face to face
"I find tradition constricting"
By Aasim Akhtar
The News on Sunday: How did you decide to become an artist?
Mohammad Ali Talpur: Until matriculation, I had no exposure to art per se; nor of visiting an art gallery. My biggest fascination was to travel with my mother on bus to Hyderabad or to Tando Allah Yar. All I wanted to be was a bus conductor who gets to travel long distance and collects money.
My earliest recollection of drawing goes back to the sixth grade. Whenever my friends and I would buy a new notebook, I would draw a cartoon character, mostly Mickey Mouse, on its front page.
We used to spend our summer vacation in Tando Allah Yar at my aunt’s. I must be in first year of college when my cousin mentioned to me a young man known for his drawing skills. Together we went to see him at the signboard painter’s shop where he used to apprentice. That young man turned out to be Ahmed Ali Manganhar. When I saw his drawing, mostly pastels on black sheets, I was mesmerised. It was a magical moment for me. I knew the man portrayed, and I just couldn’t believe how he had done it. The portrait was minimally rendered and had an incredible resemblance to the real. That moment became the turning point in my life. I wanted to be an artist!
TNS: What was the first step towards becoming an artist?
MAT: I took the first few lessons from Ahmed Ali. Later on, admitting he was still learning to draw himself, he took me to his Ustad, Fatah Halepoto. I was asked to come six days a week, and every single day I would draw for two hours and show my work to the ustad. I had no sense of drawing at that point. Ahmed Ali would make more than a hundred sketches a day whereas I would lag far behind.
Ustad Halepoto was much against the use of the photographic source in drawing, and would insist on drawing only from life: sleeping figures, plants, hands and feet, etc. He was a writer and poet, and would lecture in such an inspiring manner that his words would stay with us for days on end. He was indeed a source of great energy.
TNS: What did you accomplish there? Or was it much ado about nothing?
MAT: My drawing was quite shabby in the beginning but I knew I had to do it. I was determined to work hard. I was not intelligent enough to pick things quickly. Things would start to make sense only after repeated attempts. It was a very frustrating time.
The idea of becoming a doctor or an engineer was not going well with my temperament. I was constantly looking at work around me and feeling more and more inspired. There were Ahmed Ali and Nizam, the latter having started out with me. Around the same time, I saw Saeed Akhtar’s drawings and paintings which proved to be a fountain of energy. I ended up training with Ustad Halepoto for two straight years, travelling between Tando Jam and Hyderabad. I felt I could draw relatively well now but my hand still lacked Ahmed Ali’s finesse.
TNS: The work that you did during your 4-year stint at the NCA, Lahore, as an undergrad must be assignment-based. When did you make your first foray into art?
MAT: For the initial three years at the NCA, work was mostly observation-based. When it came to the final year, my work was mostly intuitive in nature, guided by an inner force. I couldn’t quite fathom myself as to where those images came from, such as white on white, for instance. If there was a scratch mark it would develop into an entire painting with a single leitmotif. I was working on Masonite panels in washes of white. Nothing was presupposed or preconceived, and images would emerge by themselves.
In addition, I was making illustrations or drawings in small scale with collage. I would paste Xeroxed images or b x w pictures of my father on board and then colour them manually. This led to a play of dots on 6 x 6 inches boards in multiple layers of colour. Mixing white with different hues in acrylics and enamel, the fascination with form and chroma, the formal execution and construction of a work of art became so fiercely predominant that I almost stopped questioning its reality.
I was taught to adhere to the age-old practice of painting beautiful sunsets, desert people and fishermen by my earlier teachers. But in the third year at college, teachers like Quddus Mirza and Rashid Rana (who I was totally in awe of) discouraged that and told us to break the old habits and take on new challenges. There was seemingly a conflict between the two. I remember once writing in my report on Rashid Rana that foreign-returned artists knew next to nothing about painting. There was, of course, the fear of exorcising old demons of past practice and adopting the new. For the first time ever, I began to look within.
TNS: What is your take on tradition versus modernity, in this context?
MAT: If I look at my own experience, I find tradition overwhelming and constricting. It made no sense to me to walk around the NCA campus in a Sindhi cap. To me, an artist is like a radio. If I take it to Mexico, it will catch the Mexican channels. Likewise, if I were to take it to Papua New Guinea, it will automatically tune in to the local network. Ethnicity is not an artist’s construct. Like water, an artist must adapt himself to a new culture and a new environment.
Any gesture that makes one self-conscious is pretentious in my view. I had already dragged the Sindhi culture to the hilt and there was no more room for presenting it again. To paint Rallis and Thari women was to limit one’s scope of vision. Besides it’s far too emotional for my liking.
I was reading Jiddu Krishnamurthi’s ‘Action without Ideas’. I felt that whatever’s been said in verse by Sachal, Bulleh Shah, Kabir, Baba Farid and Shah Latif was being reiterated in prose by Krishnamurthi.
TNS: How would you recount your experience as a postgraduate student in MA Hons. in Visual Arts at the NCA, Lahore?
MAT: Lalarukh was in charge of the Masters programme. Our A-Z knowledge of art rested upon the principles of Western art. She was much in favour of the revivalism of traditional arts, and her lectures made us question our own identity and rediscover ourselves. There was a segment called ‘Traditional Practice’. You would be expected to spend four weeks with a teacher to practice a traditional genre. I worked on Ralli with my mother.
In my final year, I was looking at the role of the mass media in reshaping our minds by (mis)representing reality, mostly through the exploitation of the female component. To quote Zahoor ul Akhlaq, there is a female that exists in every male and vice versa. Take, for instance, our mystical poetry. Shah Latif wrote in the female gender, and so did many others. My work set up a dialogue about the gender politics.
The work I did involved inserting printed film posters in the photocopier and superimposing a Xeroxed image. One of my best pieces was composed of strips of a Hindu mythological poster and a western one, the two woven together as warp and weft to fuse one diametrically opposed culture with the other. Even though I wasn’t fully satisfied with my work, it afforded me the opportunity of combining intelligence with physical labour.
TNS: Tell us about the ‘Leeka’ series that catapulted you to fame?
MAT: It’s strange to note that sometimes a single piece of sketch can define your entire future line of action. After my post-graduation, I would sit in my studio and look at the birds or the Basant kites on the horizon and draw them. Within 4-5 months, I must have made hundreds of sketches, but I did not wish to base my work on a narrow theme or make loud political statements.
I used to read a lot of poetry in Sindhi, Seraiki and Punjabi, especially the Sufiana Kalaam. My own experience of work coupled with the incessant flow of ideas finally resulted in the ‘Leeka’ series. Again, I remember Zahoor ul Akhlaq say once that when you fail to understand something, you should go back to the fundamentals of it and look for an answer in its ABC. I had to undo my former practice of painting to find my own voice.
When you put a single line on a blank surface, it may not have an expression but when you repeat it, it imbues a new kind of energy to the surface. Take the traditional arts of ceramics and textiles. Or better still, classical music. Be it Kishori Amonkar or Ustad Amir Khan, the repetition in their music with slight variation or improvisation adds a new character to their art. Mystical poetry is another parallel that presents itself as an open-ended statement, appealing to the layman and the intellectual alike. To translate and transform those nuances into a visual language was a challenge. To reinterpret colours into b x w was also painstaking.
The term "leeka" is Sindhi for "meaningless." It may be writing on the wall. Another meaning associated with the term "leeka langheygayo" refers to crossing the barrier. If, for instance, I fail to return the money borrowed from a lender in spite of my promise, the lender may confine my movement within a circle drawn with a stick around me upon encountering me. Unless, I return his money, I cannot cross the line.
The inhabitants of Mohammad Ali Talpur’s drawings are made up of line. No sooner are they scratched, incised or engraved on the canvas or paper than they take on a wilful and unpredictable life of their own. It is as if the artist from Sindh who brings these marks into the world were a mere witness — like the viewer — to a self-activated process. Everything that he adds to the piece in the course of his work seems an inevitable consequence of the initial figurations that slipped from his hand onto the surface.
It turns out that Talpur’s impulsive and irrepressible work is not a product of introspection alone: it evolves out of a dialogue with the motifs in which it originates. In all his works, these motifs are spontaneous choices. A painter, and at the same time a spectator of his own painting process, Talpur works without hesitation, without a pause, as if in obedience to some unseen power. He speaks to TNS about his early experiences, and his canvases on which some involuntary flight of fancy can spontaneously materialise. Excerpts as follows:The inhabitants of Mohammad Ali Talpur’s drawings are made up of line. No sooner are they scratched, incised or engraved on the canvas or paper than they take on a wilful and unpredictable life of their own. It is as if the artist from Sindh who brings these marks into the world were a mere witness — like the viewer — to a self-activated process. Everything that he adds to the piece in the course of his work seems an inevitable consequence of the initial figurations that slipped from his hand onto the surface.
It turns out that Talpur’s impulsive and irrepressible work is not a product of introspection alone: it evolves out of a dialogue with the motifs in which it originates. In all his works, these motifs are spontaneous choices. A painter, and at the same time a spectator of his own painting process, Talpur works without hesitation, without a pause, as if in obedience to some unseen power. He speaks to TNS about his early experiences, and his canvases on which some involuntary flight of fancy can spontaneously materialise. Excerpts as follows:
Talpur’s artwork: Leeka, felt tip marker on paper.
Mystique of Iqbal Hussain
In his latest exhibition at Ejaz Galleries, Lahore, the artist shows a maturity that makes him a painter first and then a projector of ideas or a promoter of his people
By Quddus Mirza
We live in peculiar times. On one side of the globe, the French are arguing about banning burqas while we in Pakistan are so keen on matters of hijab that we even want to conceal pieces of furniture. This obsession with wrapping up everyone and everything was visible in the opening ceremony of Iqbal Hussain’s solo show on Jan 28, 2010, at the Ejaz Galleries in Lahore where the chairs were all covered with black fabric.
The exhibition coincided with the launch of monograph on his life and work written by Marjorie Husain. The book, a well-researched piece of writing with invaluable information on his formative years as an artist and his success as a celebrated painter of this country, as well as large collection of his works from different epochs (and family pictures), is published by Topical Lahore.
The black chairs presented a direct contrast to the work and aura of Iqbal Hussain because the painter prides on portraying women who are known for selling their flesh and has painted nude or scarcely-dressed women.
Both the acts of hiding and exposing women are two sides of the same coin. Most of our religious leaders are obsessed with nudity and vulgarity in connection with the female and hence, for them, the prime issue in a community is to have the women covered from head to toe. They condemn models, actresses and dancers even if they reveal a little bit of their bodies, as if this is the only sin in our society.
Many amongst us have been defying this attitude. Not just female artists but their male counterparts have moved away from this notion of immorality attached to a woman’s body. Instead, they present and project women as independent personalities, emblems of beauty or even symbols of desire. Iqbal Hussain is a leading figure in this league of painters. His work — despite all negative and hostile responses — has always been a celebration of woman, an ode to her beauty and homage to her form. Models from red light district occupy his canvases with all their made-up faces, gaudy dresses and gloomy environment.
Although one is impressed with the beauty of women, it is assumed (by painters and viewers alike) that beyond a purely hedonistic approach, one must have a greater and sublime idea while presenting it. So Iqbal Hussain (especially after his paintings were removed from public display at Alhamra in 1984) ventured on the crusade of representing the marginalised female from his area. These women — dancers or prostitutes — have never been accepted and admitted in the helms of high society, except on the occasion of a wedding, in which some of them perform mujra. Hussain, through his canvases, made it possible for the image of these characters to be admired, collected and hung in the living rooms of posh houses across the country and abroad. It was also a means to invoke (in the words of painter) the miserable conditions of females living in the poor and neglected neighbourhood.
If analysed (and the exhibition, a kind of mini retrospective, provides the occasion), the work of Hussain has moved away from being just a cause to a painter’s quest in rendering his subject on a sensuous level. Although in the present exhibition one still finds subjects such as girl lying with her feet tied with a string, women gathered around dowry display, or females in dark and dingy settings, in a sense these are the residue of Hussain’s past. His recent body of work, both complex compositions and small sketchy surfaces, announces the artist’s keenness in enjoying woman’s flesh as a source of inspiration for applying paint.
Both nude figures and clothed women against busy backgrounds indicate a shift in his aesthetics. Now the content or cause is replaced by the painter’s problem: of how to render and capture the delicate features and desirable skin. Here, Iqbal Hussain reminds of French Impressionist Auguste Renoir who sought to depict light and colour but was more interested in the female flesh and painted its sensuousness. Similar is the case with Hussain whose models, even though they still originate from his quarters, are not necessarily made as mark of identity of an underprivileged and outcast class.
This change in his work has liberated both the painter and the person. With his new enthusiasm and direction, Iqbal has produced a large number of works, in which the painter — along with his command on intriguing compositions — has demonstrated an ease with his medium too. Loosely painted features, casually drawn contours and urgently filled areas confirm the painter’s command on his chosen subject and adopted material or technique. In comparison with the large surfaces, his small canvases and drawings depict the artist’s inclination to capture the feeling of flesh; something that is linked to the feeling of atmosphere in his landscapes, especially the scenes from river Ravi. In these misty canvases, the impact of fog is masterfully rendered, a sensitivity that has its parallel in the depiction of female flesh as a glowing mass.
It seems that with his latest works, Iqbal Hussain has acquired a maturity that makes him a painter first and then a projector of ideas or a promoter of his people. This shift in his aesthetics and concept is revealed through a minor detail. Earlier on, mirror played an important part in his compositions which, despite being a formal device, was an unconscious metaphor — a substitute of the painter who, like a mirror, assumed the role of denoting cruel realities to the public. The motif of mirror is not a favourite device anymore. This indicates that the painter has stopped being a recorder or commentator on the societal injustice. Instead, he is content with the conditions because maybe for him the painter is not a propagator of social issues. A painter is like his mentor, Khalid Iqbal, a dweller in paint who strives to portray his subject with honesty, love and even lust, so much so that at the end it is difficult to separate the maker from the model (in all senses of the word). A situation that is so aptly described by Ghalib: Asl-e-Shuhood-o Shahid-o-Mash’hood Aik Hey/Hairan Hoon Phir Mushahida Hey Kis Hisaab Mein.
(The show will remain on till Feb 10, 2010 at Ejaz Galleries, Lahore)
Untitled, Oil on Board
Untitled, Oil on Canvas.
Untitled, Oil on Canvas
In the classical tradition, there was no real distinction between the composer and the vocalist because all
vocalists were supposed to sing their own compositions
By Sarwat Ali
There have been many composers in films who have also been vocalists or instrumentalists of great merit and one of them was Rafiq Ghaznavi. He was also a unique example of being a leading actor. This threesome distinction has been rare in the subcontinental cinema and it even became foursome for he also tried his hand at film direction.
Rafiq Ghaznavi started his career from the silent films but as soon as talkies started being made he was chosen to play the lead. After ‘Brave Heart’ in 1931 the silent debut film, he was selected to play the hero in the first talkie made in Lahore by the indomitable A.R. Kardar. In ‘Heer Ranjha’ made in 1932 he played the lead opposite Anwari, composed the music and then also sang the songs. The latter was a usual occurrence because the actor had to sing on the sets and it was only in the next decade that playback became possible due to technological breakthrough.
He then shifted to Bombay, the capital of film making in the subcontinent to display his threesome talent. He acted in ‘Roshan Ara’, ‘Jawani Diwani’, ‘Samaj Ki Bhool’, ‘Bahan ka Prem’, ‘Prem Pujari’, ‘Ghulam Dakoo’, ‘Lail o Nihar’, ‘Mere Lal’, ‘Prem Bazar’, ‘Do Auratain’, ‘Chal Chal Re Naujawan’, ‘Manjdhar’, ‘Kis Key Leye’, ‘Is Ney Kya Socha’, ‘Chalti Dunya’, and ‘Sham Sawera’.
Actually in the early films or for that matter in the theatre it was considered essential for a composer to be a practitioner as well. And most of them were if one looks at Naushad, Ghulam Muhammed, Kalyanji Anandji as all could play the accompanying instrument like the harmonium. It was probably Khurshid Anwar who did not play or composed his tune on the harmonium, actually without the aid of any instrument. It was perceived that Khurshid Anwar did not know music or was not a practitioner of music, only a dabbler who had drifted into the coterie of professional as a passing fancy. But this was not true for Khurshid Anwar had learnt music from Ustad Tawakkal Hussain Khan and was a vocalist. At least one of his recordings singing a kheyal in ‘Kedara’ has been preserved. He was not a great vocalist, more correct than appealing, definitely a much better composer.
Naushad was supposed to be a very adroit piano and harmonium player besides being a composer of great merit. Ghulam Muhammed was considered a good tabla player. Sajjad Hussain, Panna Lal Ghosh and Timir Baran were great instrumentalists. A composer who was also a vocalist of merit was Sachel Dev Burman who sang his own composition in some films and did not disappoint the audiences who mostly admired him more for his music compositions.
In much later years Shiv Kumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia teamed up to compose music for the films. Both are master instrumentalists. In Pakistan Ustad Nazar Hussain was sarod player of great merit but left it for want of audiences and became a composer. Ravi Shankar and Akbar Ali Khan had an association with film composition which yielded varying results. It is said that Master Ghulam Haider also sang with Noor Jehan in his own composition and C Ramchandra used to sing as Rahul Dev Burman, albeit in very small measure.
Actually, in the classical tradition there was no real distinction between the composer and the vocalist because all vocalists were supposed to sing their own compositions. They sang the compositions of their own gharanas, which were considered to be carrying the stamp of their own copyright, or they sang the compositions of a universally recognised ustad like Sadarung. It did not matter because the real merit of singing rested not only in the composition or bandish but evenly distributed among the many virtues of vocalisation depending in the genre that one was performing. But the world of theatre and then the films bifurcated the role to make specialist composers and specialist singers.
Rafiq Ghaznavi did not belong to the stock of hereditary musicians but like others he became a shagird of an ustad. Some say that he became the pupil of Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan, the doyen of the Patiala Gharana and he was interested in both singing and composing. The one area that was growing and offered great opportunities in the early part of the twentieth century was the film and Rafiq Ghaznavi was irresistibly drawn to it and became a composer of great merit for the films being made in the nineteen forties.
He composed music for ‘Heer Ranjha’, ‘Pavitar Ganga’, ‘Sanjogta’, ‘Jawani Diwani’, ‘Kala Naag’, ‘Prem Pujari’, ‘Bahan K Piyar’ ‘Sitara’, ‘Bahu Rani’, ‘Apni Nagarya’, ‘Sikandar’, ‘Aik Din Ka Sultan’, ‘Sawami’, ‘Kulyoog’, ‘Society’, ‘Laila Majnoon’, ‘Mazaaq’, ‘Najma Taqdeer’, ‘Naukar’, and made only two films in Pakistan ‘Parwaaz’ and ‘Mandi’ and both did not do well at the box office. The songs were also not remembered. He was also associated with the Indian Peoples Theatre Productions like ‘Dharti Ka Laal’ and ‘Nicha Nagar’ and with Ravi Shankar composed music for these films amidst people wanting to make serious cinema K.A Abbas, Chetan Anand, Balraj Sahni who in turn inspired so many of the succeeding generations to make films which were not based purely on a single formula.
Some of the greats of the pre-partition era just did not blossom in the new country and gradually faded away into the shadows of anonymity. Master Ghulam Haider was never able to match his past in Bombay and W.Z Ahmed hardly did any work. Even Shaukat Hussain Rizvi did patchwork in comparison. It has never been analysed thoroughly as to why this happened. Perhaps the people and circumstances were very different and not really conducive for film making. Rafiq Ghaznavi too withered away after coming to Lahore and then shifted to Karachi. He left the film industry, joined the Radio and continued working as long as he could without capturing the creative heights of his Bombay days.
Mohammed Rafi in a song rehersal with Naushad.
1941: Rafiq Ghaznavi’s music in ‘Sikandar’.
Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan.
Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan.