stageability of Manto
of Arts looked all festive that Sunday evening, on Feb 17, 2013. Obviously
not for the first time but certainly for something unique. It was going to
celebrate the achievement of Imran Qureshi who is
declared Deutsche Bank’s “Artist of the Year” 2013. Faculty,
students, art-lovers from all over the city had gathered in the front
courtyard along with officials of the bank to bestow this honour to one of
the finest artists from this institution.
The visitors were first
ushered into the Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery close-by where Imran’s
installation “And They Still Seek the Traces Of Blood” 2013 was on
display, a testimony to his sheer talent.
Wearing a shimmery
turquoise shirt and a blue velvet jacket, Imran stood in one corner of the
courtyard with wife Aisha Khalid, also a miniature artist, and the couple
blushed and smiled as speaker after speaker showered praises in heaps over
the artist who literally transformed traditional miniature into a movement,
which, some say, is the only art movement to have emerged from this country.
One speaker listed out
Imran’s itinerary for year 2013 and I was simply wonderstruck to hear the
names of prestigious museums and galleries across the world. Imran Qureshi
was something worth finding about. I decided to meet him in the next couple
of days before he left for his immediate assignment to New York.
I arrived at his house in
Cantt around ten, which should be counted as early morning for a journalist.
As I tried to park the car, I saw him sit in his and leave right in front of
my eyes. I wasted no time calling him.
He came back and
apologised because he had “forgotten all about it”. He told me
sheepishly he has done this with other people. What a professor I thought
and then remembered that he was one.
We found a place to sit in
the lounge of one of the most aesthetically-pleasing indoor spaces. He sat
patiently for the next one hour talking about his artistic journey,
beginning with his school days and answering some hard questions about his
Imran Qureshi comes across
as a gentle, shy person who struggles with words because his vocabulary,
understandably, is visual. His tone is unusually soft and he knows it,
because at times he would say “And I say it very strongly” to sound
I learn about his early
childhood in Hyderabad spent with five other siblings, a father who was a
professor of Economics and a college principal, and a mother who was a keen
reader. There was no artist in the family but there was appreciation of art,
films, drama and a lot of discussion on politics.
Imran was drawn to arts
and this interest was gauged and nurtured by an art teacher in school who
went by the name of AKB Sheikh. “Sheikh Sahib, an old man, nearly eighty
or more, was a graduate of J.J. School of Art in Bombay. Unlike other art
teachers who ask you to draw still life, a jug and a glass, he would come in
the class, hand us all papers quietly, and then write on the black board,
say, ‘draw a scene of a bazaar in winter’. Now all children would start
thinking how to show winter. He made us do blind contour drawings and
abstractions, to directly draw with paints, to not leave white space on the
paper, things that I later discovered were being taught at NCA.”
When Sheikh Sahib’s
“favourite student” went to meet him after he had joined NCA, in the
summer break, he saw “that he had my framed photograph in school uniform
on his office table”.
How did NCA come about?
His father’s cousin, old enough to be his own cousin, mentioned that he
should go join this institution in Lahore and his father brought him to
“see the institution” for himself and they both liked it.
The journey to becoming a
miniature artist is dramatic because it is so coincidental, or accidental
shall we say. He joined Fine Arts but soon thought he should become a
“With people like Risham
Syed, Faiza Butt, Masooma Syed, Bani Abidi, Talha Rathore and Nurraya Sheikh
around in my class, I thought I would not be able to do anything. They had
exposure of another kind while I had just landed here from Sindh. I tried
hard to get myself transferred to Textile Design which could only be done by
exchange. But Abdul Jabbar Gul backed out at the eleventh hour,” he
Slowly, he started
enjoying and understanding, and it became kind of challenging “to prove
myself in front of all these people”. His understanding of paint, medium,
layering, mark-making and abstraction was quite enhanced, compared to his
classmates. Soon, Bashir Ahmed of Miniature set his eyes on him and started
convincing him to do miniature which, Imran thought at the time, he had no
repeatedly asking me softened me a bit and I thought that if I did do
miniature, I would not just repeat and copy. I would do something different.
I consulted a senior Muniba Sheikh who had immense skill. I told her I
wanted it to be three dimensional, I can create levels, and she said you can
do all that. That’s how I opted for miniature,” he explains.
While at NCA, in his words
the best institution in the country if you want to explore yourself, Imran
was doing theatre and puppets. That got reflected in his thesis.
Interestingly, Bashir Ahmed, considered a traditionalist, encouraged him to
use air brush for miniature painting.
His thesis work “The
Dream” created quite a stir and he got distinction. Soon afterwards, he
went through this phase of exploring newer techniques and got engaged in
trying to find an answer to this question: what is contemporary miniature?
So how influential was
Shahzia Sikander? “I only saw Shahzia’s thesis; then she went abroad. So
I don’t refer to her a lot. We heard things about her but there was no
connection because there was no internet at that time. In order to exert
your influence, you have to be a strong part of a movement; you cannot do
that through news alone.”
While here, he says,
people were supporting each other a lot. There was work being done here on
another level; the face of miniature was being transformed. At that one
time, there was Talha Rathore, Nusra Latif, Aisha Khalid, Hasnat Mehmood,
Saira Waseem and many others doing great work.
Gradually, having done a
lot of exploring, Imran Qureshi found his own voice in contemporary
miniature. Around the same time, criticism started coming. It was said that
miniature was catering to the market; it was becoming a formula, repetitive;
miniaturists have switched to installation because the Western market had no
appetite for miniature painting anymore. Imran faced this additional
criticism of bringing his miniature vocabulary to the art of installation.
Imran answers these
critical questions one by one, sometimes by counter questions. “Whenever
there is talk about market in a negative way, the reference is that of
miniature. No one talks about painting or print making. Do we not have
traditionalists and commercial artists in painting?”
He feels this campaign
against miniature is very systematic and deliberate. This discussion is only
confined to Pakistan “whereas people in the West don’t brand us as
“miniature painters” or appreciate our work because it’s miniature.
They only appreciate it because they think it’s good quality painting.”
He also laughs at the fact
that traditional miniature painters tell them that “we have destroyed the
tradition. While others say we are successful because we are traditional
Miniature, he thinks, is
overly and unjustly criticised. For an outsider, it pans out as an
intra-departmental war within NCA. Imran thinks this is a moment to ponder
for all those who criticise miniature. “If you go to the painting
department, and look at the last ten year’s thesis, even the sizes of
canvases, their subject, their approach, their style of painting, have all
become a formula. And this is the outsiders’ critique. The kind of freedom
this department enjoys is not reflected in its work. While in miniature, the
more we try to bring discipline, the more the students want to experiment,
break the norms. The question to ask is: Why is painting left behind when
they don’t have the limitation of miniature, of having to learn a
technique and mastering it before you can break it. They are free from day
one. So why is this freedom not visible?” he innocently asks.
painters’ “new love” for installation, he says “it’s rubbish”.
“When I am doing my work, I am not thinking whether it’s a painting, or
video installation or some other kind of installation. It is my work and I
do it the way I want to do it. I cannot do it under compulsion or when
somebody asks me to.”
His work, he says, has
developed in a very natural way. It was during a workshop in 2001, in India,
named Khoj where he first decided to do an installation called “Coming
Down To Earth” because he was missing Aisha who had gone to Amsterdam for
a residency. Sharmini Pereira then referring to that work invited him to the
In the Singapore Biennale,
he did a video installation because “I was very much interested in
film-making”. It was near the staircase area of Sultan mosque and as you
went up, you saw a video on the ground, as if there was a water pond and
somebody was performing the ablution. It was a combination of sound and
video. Then as you went up, there were Imran’s floor paintings and wall
paintings. “The title of this entire work was Wuzoo.”
As for taking the language
of miniature and imposing it on site-specific installation, he says: “You
see I will only use the language that I have learnt as an artist. I think it
is a greater challenge to change the entire meaning of the same thing in one
space and then in a second and a third. It is a difficult task and has to be
done sensibly and intelligently.”
He does not agree with
artists whose each work is a new idea. “Being focused on one thing has
made me what I am. Look at Frida Kahlo. Do you think she painted something
new every day? Look at David Hockney. We should be citing the example of
Rashid Rana. The technique or approach that he adopted of photograph in
pixels in 2001, he is still following that; within that he does innovations.
This is what brings strength and depth to his work.”
He dismisses the concept
of international art or international subjects. “It is a futile debate.
This is why some good artists works have been affected badly; when you start
making a strategy, then you are no more an artist. You become a businessman
trying to sell stuff to the market.”
Regarding his own
political subjects, he says, “Violence and politics was present in my work
from day one. When I was in school, I would start my day by reading the
newspaper.” In his first year at NCA Salima Hashmi, their drawing teacher,
asked them to draw a stack of chairs. Imran thinking more in terms of the
situation in Karachi and the rioting etc. got newspapers from the raddi wala,
which had all the news about curfew and violence, and then drew the chairs
with charcoal against them. He was much appreciated on that.
Imran Qureshi is a success
story but “success can be very dangerous. It can get to your head, and
adversely affect your work. I always feel that I don’t deserve it.”
The truth is that he has
the unique distinction of going into the Venice Beinalle for the second time
and is this year in their main curated show, displaying his paintings from
the series called “Moderate Enlightenment”. He has a roof garden project
in Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in May. He will be the first South
Asian artist there. Artists like Jeff Koons have exhibited there. Then, in
September, the Met is going to have his second show of his paintings. “I
think to have two exhibitions in Metropolitan is a good thing for Pakistan
and its artists,” is all he says.
Just as his shows at Met
are taken lightly, so is this award by the Deutsche Bank. But Imran says,
“Deutsche Bank is no joke. It’s not a bank. It’s the biggest supporter
of art in the world. Be it Anish Kapoor or Frieze Art Fair, there is no
museum the bank is not involved with.”
So why did he bring the
bank to NCA to honour him? “I did not want to confine the award to myself.
I did not want people to see me being celebrated at NCA. I was thinking long
term. I wanted that NCA should benefit from this award. I am what I am as an
artist because of NCA. It is now time for me to pay it back. My award is
only for now and, ten years from now, people may not talk about it. But if,
through this award, we get something done which will be talked about in a
hundred years, it will be worth it.”
Meanwhile, Imran Qureshi
is getting ready to show at Kunsthalle in April, the new museum in place of
Guggenhiem in Berlin. His will be the first show in that museum.
In 1957 When
Seventh Seal was nominated in the Best Screenplay category, Ingmar Bergman
wrote from Sweden to the Oscar Academy, requesting his name to be taken off.
He considered the Oscars an institution of humiliation, though he wasn’t
thinking of the treatment meted out by the Los Angeles’ immigration staff
to Emad Burnat in 2013 the Palestinian documentary filmmaker whose Five
Broken Cameras had been nominated in the Best Documentary category.
It is said that the
airport staff couldn’t comprehend that a place like Palestine could
produce films good enough for Oscars. It has been claimed that they thought
the filmmaker and his family didn’t have a proper invitation. Never mind
the fact that the filmmaker couldn’t have boarded the plane through an
improper channel given Palestine’s status as a colonised entity and that
he couldn’t have left the country without American visa and without
Israeli permission. Think checkpoints, think apartheid. There is perhaps a
reason why he had an Israeli filmmaker collaborating with him on the film.
While being incarcerated, the filmmaker somehow managed to tweet Michael
Moore, the famous and influential documentary filmmaker, who must have
played a hand in the selection of Five Broken Cameras. The following is from
Michael Moore’s own tweets:
Palestinian director of Oscar nominated 5 Broken Cameras was held tonight by
immigration at LAX as he landed to attend Oscars. Emad, his wife & 8-yr
old son were placed in a holding area and told they didn’t have the proper
invitation on them to attend the Oscars. Although he produced the Oscar
invite nominees receive, that wasn’t good enough & he was threatened
with being sent back to Palestine. Apparently the Immigration & Customs
officers couldn’t understand how a Palestinian could be an Oscar nominee.
Emad texted me for help. I called Academy officials who called lawyers. I
told Emad to give the officers my phone # and to say my name a couple of
times. After 1.5 hrs, they decided to release him & his family &
told him he could stay in LA for the week & go to the Oscars. Welcome to
America. “It’s nothing I’m not already used to,” he told me later.
“When you live under occupation, with no rights, this is a daily
In this little story one
can detect multiple threads. For example, Oscars weren’t being held for
the first time. They have been happening for over eighty years. So the
Immigration Department’s LA wing deals with the arrival of foreign
filmmakers on yearly basis and one cursory glance would reveal those foreign
guests are not always from developed countries.
stories go back to Tagore’s cancelling his 1929 tour to the US in protest.
That incident too occurred in LA. The renowned Iranian film director Jafar
Panahi also preferred to fly back from New York after being mistreated by
the airport staff. These stories make one wonder if the lack of education
and poor training are behind such sad interactions. Perhaps, but then how
does one account for when Mayor Giuliani’s thugs ejected Yasser Arafat
from a concert arranged for UN leaders for which the Palestinian leader, a
Nobel Laureate, held the invitation-only ticket?
Or, take another example,
how is one to make sense of Benjamin Emanuel’s racist and anti-Arab
comments upon his son becoming President Obama’s White House Chief of
Staff in 2009?
It is this long list of
racially insensitive episodes that prompt people like Serdar Akar to direct
movies like Valley of the Wolves which turn the racism and orientalism of
Indiana Jones variety towards Americans. Since the American entertainment
industry is like a foreign policy ally, the government didn’t have to ban
Valley of the Wolves. The cinema owners made sure the general public would
remain immune to a point of view that runs counter to Hollywood’s self
congratulatory pat on the back.
In 2010, Wesleyan
University Press published an English translation selected poetry of Afzal
Ahmed Syed, which was seen as a significant literary event, encouraging many
poetry organisations in the US to invite the poet. All the poetry events
connected to the publication of his book had to be cancelled because the
poet was denied visa, angering translators and poets alike.
In 1940, Hattie McDaniel
became the first African American to win an Oscar for Gone With the Wind,
and though she delivered a very gracious speech, thanking the selectors,
promising to remain a credit to her race and Hollywood, it is little known
how insultingly she was treated during the show as she was made to sit apart
from the rest of the Gone With the Wind cast and crew, at a segregated
table, near the kitchen door. This shameful anecdote is touched on in Syed
Afzal Haider’s novel To Be With Her (2010, Weavers Press).
Is there a connection
between the airport humiliation suffered by the King of Hindi Cinema, Shah
Rukh Khan and President Johnson cancelling state visits by Prime Minister
Shastri of India and the US-backed Pakistani general-turned-civilian
President General Ayub Khan in 1965, worrying how conservative senators
would react if he brought “those two niggers over here”? The issue is
not whether Indian or Pakistani head of states had ever visited before.
Indeed they had. The point is to highlight the deep rooted culture of racist
prejudice that affects Americans across class, in the films and outside.
It is not enough to point
to the mediocre pre-college education here. The finest academic institutions
are even guiltier of this. It was after all this country’s finest men who,
sitting in the most respected chambers of power and responsibility in the
US, had insisted on keeping Nelson Mandela on a terrorist watch list even
after he’d become the world’s most respected statesman. Only acute
embarrassment changed it belatedly.
Now that the great Oscar
night is over and Emad Burnat’s important documentary about resisting
occupation through non violent protests has lost out to another fine film,
the contrast between those nominated in the documentary category and those
nominated for feature length, except for the Austrian Amour, tells you a lot
about the mediocrity of mainstream Hollywood.
Moazzam Sheikh is a San
Francisco based writer.
philosopher and art critic, Arthur C. Danto begins his essay on Francis
Bacon, stating that the sentence “I am shouting” can be grammatically
correct but is a false statement. Because when you are shouting, you are
unable to speak. Acts of emotional display like shouting or crying are
intrinsically different from talking; translating one’s strong sentiments
into words makes them mild and acceptable.
A similar phenomenon takes
place through art. Despite the ferocity of experience or unusualness of
emotion within the artist, the work of art is a means to dilute the force of
pure feeling. The repeated news and commentaries of an awful accident
agitate the artists and provoke them to respond. Ordinary citizens, on the
other hand, react either by criticising the government responsible for the
safety of public or by condemning the perpetrators of such acts etc.
Artists have been relating
with the calamities of our times in more than one ways. When a spectator
looks at a work of art, he is reminded of the ‘origin’ of its imagery
(it would be cruel to define it as ‘inspiration’). Soon after that first
encounter, the viewer may become more engaged and interested in the
intricacies of art making, admiring the material, scale, skill, craft,
technique and pictorial qualities. It is the curse — or blessing — of
art that it takes one away from the real into the realm of imagination and
fantasy which may ensure a life longer than the immediate. It may also have
a subdued effect compared to hard facts.
One is reminded of the
example of ‘Guernica’, arguably the most effective work in response to
brutal bombing of a village in Spain by the fascist forces of General
Franco. Yet, despite the historical reference, the painting is today admired
for being a work of art that opened up new possibilities in formal elements
and aesthetic experiments.
sincere reaction, comment or feeling is transposed first into an
artistic product before becoming a commodity for collectors. Even before
that, the artist does have a choice to either respond to his surroundings or
to remain aloof. In the former case, the work may be a direct response to a
specific situation or it has the potential to live beyond the immediate
incident and turn into an entity relevant for the times to come. This is
achievable only if the creative mind explores the essence of an event.
Issues like these were
relevant in a recently concluded exhibition called
at the Karachi Arts Council. The exhibition, organised by Adeela
Suleman and a group of artists, was the artists’ collective response to
the catastrophe of Baldia Garment Factory in Karachi on September 11, 2012,
in which 259 workers were burnt to death. In one of the world’s worst
factory fire incidents in a century, several charred corpses were buried
without being identified. It shocked the whole nation till of course
something else occupied our TV screens.
About 83 artists reacted
and created works around that great tragedy in different ways, materials and
methods, but each commented on the condition of a city that is already
suffering from political unrest, ethnic violence and crimes of all sorts.
Thus the works on display from Feb 8-17, 2013, though related to the sad and
tragic story of Baldia Town, also encapsulated other emotions — the fear
of living in a dangerous place. Seher Naveed’s piece was a back-lit panel
with simplified shapes of human beings. Instead of running in one direction
but towards each other, these human shapes render the confusion inside the
factory during the blaze. At the same time, they allude to a general sense
of panic experienced by anyone residing in Karachi or any other city in the
Muneer’s miniaturised fire extinguisher in a glass box, all in black,
indicates the pessimism and darkness descending on every sphere of life. The
hopelessness suggested through her work was evident in several other
exhibits, particularly in the video installation by Adeela Suleman, and the
installation of piled-up matchboxes by Hamida Khatri in which image of a
burning match stick, rather then picture of some beautiful landscape or
object, was printed on every match box.
This shift in the label
— items of destruction are normally camouflaged behind pleasant and
alluring visuals — reveals our reality in an intriguing tone.
Along with these works, by
and large, each participant tried to present his/her point of view in such a
scheme that it did not remain confined to a single issue or unique incident,
but dealt with the problem of the age, society and system that caused the
accident of Baldia Town.
Kaun Hai Yeh
Gustakh was staged by Ajoka about two months back in Lahore. It was staged
again last week at the Alhamra as part of the ongoing centenary celebrations
of the writer Saadat Hasan Manto.
Though Ajoka has been
quite consistent in staging plays based on the short stories of Manto over
the years of its existence, this particular play focused on the years that
Manto spent in Pakistan after he migrated from Bombay.
Any throwback to the times
that were different or portentous of the intolerant and blood thirsty
society that Pakistan was to become can be poignant in itself. Ironically,
now Manto who was hounded in his lifetime is being accepted into the fold
and launderers like Fateh Muhammed Malik are busy in smoothening the sharp
edges and presenting a much misunderstood writer.
Actually the travails of
Manto in the few years that he lived in Pakistan were more about the
disintegrated society that we had started to become and less about his
personal traits. The blood letting, the mass migration of the people and
then the innumerable incidents of rape, abductions, particularly of women,
and then the mad rush for allotments and illegal occupation of property must
have been enough to make any one insane. But more upsetting must have been
the direction that society was about to take.
What is being faced these
days is the natural culmination of some of the developing traits that
bothered Manto so much.
Manto had made a niche for
himself in Bombay — for he had a number of avenues to express himself,
including films, where he was able to make a reasonable sum of money that
guaranteed his next meal.
But when he migrated to
the newly-formed Pakistan, he started to face problems in keeping his hearth
warm. He had no source of income except his writings, and one knows that it
can be a perilous prospect — for it hardly ensures a steady income. With a
family to support, he must have been terribly short of money.
It is said that he wrote
many a story to meet with the financial obligation. Some of those stories
actually border on the salacious.
But it was the society
beginning to fashion itself on exclusion that bothered him hugely. He had
evolved a no holes-barred-style and he loved to challenge boundaries, both
moral and political.
In a sanctimonious
society, even mentioning themes that were taboo could be considered a task
of a writer. One aspect of writing is to challenge the norms, conventions
and values to keep everyone, especially the custodian of morals on their
toes. In many of the writings of Manto, perhaps it is futile to find a
deeper meaning and an honest enquiry into human behaviour than to be
treating these as barbs and teasers for the intent purpose of being
One standard format of
expose is to pitch the writer against the man. It is an oft tried theatrical
practice where the persona of the writer is divorced from the person and if
there are contradictions or variations to highlight and dramatise those in
the form of a heightened exchanged between the two.
This theatrical device has
been used many a time in the various enactments of Manto during the course
of his centenary celebrations.
The other is that
Manto’s characters read their parts and some of the portions of the
writings are enacted. This may have been necessitated by the fact that the
stories are basically narrative and this part dramatisation is the
conversion of the narrative into drama.
Stageability remains the
true test of the one who accepts the challenge of adapting Manto. The most
critical aspect in adapting a narrative into a play is thus the only concern
because if the work of a writer is not good in the first place it would not
have been chosen to be presented on stage. He has not been chosen for his
stageability but because as a writer he has been in the big league.
Kamal Ahmed Rizvi
resurrected him for stage in Badshahat Ka Khatama and then ,after many
repeated proposals which were turned down, he was aired on television in the
late 1960s under the title Mantorama, where he was considered sanitised
enough to be seen in the bedroom of those very particular about family
In the last couple of
decades as liberal space has shrunk Manto’s acceptance and popularity has
In Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh,
Manto was played by Naseem Abbas who has played him earlier as in the play
Naya Qanoon. He has also dramatically read some of the stories on stage in
Written by Shahid Nadeem
and directed by Madeeha Gauhar, the play was kept skeletal as the duration
was tightly controlled — thus preventing the production from dragging.
Usually, in adaptations of narratives extra action is inserted to improve
upon the prospects of stageability and done in the form of mime or dance
movements. For greater purpose these remain extraneous to the action of the
play. But in this production most of the frills which did not make the
action poignant were done away with.
Though Ajoka has been
quite consistent in staging the plays of Manto and quite a few of his
stories have been performed repeatedly over the last 20 odd years on various
occasions, his transfer to the stage has been facilitated primarily because
of lack of good writings for theatre. The well known writers or those
considered significant have abandoned the stage or have not attempted to
accept the challenge. Therefore, theatre practitioners perforce had to fall
back upon the regular afsananigars and novelists to provide the script for
their next production.