Author: Dr. Akbar Naqvi | Publication: Hostage– Smoked Persian | Dated: Jan 1992-94
Shahid Sajjad found his first primitives in the Chittagong hill tracts; those in the exhibition came from the terrain of his experience. In between were wanderings and uninterrupted learning from the wanderings. Together they made the “janam kundali” of his life and art which are inextricably intertwined. His whole life can be seen as getting away from his world, only to return to himself. He sloughs off his old self as new ones are renewed. This happens because he lays himself open to experience. For him experiencing unconditionally is far more important than seeking pre-conceived experiences. Life and craft are coterminous in Shahid, and this is the only schooling he has known. We live and work without experiencing either. He says, at the height of his career, that it is only now that his concerns are purely sculptural. All along he was familiarising himself with his tools and materials.
If Shahid was questioned who his primitives really are, he would ask us to look at the images he has created of them in wood. lf pressed to explain what does he mean by the word, he would reject all of the dictionary meanings. Words such as uncivilised, rude, crude and old-fashioned would be repudiated. Shahid believes that his primitives are far more real than shadows of humanity we have made of ourselves in the name of civilisation and progress. They may not be found easily, but they live in the human psyche. Through his primitives he is attempting a critique of the psyche and of the human state today. Shahid would admit that his primitives are the original humans, people of arrested time and progress. They repudiate history and walk through time in a circle. They are our “hamzaad”s (doubles). One of our problems is that we have kept them locked in the dungeons of our self. They have become the troglodytes of Freud, or, apparitions of their own primordial mythic beings. Shahid would go a step further and say that they are our contemporaries, perhaps the best friend, philosopher and guide. In the end, he would point to the images themselves and leave us with them, saying that he cannot speak for them really. They came to him and he is introducing them to the wide world.
Shahid has lived a free life by choice, at the mercy of chance, like a wandering fakir. If you have nothing to lose, you have your life to gamble with. If you depend upon the Urge to guide your life, the Urge may not be there, and when you start seeking it you end up dead creatively. As Ghalib says,
(Effort there is none to stay my wild roving/there are wheels on my legs, not chains).
For years now he has been fixed in Karachi, hermetically stationed in his studio, because he has interiorised his wanderings. The only master he has known is the Urge, call it his daemon as Plato knew the word. This daemon has made him vulnerable. It has also prompted him to break ties in search of uncertainties. One makes one’s self a hostage to the rhythm of the stars. Vulnerability has led him to eventful experiences. lt was in the Louvre, he realised accidentally, that he was going to be a sculptor. Gauguin’s brutal wood carving gave him the signal. Confidence born in Paris came to fruition in the hill tracts of Chittagong in the then East Pakistan. In Japan and Sumatra he was impressed by the venerable tradition of carpentry seen in old buildings. In Japan, again, he was introduced to bronze casting as it has been practised for centuries there. In Rangamati he advanced his carving technique. From England he saw how bronze was cast on a monumental scale. Each movement, getting away and return, repeated in his life without forethought, could be seen as a compulsive desire to lose him for unforeseen renewals.
Shahid has not only wandered through geographic and psychic spaces, he has also been a journeyman of craft. He really got to know wood in Rangamati. Fire showed him the prehistoric and arcane secrets of bronze casting. What he learnt, ahove all, from his experiences was respect for materials and tools and a deep belief in “tawakkul”, very inadequately translated in English as patience. There has to be both patience and trust in this attitude, and even though Shahid would not claim that he is a mystic, his confidence that the next day will add something of value to his experience is deeply religious. A Japanese bronze sculptor, Kato San, whom he acknowledges as his only master, and with whom he has remained in touch, transferred to him his tradition’s respect for material. Even the sight of whole families of artisans, father, mother and children, carving images for tourists in Bali was an awakening into the significance of craft as family vocation. Ancient schools of craft led by masters used to be replicas of Sufi order. Families pursuing the path for something mundane were nonetheless poignant, because craft held in spiritual respect was now a fallen woman selling cheap in the bazaar.
Shahid was to find confirmation of his adventuring life from Krishnamurti, whom he read regularly over the years. Krishnamurti taught him the value of openness to experience, always incomplete and never definitive. The English poet John Keats also spoke of the poet’s openness to all kinds of experiences, and coined the ungainly phrase Negative Capability for this state of being. Himself uneducated academically, Krishnamurti found wisdom by living an unstructured life of the mind. He taught that every individual, if he is a seeker, is his or her own guru. He was led to discover his own quality space, a state of awareness rather than a fixed territory Shahid learnt from him that others, no matter how exalted as authority they may he, could not teach him to live in faith. He knew that he must question to come to answer, living in this way the Socratic dictum that an unquestioned life is not worth living. Shahid discovered that the way he had lived and struggled had given him his own space and distance, in which he could grow and flourish as a full-time sculptor in a land where this art suffers under unjustified prejudices. The problem for him was to shape a life style which would keep his art and life together. He had found through a cultural detour the path of “suluk”. This was necessary because sometimes it is by skirting your own background in faith, by virtue of birth and custom, that universal truths are revealed to you. And, they are shared by all spiritual cultures.
Birth and Wandering
It was in Chandheri, his mother’s village in Muzaffarnagar district, of what was then United Province of India that Shahid was born on March 28, 1936. According to his mother’s testimony, the family came of Turkoman stock, a nomadic, adventuring and shammaniistic tribe which had settled in India in the wake of the Moghul invasion and conquest of the subcontinent. The mystique of material, tools and craft so deeply embedded in Shahid comes, perhaps, from his ancestral, animist genes. His father was a steel worker in North Western Railways’ Moghulpura workshop in Lahore. He has affectionate memories of his father, who died when Shahid was five. But, the child leading his blind father to the mosque, the father buying sweets for him are fresh in memory. He says that he cannot recall his father’s features, but remembers him dangling him in his arms and bathing him with his hands. The natural body odour of the father has stayed in his nostrils to this day. He sees his mother as a caring woman of great fortitude. The family seems to have had more than its ordinary share of bad luck. The father went blind after cataract operations. The mother fell from stairs and lost her right arm. Still she would bake bread, and in days of dire poverty, feed him with dry crusts soaked in salted water before he went to school. He also remembers her pink cheeks under the heat of the hearth while making “chappatis”. Shahid laughs and says that now that he recalls her flushed face, he thinks that her claim that they were Turkoman could be true.
Formal schooling for Shahid in Lahore finished with class seven. He had left school at fifteen. ln a deeper sense, this was the first initiation into the rites of wandering. “Hijrat” is deeply embedded in our psyche, but we do not know this and do our journeys for very unwise reasons. One of his brothers had moved with his wife to Karachi. Shahid and his mother came to live with them. It was in Karachi that he left home in 1951. He tried to get into the Pakistan Navy but was rejected. We ought to be eternally grateful to the Navy for this unwitting sagacity. Hunger, and belief in his ability to draw, took him one day to a small printing press. He persuaded the owner to let him design labels. He got the job and also a roof over his head. He bunked on the press premises. This was only at stop for the foot loose boy. Perhaps, in his soul, he knew that on the path, there are comfortable stops but no permanent stations. This has been put beautifully by Aatish:
At the end of 1951 Shahid went back to Lahore after trying his luck in Karachi. He worked with a small commercial artist, Abdul Hakim, who used to give him drawing lessons after school hours. lt was in Hakim’s humble studio that Shahid had his first glimpse of canvas paper, tubes of paint and the romantic palette. On Shahid’s request Hakim showed him how he painted in oil. He did the picture of the traditional Heer in, what Shahid rememhers, Ustad Allah Bukhsh style blended with Chughtai’s iconography. The smell of turpentine from that day is still fresh in Shahid’s nostrils. Hakim fell ill and a printer who used to commission work from him asked Shahid to design labels instead. He was paid Rs. 6 for twelve pieces. Shahid says this was more money than he had ever handled. He bought his first ever Peshawari pair of chappals, a pair of trousers and a shirt. A pauper, with one disintegrating shirt and trousers to his body, he was suddenly a prince. Shahid says that this was a breakthrough. He never looked back from this day onward, he adds, with becoming pride.
In 1952 Shahid Sajjad returned to Karachi and free lanced for printers doing designs for them. His only training in drawing was in class six and seven when students started English reading and writing as well as drawing from earthen utensils. The drawing master was Ghulam Nabi “tunda”. He had lost his left arm in an accident. Was this first ever carving of a free-standing male figure in wood, without arms, a recapitulation of the “tunda”? Shahid recalls that school also boasted of plaster of Paris bust portraits of two headmasters which were never used for drawing. In Karachi, Shahid was independent with enough clothes, food, shoes and money to spare. He joined Manhatten Advertising but within a few months left because he felt he was not paid enough. He walked into D.J. Keymers and worked there for two months. He moved to Lintas next, and was given five rupees more than the three hundred he had asked by way of salary. He left Lintas in 1959 when he was its chief artist. Another trait was becoming apparent, his habit of spurning success and promise of greater things to come. Upward mobility had to be horizontalised. He was philandering shamelessly with jobs and opportunities of worldly success.
It was Baber Ali’s turn now to try his luck with Shahid. He took him to Lahore to work as a designer for his Packages. Shahid stayed only for four months, even though Babar Ali gave him his first car. Shahid had become quite a dandy, too, owning three piece suits and Chinese custom made shoes. He had come to taste the good things of life, was affluent and on his way to corporate epiphany. But he could not stay at one place, nor could he work for anyone. He felt chained. He became Advertising Supervisor in PIA next and then moved to Glaxo Laboratories. lt was while in Glaxos that he finally received the call to get away from his position in society. A tour of the world suggested itself as the means to freedom. Starting as a person of no fixed abode, he was to leave for strange worlds in which he would have no identity. This was his renunciation of the world.
Shahid wrote to a Japanese motor cycle manufacturer, Shin Miewa Industry of Osaka, to give him a Pointer machine to go on a world tour. He had not spent his time in advertising for nothing. With the 125cc powered machine he took off fiom Karachi in early 1960. He returned to Karachi in 1963, and held his first show of wood carvings, paintings and travel sketches in 1964. The exhibition was inaugurated by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. Ardeshir Cowasjee bought a wood carving and a drippaint drawing of two buffaloes for five hundred rupees. The exhibition was not a commercial success and Shahid needed money. He joined United Advertisers and worked for them for a year. It was from here in 1966 that he left for East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Shahid had come to the end of working for others for a living. Henceforth, he would starve but be his own master, entirely at the disposal of his Urge. There were other journeys to come, each in one way or another climacteric for his life and art.
Commercial art was Shahid’s earliest forte. He designed labels to feed and clothe himself, to keep body and soul together. Had not Ghulam Farid, the sainted poet, said that bread was the fifth pillar of faith and for saying this he was hounded out of Delhi by alims (clerics) who believed that their faith was stricter than his? Shahid had seen Abdul Hakim paint and been fascinated by the oil pigments, the palette and above all the smell of turpentine. Why did he not become a painter? Shahid says that he did paint, but the satisfaction he got from the chisel biting into the wood under the blows of mallet was something so absorbing that he could be nothing else but a sculptor. He speaks of physical contact, as if his arm fed power into the wood. He did not experience this while painting. Leonardo da Vinci called painting a gentleman’s art. Sculpture for Leonardo da Vinci was for artisans. Shahid found that the carver’s art, which depends on removing veils from hidden forms, was a much better way of spending the rest of his life. Michelangelo has said the same thing in respect of marble blocks in one of his sonnets to a lady friend. But it was only in his last unfinished figures that he surrendered to his chisel, and let it pay tribute to itself in marble. In this way the stone mason’s craft created its own art.
Rangamati was a different experience. This was, premonitionally, not to be a sightseeing trip, but a confrontation with an ancient, tribal people who lived in spirit-haunted jungles. There were insects and snakes too, besides magic and atavistic shadows. Shahid had cut his moorings temporarily. Still he carried his world with his art. Free he was, in the sense that he had escaped from the unblinking gaze of his world. He was under his own focus now. But the world he had moved into had its own totems and taboos, its own conformities. It had no awareness of freedom or art as Shahid understood it. If freedom is necessity as Engels said, two necessities were ironically matched within the experience, one of Shahid to move with strangers so that he could be free. The other necessity was that of the tribe which lived under an ancient system of conformities. The code of conduct it followed knew nothing of the individual. What was common to Shahid and the tribal’s, however, was that both had escaped from civilisation for their own respective reasons. The sculptor to be had got away from an easy and comfortable life of money; the people of the jungle knew survival because time and history danced for them in circles. Shahid was to find this, and carve his perceptions into wood.
The hill people knew him as an outsider and accepted his temporary stay with natural courtesy. But they did not bare to him their collective or individual souls. Shahid’s integrity lies in the fact that he did not claim to have penetrated into the secrets of their rituals and life in order to appropriate them for art. This is the current enterprise of artists and intellectuals of the West. They scour the third world, and primitive societies within the first world, to penetrate and possess them spiritually. Shahid would not be a Picasso, who imperiously seized Benin masks from Africa for his paintings. He would be a Matisse instead, the artist who loved and respected the light of North Africa and the carpets and miniatures of Persia so that he could learn to colour and decorate his own paintings. Shahid was a voyeur and represented what he saw. The tribal psyche was not forced, nor their customs and spiritual tradition rifled. To have dragged the Rangamati images into drawing rooms was an act of violence against the tribe which Shahid acknowledges with regret. But this is art’s unresolved dilemma, because it is not only primitive societies and cultures which are exposed to the unsympathetic glare of publicity, but privacies of individual souls are also treated the same way, particularly that of the artist himself.
The images of Rangamati belong to the world of appearance. They represent with economy a geograpltical territory where people lived to make us feel civilised. The irony is that going native, too, is a civilised urge. We come to terms with them as exotics. Language is a wonderful necromancer, and is good for our conscience. Shahid’s attempt to represent the natives, within limitations of his knowledge of craft, was more of a protest against our unwarranted feeling of superiority over the primitives. His carvings were also a record in his own spiritual journey and learning of the craft. The mongoloid features, photogenic rather than expressive and the pale complexion of the polished wood marked what the eye had observed. He had yet to find the art of transforming images into symbols, carving from within the heart. No wonder, then, that the character of the medium as medium overpowers form in the Ranganiati phase. The figures are stocky and like the trunks of trees. They are weighted down to the earth, solid and permanent, moving only with the movement of the earth. It is their material aspect which comes out strongly. They are distant too from the world they were to be dragged into, incorporating in them Shahid’s human dilemma with regard to art’s moral responsibility. They also define their own distance from history and progress. He saw them as trees of a particular jungle, accidentally dropped dead in thundering, lightning storms. He resurrected them into pictorial images in the idiom of sculpture. It could be said in his defence and in defence of art that the purpose was not to use those to fill space decoratively, but to remind us of our own distance from the first humans who still live in us. What was said was that Rangamati, too, was a territory of our consciousness.
He would produce a different quality of carving in wood from the Northern Areas of Pakistan. The difference would arise as much from the properties of the material as from the wanderings of his soul. His nomadic moves through his own inner spaces would not cease. He would mature as a craftsman in wood and bronze. One could say that very early in his career, he had this vision of primitive life which calibrated with the moods of nature, its trials, tribulations and generosity; with seasons and the pains of birth, death and rebirth. In this vision there was darkness as well as light, and the one flowed into the other without being wounded by eschatological judgements of one being morally superior to the other. When he came to carve his dark people from essentially white wood, he had arrived at what can be called an artist’s philosophy of life, in which there is a synergy between craft and life. The wood from which he carved his figures was fair, which was only an appearance. Shahid would remove the veil between what they looked like and what they potentially were. Fire would do the unveiling.
Shahid had yet to find his own sculptural idiom. But what gave the Rangamati images their integrity was that they were carved directly from the local trees. He would have blocks cut and dragged to his hut. He lived eighty miles from the nearest settlement in Kaptai. It took him a whole day to reach the reserved forest’s rest house by boat. He was at large in his space but hemmed in by his unfamiliarity with local conditions. His only strength was his craft. He believed he was improvising his craft in the natural environment of his material and subject. Ancient Buddhist sculpture in stone at Bharhut and Sanchi was based on the belief that beautiful fairies spirits lived in trees. Luscious, curvaceous, rhythmic with ample hips and fruity bosoms, they still cavort from the gates of the ancient stupas. They were creatures as much as of the sculptor’s carnal propensities as of religious canons on sculpture. Shahid’s male and female figures do not follow any rules except that which his eyes, his nascent learning of the craft and his mind formulated at this point of time.
Lessons in the craft of carving were picked up by Shahid from observation. There was no teacher and he learnt from practice. The experience in the Louvre had come to its fruition in Rangamati, but in a manner completely different from the French artist’s. Gauguin gouged his shallow reliefs with a misspent passion which was very different from Shahid’s. Shahid would gouge his figures in his, shall we say, Northern Area reliefs. But the purpose here would not be to render forms in lines. He would draw deep, erratic, convoluted lines on figures, not to highlight their forms, but to deepen their personality. This would be his attempt to get inside the forms, to break the aesthetic barrier between them and himself. Gauguin had set out in search of a tropical paradise. Shahid was escaping from the chores of successful careers. Gauguin carried his Christian conscience to Tahiti, and in his paintings he blessed his whores into icons of sanctified sensuality. Shahid went to Rangamatic as a comparative innocent, who put his trust in the place to start him on his art. Gauguin’s journey was ideological, but Shahid’s was in a state of unawareness.
lt is customary with Shahid Sajjad that he gives himself up, for as long as it takes, to one medium and one craft. This is by virtue of necessity because he has to learn first and then gather the fruits of learning in the form of images and thought. Secondly, his means are also limited as he has made no attempt to make money. lt so happened that when he was lying fallow, after having spent himself in wood carving, that he came upon a book by an Italian on the lost-wax process of bronze casting. He had tried fire and smoke on some of his carvings in Rangamati to give his experimental urge an airing. He was inspired by the dried and cured gourds that the local people used. The gourds were handed down from generation to generation in the family, and would take the patina of age and use. The flesh of the gourd is eaten and the shell is dried in the sun. lt is then smoked under the fire of the hearth for years to get its bronze burnish. Shahid still speaks admiringly of the metallic gloss on the outer shell of the gourd, its smoothness inside, and its sculptural presence in humble surroundings far from high art which only traditional Japanese can appreciate as tranquil beauty called Wabi. This beauty comes from the aestheticization of rustic forms of a tea or rice bowl, resplendent in its crudity and charismatic with its accidental glazes. In our culture too, rich beauty of colour and light is associated with objects of use as aesthetic form.
The Metal Interlude
Karachi was Shahid Sajjad’s point of return from journeys abroads. Departures were far more meaningful for him than arrivals. But a “mustaquar”, a place of landing had to be located. Return to Karachi was necessary before another movement could start as in symphonic music. The rhythm of Shahid’s life was left to its own volition. He would wait long and expectantly for the visitation of the Urge to travel in geography or in art. He had to be pollinated from the air as it were. Shahid came across bronze casting in an Italian booklet, and in 1968 he made an attempt to cast. He says today that had he known the problems he would encounter in bronze casting, he would never have tried it. But ignorance was bliss, he comments. He recognises it as the dark seed of learning. Shahid says that he did not have formal education in which knowledge and experience of hundreds of years are accumulated and preserved for formalised transmission to students. He had to invent his own curriculum while learning on the job. If one is as intelligent and observant as Shahid is, perhaps this is the best way. In any case, for those who have no means and whose ambition is second to none, this is the best method. Then he is led by what is called “lagan” in Urdu, the madness of a mind in love. The path is dangerous, and there is no guarantee of success. Certainly, there is no money in it.
Shahid gave up bronze casting after two or three failed attempts. For six years he was unemployed by his Urge. Mystics call this state one of abandonment, in which they do not receive guidance. Most seekers after the mystic light and divine gnosis never come out of this state. A few do and Shahid did come out to wrestle with his medium again. While visiting North Korea and China with Zia Mohyuddin and his show as a stage designer, he went again to Japan on his own. There he attached himself to Akio Kato, bronze sculptor, who showed Shahid his studio and how bronze was cast in it. Altogether, this was a four to five hours observing experience. He would meet Kato san again in 1988, when he gave Shahid all the time and was kind enough to say that “now you are my teacher”, a graceful and urbane compliment to a fellow artist who had made it on his own, Kato San’s compliment was in acknowledgment of Shahid`s success with a monumental bronze relief he had cast for the Nowshera Armoured Corps Mess. On return from his visit to Japan, a period of three years of trial and error followed. He finally had fifteen to twenty cast pieces ready. Earlier in 1976, he had taken a trip to England and spent three months with Jim Matheson and another sculptor, learning mould-making and advancing his casting skills.
Shahid spent the next ten years with bronze. Each casting was like sitting for an examination with himself as the merciless juror. The danger that he would burn himself to death was real. His economic resources were meagre, but with help from friends such as Suleman Ghanchi he built his own facilities. This was at best primitive, as Shahid says with a gentle laugh. The word primitive changes meaning and role for him, sometimes indicating the conditions in which he works as well as celebrating forms he creates. The same quality of semantic density would emerge from his Northern Area wood sculpture.
He cast over fifty or more pieces of various sizes, the most monumental being the 14×5. feet mural relief for the Armoured Corps Mess at Nowshera. What he was faced with in casting this and other pieces was lack of first rate facilities and a base of craft experience in the country. He had to do everything himself. The huge relief weighed one ton and was cast in six sections. The first casting was a total disaster. He could have been severely burnt in this hazardous adventure. There were many technical difficulties, too. For example, Shahid did not know how to control shrinkage of the casts which were in sections. When joined after casting they had to look seamless. One day a visitor from the Lahore Museum dropped in without warning while he was at work. Shahid had never seen or met him before. Coleridge was unexpectedly interrupted by the now proverbial visitor from Porlock when he was in the state of automatic transmission of his famous poem Kubla Khan. The poem was never completed. In the case of Shahid his unexpected visitor was a god-send, even though he knew nothing about bronze casting. His visit resulted in the solution of a knotty technical problem which had Shahid stumped. The mural may not have been cast without this accident.
When the visitor saw what Shahid was doing, he remembered a visit to a foundry in Rome. He had seen lots of black material lying around, and was told on enquiry that grounded charcoal was used in bronze casting. Shahid says that, in a flash he had found the solution, which was to use the same material to control shrinkage. He tried it and it worked like a dream, he adds. With the mural the challenge was from the craft which would absorb all his energy and interest. The imagery, therefore, had to be simple and direct. Shahid chose to show the historical change from horse cavalry to tanks in the Nowshera mural. The thing to look at and appreciate, however, is what Shahid learnt of bronze casting, its perils and his own courage. One goes to the basics, and what one sees is the metal, itself, as its own monumental image. It is not recognised generally that Shahid’s mural is the only one of its kind in Pakistan or even Asia. That he did it under conditions described above, makes it a landmark of a heroic order in art in South Asia.
There was a change in Shahid’s imagery in his bronze period. The Rangamati images were not repealed, very wisely, because their credibility as significant form was attached to the natural wood of their habitat. What was dear to Shahid in bronze casting was the metal itself, its ancient history and alchemic process. It was the metal’s incarnation under fire that he celebrated, and for him the charge and the drama were in making than in the result. Perhaps, Shahid’s passion for the process was best expressed by Mir Taqi Mir as the rite of consummation in love:
Shahid’s imagery in bronze had become eclectic. In the Nowshera mural, and several portrait reliefs he cast of the Quaide Azam, Iqbal and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, he was representational. It was said, then, that his experience with the metal had become ironically disappointing. Since he was being tested by the metal, engaged body and soul in coming to grips with it, he let his imagination laze with imagery. He was accused of being Moresque. But this is not entirely so. There were only passing references to Moore. But while paying tribute to the greatest living sculptor of the age, he was also pointing an accusing finger at him for having his casting done, commercially, in specialised foundries. This was his protest against distribution of labour, too, and elitist segregation between art and craft. Shahid’s metal bore his touch and incorporated the saga of his life-and-death struggle with the medium from modelling to casting and finish. Kashmir and South India were seats of excellence in bonze casting. Shahid says that before partition the Sikhs of Rawalpindi had their brass pots and pans cast through the lost wax process. In any case, Shahid Sajjad had resurrected this craft from extinction in Pakistan, and he is genuinely proud of it. In Shahid’s condition the divide between craft and art had no meaning. This is why, when you speak to him, you will find that he believes in striking a balance between the two. Under exceptional circumstances the two are one..
lt is true, however, that Shahid did not fully explore the possibilities of the various images thrown up by the bronze casting process itself. Tension between control and accident was dialectically synthesised. Several examples come to mind. There were small casts of what can be called bronze “origami”, small pieces of flat metal folded into abstract shapes. One of the most powerful, a wax model for casting was the image of a piece of thick drapery in expressive folds, empty of body and hanging from the gallows. He did this drapery in hanging of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. I have yet to see a more powerful discourse on tyranny and its ways in the annals of Pakistani art. It deserves to stand in a public place as man’s protest against his own inequity. There were also casts of strange shapes rising from square planes, which looked like outcrops from haunted dreams. Surrealism at the most gothic. They were small objects and should have been cast on a monumental scale had Shahid’s economic condition permitted.
There were seated nudes which looked as if they were moulded by sea winds. Zephyrs had drawn Botticelli’s Muses; Shahid’s were the gift of the elements. Then there were nude reliefs he had cast to perfection. One, 10×5 inches, body tightly folded within narrow space, had emerged as an icon of sensual innocence, the warmth of fire still alight in it. It is strange that large commissions have not come his way from either private or corporate sources. Not that public monument has not been ordered by corporations eager to do their duty by way of beautifying Karachi. The sorry spectacle these works present, and the shameless ignorance of our captains of industry and chieftains of trade in matters of aesthetic quality, can only be called abysmal.
Back to Wood
The recent sculptures and reliefs in the exhibition had their inception in yet another wandering and unforeseen event. Shahid was visiting a friend, Jamil Afridi, who has a furniture factory at Nowshera. Blocks of mulberry, Persian lilac and other local woods from the Northern Areas were lying in the factory yard. They beckoned to Shahid and messages passed between them. This was the beginning of his second courtship with wood. Again, as in the case of the Rangamati wood, no one had carved sophisticated art forms from them. A true transformation would take place in which the craft of making would be as significant as the form that would emerge. The sawed blocks and planed woods would he delivered to Shahid and, once again, an accidental move would emerge as a new direction for the sculptor. These materials would have lain in his studio seemingly indefinitinely had he not started to doodle with a piece. Scratching deep lines aimlessly on and into the surface led him to the use of the brazing torch. He burnt lightly the surface of the wood and found that it reveal grains he had not suspected it to possess. He immediately saw how very unpromising wood could be transformed into alchemic gold. With mounting excitement he used automotive paint, which he had tried earlier when drawing on painted surfaces with the point of a chisel, and burnt it into the skin of the wood. Burnt spots had aesthetic promise. In this whole process, Shahid abrogated for himself the role of “Mashooq”, as in our Persian – urdu “ghazal” culture. Wood becomes the eternally punished “aashiq”. Thus the spirit of ghazal “taghazzul” was incarnated in wood and the inflictor and sufferer of cruel pain enacted mutually the rites of love. The irony of role reversal was not missed. Shahid gave away this piece to a friend as a farewell gift.
An impressive array of tools, mostly Japan would be added to form locally fabricated tools to Shahid`s design as work progressed. His brazing torch would take its place with the chisels. Flame would transform wood into icons of art. Chisel would be used in a new manner as a tool of drawing. Shahid had used it to draw on automotive paint spread on white art paper. He would put deep wounds, make sharp scratches on the body of his relief figures. Colour would be singed into them while the natural whiteness of the wood would be burnt black. Fire would also be used on the free standing sculptures to bring out the hidden grains of the wood. The grains, after they had been exposed by fire, would be highlighted with wax and shellac polish. His recent primitives would be baptised with fire. They would be lacerated and scourged as if in a frenzy of passion. Shahid`s explanation for putting scratches on the figures in his relief was that he had the urge to transfer to them the power he felt within himself. Tigers do this when they are mating, or, when they are marking their property. Proprietary rights go with sex. The thing is that marks of passion suit the sculptor’s reliefs so well. They wear scratches as the pledge of their connection with the sculptor. Here is something new by way of technique which shows Shahid’s control over his medium and craft. We become aware that fierce playfulness is a creative force.
The primitives have very sad faces and, in different poses, they articulate resignation. In his free standing forms hands, upraised in appeal or stretched down to cover shame, show their helplessness. They are our victims and yet in a curious way our accusers too. Gaged within us for ages, domesticated and controlled, so that we could claim to be civilised, they are in fact our totems of fear and guilt. They are neither angelic nor diabolic. They are close relations of the animals as we are, but we deny this relationship. According to occult science every human has an animal counterpart. Animals were not savages, it says, but man made them so. Animals and men have lived in mutual dependency from the days of our prehistoric ancestors. From the Altimara caves to the Egyptian, Persian, Indian and Greek mythologies, this dependency has been recognised and respected. Animals represented, in ancient civilisations, power of this world and the world of the divine. Even today our cars run on horse power. ln our own culture, the Prophet (PBUH) rode the “buraq”, a winged, female-faced horse of Persian mythological vintage, on his journey through the heavens. Ali was called “Shere Khuda” (the lion of God). Languages are full of phrases and idioms which bring the human and the animal close together. Buddha in one of his early lives was a kind, white elephant, Aesop told animal stories to teach us sense but, above all, I suspect, to make us respect them and take care of them. Fariduddin Attar, the 14th century poet, took his readers through a mystic journey to the abode of the fabulous Simorgh in the company of birds. Examples can be multiplied. What shahid is doing is to point the obvious that in losing the primitive in us we losing the animal and therefore the human.
The figures, as true forms, do a lot more than stir our thoughts. They invite us to contemplation rather than public protest. They cover their shame because we have transferred it to them. They appeal to be saved because it is as much our need. These figures are full of knowledge and therefore wise. This is evident from the way they are seen immersed within themselves. They possess the “dhayan” of a Buddha. They have inward looking eyes of the Vedic seers. In the reliefs, eyes are like apertures opening into their inside. The figures have no desire to see us or the world, because they have seen enough. They are a world unto themselves, and what they suggest us to do is to look at them and from them at ourselves. They invite us to soul searching.
Unlike the Rangamati figures which were to be seen from a distance, Shahid’s current primitives encourage intimacy and love. They run the danger of becoming our favourite pets. Since they are a part of us, they want us to be part of their life. They touch us because they need protection from their prosecutors. Each figure is an ironic comment on the human condition from which they have been kept apart. Shahid believes that we have lost primeval vitality, and his primitives remind us that the apartheid of energy and spirit within ourselves must end. True creatures of mother earth, they warn us that we all will perish if we do not respect nature and its own. The wonderful thing is that Shahid’s primitives can sustain debate and discussion by their very presence. This is their strength.
Yet another remarkable characteristic of Shahid`s figures is their ambivalent gender. It does not seem that he thinks of his primitives as hermaphrodites. Their gender is incidental to their humanity. As will become evident in his treatment of the theme of mother and child, it is duality that he questions, particularly when differences of any kind are pushed to extreme. There are two Mother and Child pieces carved in pink willow and mulberry wood. More than Christian iconology, the images were suggested by the nature of the wood blocks. Ibne Arabi’s analogy of the potter and his clay is insightful. He says that the range of vessels the potter can make depends on the nature of the clay. The Mother and Child have been carved from one block but as a single image. Shahid says that he thought of calling the two Pietas I and II. What the image suggested, however, was the idea of two in one or one in two, of unity and multiplicity and knowledge of how polarisation has lethally divided human beings. Intelligently understood, the idea of unity in multiplicity, and multiplicity in unity, can save us in Pakistan as well as bring peace to the world. And what could illustrate the nature of oneness and duality better than the image of mother and child. Call this insight Vedantic monism of Shankra or “Wahdatul Wajud” of Ibue Arabi and Maulana Rum. In Urdu and Persian classical poetry this subject is the heritage of gnosis. Shahid’s interest in carving the image was not ontological or moral. He was only helping two blocks of wood to find its aesthetic form.
The creative mind works in a very complex way. lt likes to be helped by ambiguity, which does not create confusion, but adds depths of meaning. Art speaks in symbols within which ideas and thoughts, sometimes disparate, rub shoulders amicably. When a symbol becomes sign, it loses its depth and becomes sectarian. One of Shahid’s images of Mother and Child illustrates how a symbol holds meaning close to its heart. There is no connection between a “rehal”, the wooden support for the Quran when it is read aloud publicly, and mother and child. But the technical problem of carving the figures as two-in-one was resolved by the u7 “rehal”. The wooden support for the Quran fits in so well with the mother child relationship. Any child, even if it is not holy, is God’s “rehmat”, His mercy. “Rehmat” in Arabic is derived from “reham” (the womb), and mercy is motherhood. Here is an example of technique and thought making 21 festivals of meanings.
Shahid speaks of transferring bodily energy from himself to his reliefs when the deep scratches and burnt marks on them is mentioned. Anger, building up within him at the inequity and depreciation of civilisation and the civilised man, his centuries old attempts to drive a wedge between reason and instinct, has a paradoxical effect in the reliefs. The human figure in the reliefs, scarred and violated, looks curiously gentle if not entirely meek. Nonviolence in them comes from their “dhayan”. Shahid’s violent treatment apart, they seem to call for love. If not prophets, risen from the dark bosom of nature, they are nevertheless Magis of another coming, that of the sons and daughters of the earth. It is they in whom we can have hope of healing what Toynbee called “schism in the soul” of man.
A Matter of Space
Shahid is not a philosopher. He is a sculptor whose images occupy what the American sculptor Richard Serra calls “ideological space”. There will be confrontation between Shahid’s images and viewers, because the images will have invaded the space of the viewer. In this process a new space will be created, old ideologies will be found wanting, in fresh experience. The English poet Jeremy Hooker, who writes experimental poems on sculptor Lee Grandjean’s wood sculpture, speaks of a quality space. ln the end chattering must stop, and we revert to silence. Deepened by the presence of form. What passed between Shahid and his culpture, he alone can recall. The figures are free of the sculptor, to speak for themselves. It is best to listen to them by entering into their space and try to match our silence with theirs.
This piece of writing started with a quotation from Whitehead, a great mathematician, philosopher and seer. He seemed to have discovered the power of life. Shahid`s life and art offer a note on the deep and dangerous meaning of life. When you contemplate the visage of life with this knowledge, art and craft are reconciled in a wondrous totality of internally spaced values.