalist study of a model in 1959, reverted to human body again and again, in 1971 and 1994. He incorporates images from Indian miniature painting in his ‘Untitled’, oil on canvas from 1974, but the same figures and spaces remerge in the works of 1991. Abstraction as a formal quest has been an important pursuit for artists from the 1960s onwards. This was witnessed in his ‘Composition’ 1964, but he returns to the same subject in his ‘Untitled’ 1970.

Akhlaq was often described as “the artists’ artist”, implying that due to his elegant imagery and exquisite surfaces, his work is for a select few. In reality, he could not be reduced to a tower of exclusivity; instead he remained connected with his milieu. Etching ‘Radio Photograph of Objects Unidentified V’ (1983) and other such works on paper refer to atomic mushroom, linking its visual to dark clouds found in Pahari miniatures, particularly the one titled ‘Lovers Watching Rain Clouds’, Kangra, c. 1780. The artist recorded his reaction against human annihilation through a nude woman trapped within a door — suggesting the aftermath of a nuclear explosion. Although the work dealt with a specific subject, yet it transcends the immediate and urgent to become an elegy, a requiem (and a symbol) for all those afflicted around the world.

Today, around his 78th birthday and 20 years after his death, one can fully grasp the genius of Zahoor ul Akhlaq, glimpsed in his works and those of his former students and followers. They keep informing us that an artist is not caged within a body, not confined to a family, nor contained within a school. He continues to travel, often moving across continents and classifications — like Lola, never stopping!

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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