A Labor of Love: Review of “Sadequain: Artist and Poet – A Memoir” by Saiyid Ali Naqvi

by Ali Minai

“Sadequain!” The very name is like a magic word that triggers a tumult of images in the mind. Arguably, no Pakistani artist has elicited more admiration, evoked more passion, and received more adulation than Saiyid Sadquain Ahmad Naqvi, the subject – and really, the hero – of the book “Sadequain: Artist and Poet – A Memoir” by Saiyid Ali Naqvi. In the world of art, be it painting, music, or literature, it is the pinnacle of achievement to be recognized by a single name – to need no further introduction. And rare indeed is the artist who achieves this distinction in his or her own life, as Sadequain did remarkably early in his career as an artist. And this delightful, beautiful, and insightful book shows why. Beginning with the earliest and formative years of Sadequain when he was not yet a legend, it takes the reader systematically through all stages of his life and his growth as an artist, laying bare both the immense determination and the perpetual restlessness of the artist’s genius.

As one goes through the book, it is impossible not be reminded of another great artist – and a near-contemporary of Sadequain – Pablo Picasso (or just “Picasso”), who also went through a sequence of phases in his artistic life, each of which would have sufficed as a life’s work for most artists. And, just as Picasso ultimately became identified in the public mind with his later work, so Sadequain came to be seen by too many as a painter of poetically inspired works with a focus on calligraphy. One of the best things this new book does is to dispel that limited view of Sadequain’s art by reminding the world of the depth, variety and dynamism of his work over a career spanning more than half a century. For this, and for much else, the author deserves great thanks. It helps that the author of “Sadequain: Artist and Poet” is someone who was extremely close to the artist throughout his life – a cousin, but much more like a brother, of the same age, growing up in the same house, going through the formative years of life together in constant companionship, sharing secret thoughts and private impulses. No one could possibly have written a memoir such as this without a deep relationship with his subject – especially when the subject is a person as complex as Sadequain. Reading the book, one cannot help but think of how fortunate both the artist and his memoirist are in having the ideal foil for their respective roles.

The book begins with a history of the artist’s (and the biographer’s) family, and a detailed, quite absorbing description of the ancestral home in which both Sadequain and Saiyid Ali Naqvi were born, and where they spent their boyhood years. Some readers may be tempted to move past this part quickly to get to the chapters about Sadequain’s art, but that would be a mistake. This book has an organic structure because it describes a personality deeply rooted in its cultural soil. An understanding of the artist is not possible without some familiarity with the very special culture and environment that produced him. For all his innovation and experimentation, Sadequain always remained grounded in the very sophisticated literary and cultural tradition into which he was born. His art is not just personal expression – it is also a sustained celebration of his heritage. Indeed, this is one of the things that makes Sadequain such a unique artist in his time and place: He was a masterly painter, but not just a painter. And that, indeed, is what one might consider the central theme of the book, as reflected in its subtitle, “Artist and Poet”. That Sadequain was a poet is well-known, but it is fair to say that his poetry has been obscured in the public mind by the brilliance of his art. Saiyid Ali Naqvi’s new memoir is truly a revelation in this regard! Readers are fortunate that the author quotes Sadequain’s poetry extensively throughout the book, revealing, in the process, a rare poetic sensibility that fully matches Sadequain’s artistic genius.  Indeed, based on just the poetry quoted in the book, it can fairly be said that Sadequain was one of the most original and distinctive poetic voices of his time in Urdu. One hopes that this book, and the recent publication of Sadequain’s poetic opus, will bring his poetry the wide readership it deserves. An especially positive feature of the book in this regard is the inclusion of superb English translations of all the poetry quoted – both by Sadequain and by others. Translating Urdu poetry into English is a task fraught with peril, and both the author and the translator must be congratulated on coming through successfully.

In the first few chapters following the historical background and description of Sadequain’s early life, the author charts the course of the artist’s development chronologically, but once the book gets to the 1960s – which is the period of the full flowering of Sadequain’s art – the chapters become more thematic, focusing on specific styles or types of work. The transitional chapter – entitled “Himself and His Art” (Chapter 5) – is a wonderfully intimate exploration of Sadequain’s vision of himself as an artist, illustrated through personal letters, poetry, and a wealth of pen sketches. In the artistic endeavors described in subsequent chapters, the most notable are the two things for which Sadequain is still known best: His calligraphic work, and his great murals. Always passionately interested in calligraphy, Sadequain had developed a unique style of Urdu (and Arabic) calligraphy that he then fused into his art, illustrating the works of great Urdu poets such as Ghalib and Iqbal, and selected texts from the Qur’an. In many of these works, the calligraphy became an element of art rather than just text, often intertwining with pictorial motifs in remarkable ways. Not only does this remain the best-known style of Sadequain’s work, it has spawned a whole new tradition in the artistic culture of Pakistan that has flourished ever more since Sadequain’s time. It is interesting to read in the book that some of Sadequain’s admirers, including the author of the book, were a bit concerned that the calligraphic work was obscuring the artist’s other styles, and that the artist apparently took this to heart.

The great mural called “The Saga of Labour” that Sadequain painted at Mangla Dam Power House, and the murals at the State Bank of Pakistan building in Karachi, and the Punjab Public Library in Lahore deservedly get their own chapters in the book. In style, complexity, and scale, these can be regarded as the most comprehensive expression of all aspects of Sadequain’s artistic genius. The chapter on the Mangla Dam mural – the most famous of all the great murals – is especially interesting because, as a senior officer for the Mangla Dam project, the author, Saiyid Ali Naqvi, was intimately involved in having the mural commissioned and brought to fruition. Thus, the book provides an insider’s perspective on how this great work came to be made, and what twists and turns the project went through until completion. Most importantly, because of the special relationship between the artist and his biographer, we get a truly in-depth, uniquely intimate view of the vision, the ideas, and the goals that motivated Sadequain as he imagined, planned, and executed this monumental work of art. Ultimately, the five-section mural ended up being 169 feet long and 23 feet high. Sadequain took less than three months to complete this 3,887 square foot mural describing the saga of labor from the initial agrarian phase through monumental construction and the industrial age, culminating in its triumph in great modern works such as Mangla Dam. The one major mural by Sadequain that does not get much space in the book is “The Earth and the Heavens” mural installed on the ceiling of Frere Hall in Karachi, where many of the artist’s other works are also displayed. Perhaps this is because the mural was left unfinished due to Sadequain’s death in February 1987, but it is, in fact, one of his most beautiful works.

While all chapters in the book are full of interest, one that readers from Pakistan might find especially intriguing covers the murals and paintings Sadequain made in various Indian venues. Though clearly in the same tradition as the artist’s other work, they also show some distinctive characteristics reflecting their special context. Another interesting chapter is Chapter 6, where the author delves into Sadequain’s abiding fascination with the cactus form. Apparently, he encountered cacti when he worked in Gadani village near Karachi, and adopted their thorny, somewhat twisted form as a key motif in a lot of his subsequent art. Besides his calligraphic style, the cactus theme can be seen as one of the most distinctive identifiers of Sadequain’s art. Finally, one of the most fascinating themes running through the book is the author’s description of Sadequain’s intellectual ethos. Artists are often seen only in terms of their imagination and creativity, but the best artists are always motivated by some underlying intellectual and cognitive framework – a worldview, so to speak. Sadequain’s worldview shines through clearly in this biography, and it is one grounded in modern ideas of humanism, rationality, and a scientific rather than a traditional obscurantist mindset. This ethos finds expression both in Sadequain’s art and his poetry, and the author of this biography has done a great service to Sadequain’s memory by making this explicit in the book.

Even the best of works always leave room for improvement and this book is no exception. Indeed, it is precisely because this book is so beautiful and so valuable that it is important to point out where problems need to be addressed. Fortunately, the concerns noted below are relatively superficial, and do not detract much from the value of the book – but they should be attended to if the book is re-published. The first concern is that, while the quality of English translations for the poems is very high and largely error-free, the same cannot be said for the Urdu transliteration of the poems in the Roman script. There are numerous glaring errors in this throughout the book. Most of them are typos, though many lines are missing words, or have incorrect words. In some cases, the correct word can be guessed; in others the meaning is lost entirely. Clearly, the author and the translator had the correct originals before them, since the translations and the discussion of the poems in the text are all appropriate. As such, this is a non-issue for readers who read only the English text, but it does mar the pleasure for those who wish to enjoy the Urdu originals as well. In future editions, it would also be best to adopt a single consistent spelling for every Urdu word instead of using many different variants. Indeed, the best course would be to adopt the established transliteration standard used in academic publishing. The second thing where there is room for improvement is in the illustrations. The inclusion of a large number of beautiful illustrations of Sadequain’s art is one of the highlights of the book, but several illustrations are printed in a size too small to be useful (for example, the pen sketches that include extensive calligraphy). Of course, larger, higher resolution illustrations increase the cost of the book, but adjusting the size of a selected set of illustrations would go a long way towards improving the reader’s experience.

In sum, “Sadequain: Artist and Poet – A Memoir” is a beautiful, fascinating, informative, and absorbing book that is well worth reading for anyone interested in art and Urdu poetry. But even more than that, its greatest value is as a cultural history as seen through the life of an individual who had an important role in shaping that history. The author deserves admiration and gratitude for collecting together so much of his great cousin’s work – both artistic and poetic – and weaving it into a compelling story of a life well-lived. The book is an important addition to the literature on the cultural history of Pakistan, and a fitting tribute to a great artistic and literary genius. The author’s love and regard for his subject illuminates every word, which adds immensely to the value and authenticity of this labor of love.