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I Have Learnt to Listen to the Dictates of my Material”

Author: Dr. Akbar Naqvi      Publications: The Herald - Fine Arts (p.137)      Dated: Nov 1994

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Dr Akbar Naqvi. I understand you are going to hold an exhibition, perhaps on November 20. Recently you told me that it is only now that your concerns are purely sculptural because for the last 15 to 20 years you have been trying to learn only the use of your tools and have been trying to get to know the material. In many ways, that is a very profound statement, because what l understand it says is that in the education of an artist, or for that matter anyone in the arts, even though his whole life is an unending process of education, a certain position on that life becomes very, very important from the point of view of what you said about learning. Could you elaborate on what you really meant?

Shahid Saiiad. For the convenience of understanding the question in its right perspective, lll divide it into two: there is learning, like we have memory, which is of two types – one is essential memory and one is memory which carries our prejudices, dislikes and things like that. Similarly, there is a learning which is mechanical in character, which is the use of tools and materials and purely what it can do for you and, of course, even designing your tools for a specific purpose that you have in mind. This learning can be accumulated over the years and you start calling it experience.

As I said, all these years I have been concerned about tools and materials, it is because, as you know very well, I have no formal education in that field, so I had to struggle, I had to find out. Fortunately, I was very lucky in being able to find some people, all over the world, who were very kind and gracious, and whatever little they taught me, I was able to build upon to such an extent that sitting here alone I was able to do everything. One of my teachers in Japan was really puzzled as to how anybody could do that. But it happened because I needed it. You see, it was sheer need that expanded that little source material into a large chunk.

The other part to me is very spiritual, psychological. What I mean is that wherever I have been, whatever my quest has been, tells me that it is something you cannot accumulate. It is something which nobody can teach you. So, there must be a condition, a state of mind, in which things come and go. I very strongly stillness which has no form, nothing of itself, but is ready to receive whatever comes. That is the ground on which I think my game is now going to be played. In the sense that, to express myself, l have discovered the form. I have found the form for myself, which is sculpture. In sculpture I have also exploited both sides -the subtractive and the additive. Explored may be a large word for me but I suppose l have a basic minimum where l can function without any hindrance…

A.N. You mean both carving and modelling?

S.S. Carving and modelling, or carving and casting. Now, in that… you seen… it is my life. And this life, and the manner, the way, it wishes to express itself. I therefore see myself as a medium… in which this is going to happen or it is happening to whatever extent it may be happening. It is in this context that I said that I am concerned with purely the sculptural problem. It may not be the physicality of sculpture. Essentially, it is the discovery of life. I cant say I expect to, or I am preparing myself, to receive at this point. Like a gardener, I have prepared the soil, got the right seed, I have the water, I have the fertiliser. I have sown the seed… I feel from this point on like a gardener who can do nothing, so I can do nothing except wait.

A.N. This point you have raised is very interesting because you say you have prepared yourself and the only thing you can do now is wait, because, in your experience, things cannot be forced. You cannot force things to come to you. Its like love. It has to be instantaneous, spontaneous…

S.S. It is not an act of will.

A.N. But the other side to it is that you also run a great danger – suppose it doesnt happen. Suppose nothing happens to you? Have you thought of that?

S.S. You see, this is where vulnerability comes in. Yes, when you sow the seed you know that it may or may never become a plant. lt may never have any flowers. That is not for you to choose.

A.N. Suppose it doesnt come. Do you believe you can create significant art, you can work on the basis of the non- arrival of something you are waiting for? What i mean is disappointment or frustration or the realisation some time that whatever you were waiting for is not happening to…

S.S. As you yourself said that frustration is just a different state of mind. But if there is a work of art at the end of it, then I know that maybe this is what I have been waiting for.

A.N. I was essentially thinking in very negative terms and I understand that art is not negative. Negative is positive in art provided it is happening to you…

S.S. I think that division ceases to be there so there is no division. Whether there is happiness or disappointment or a long state of waiting. That state of waiting is an event, a happening, if it triggers off certain experiences.

A.N. Lets go back to some of the statements which you made earlier. You divided your life into several stages. There was a stage of learning… that doesnt mean that you have stopped learning… but essentially, the concentration by force of your circumstance was to acquire the skill of the craft, of the art with which you had fallen in love. At what point in time did you realise the special kind of relationship between craft and life in terms of experience?

S.S. No I didnt. But they are positioned differently. You see, craft and skill… I would use the word vehicle as a metaphor… they are vehicles; they are not essentially things in themselves. This vehicle has to carry something that is unknown even to you, which is lying buried inside you. It is through the vehicle that you are carrying, or you are furthering or taking it to someone that you want to share it with, so, the better the vehicle the more efficiently it will reach the person. Then, I think, it carries not only that particular expression but it carries all of your being. When you present someone with that purity of thought, I think everything – your entire being – reaches out.

A.N. What you are trying to say then is that craft contributes to art as much as experience.  S.S. The quality of life is the thing in question.

A.N. Fine. But what is the role of craft there? Let me tell you why I am asking this question. There is a misconception, in my opinion, that there is art and there is craft. Art is something superior and craft is something artisans do. Something that a carpenter does or a blacksmith does. But what you have found from your experience is that there wasnt such a sharp distinction between the two. One led to the other and the other came back from it. One led to life, life came back to craft. So in that sense what l is trying to establish is that this question of skill, this question af craft, when does craft become expression? Can the two be separated?

S.S. Yes. Lets look at it this way. There is an entrance to a home. The entrance itself only opens that possibility of entering and therefore discovering the home. Craft, as I said, is a vehicle, or like a door. To a craftsman it begins and ends there. It doesnt have a space behind it. The role of an artist begins as soon as that ends -the craft, the skill, and the possibilities that it carries to flower. A craftsman becomes a victim of the market. He sees whatever he sees within that limited phenomena and therefore becomes a machine and starts producing more and more. That is where, l think, most people differentiate between craftsmen and artists. I think it is fairly justified in the sense that unless the layers are explored you cant even hope to see what is under.

S.S. But Shahid, lve got a problem now. Lets take your Rangamati wood carvings and lets take your present carvings. I feel that technique as technique is not only much more expressive but also very subtle in the work that you are doing today. The value of technique as technique cannot be taken away from there, because you have tried so many new experiments. You have done things which nobody else has done anywhere in the world. In Rangamati you were fairly conventional in that sense. Also, what would you say now? Wouldnt you say that your craft, craft as craft, craft as skill, craft as technique in your mature work, in your best work to date, is playing a much wider role than it did in Rangamati?

S.S. Surely it will. It always will.

A.N. Why is that so?

S.S. Because while you are discovering the space behind the craft, you are also discovering the craft itself. Because, involvement is to unfold. To unfold pages of whatever you come across. Life, your skill, your craft, your understanding. This is what is taking place at all levels. So if you look at these skills, if you are referring to what I am using now, these skills are no good for, lets say furniture making.

A.N. Thats a very good point. In fact, as you say in Urdu, aap bigaar rahay hain, Aap bana key bigaar rahay hain…

S.S. Yes, you are destroying. Some craftsmen will see this as destruction of material. These aspects make a lot of difference as they unfold. More simply put, a craftsman is repetitive in his skill. Rigidly repetitive and his expertise comes out of that repetition.

A.N. lt stops at a point. But there again, I must hang on to craft for as long as l can. Coming back to it, you used the word “destroying.” l believes, in the context of your art – Rangamati and the present work – you have the confidence to destroy because you have greater confidence that you will make something good. And you are destroying things because of a greater control over craft than you had in Rangamati.

S.S. Yes. You see, the thing is that when I was in Rangamati, l had started wood-carving on my own for only about a year and a half or two. So, you see that was that total exposure to wood- carving that l had. That was also the time I had about four chisels which a friend had sent me from Japan. So, I dont even attribute my adventure to wood-carving. The carving happened. If you ask me, frankly I was discovering the Chittagong Hill Tracts more than I was discovering wood-carving. I was discovering people there. I was discovering so much in that year and a half there.

A.N. So how many tools have you got now?

S.S. Now I have plenty.

A.N. So that makes a significant difference? You have also had tools specially made for what you are doing now?

S.S. Yes.

A.N. For your process of destruction or perhaps disfiguring is perhaps the right word, you have added another tool. Your blow torch, brazing torch – whatever its called.

S.S. Yes. You are a witness to it. It all happened in good time. There are things which, when I look back, really took 25 years. Even to learn to burn, if you measure in terms of time, it took me twenty years.

A.N. You first tried it in Rangamati?

S.S. Yes, with a kerosene lamp. I tried to smoke the wood the way the tribal people used to smoke their objects. Thats where the idea germinated.

A.N. Do you think your experiments or years of experience with bronze casting initiated you into the use to fire and wood?

S.S. No, it was before that. Although it was the kerosene lamp.

A.N. You tried it, but greater confidence came later. When did you discover that the brazing torch was going to be of such wonderful use for you? Whatever tool you are using, that instrument basically is an attempt to get into yourself, to find out about yourself. So when and how did you discover this tool?

S.S. One day, this friend of mine, Gregory, was leaving Pakistan and l just wanted to give him something. I was not even doing wood-carving then. I had done one wood- carving for a charity – Race Against Time – a small piece of wood was lying at home, so I thought that instead of giving him a drawing or a bronze (a bronze I couldnt afford to give)- I thought I would carve it and give it to him. While I was carving this piece of wood, the brazing torch was lying there because I was working in bronze, so I just tried it and that started working… and there were some colours… then I started using all sorts of things…. As I did one thing it led to the other. The other led to still another and thats howl went just berserk. Thats how this second phase of wood carving overtook me…

A.N. Do you think youre out of this phase, or will you be in this phase for some time? l know you dont do things for exhibitions, but…

S.S. And I also dont take such decisions. lm fairly open to a lot of things.

A.N. Whatever may come. Whatever dictates something? Some urge.

S.S. Yes. I have learnt to listen to the dictates of materials.

A.N. Lets go back to the education of an artist. You educated yourself. You had no formal schooling. I am going to ask you a very direct question. Do you think schools are needed to educate people to become painters and sculptors?

S.S. Doctor Sahib, the problem is, in an organised society, unless things are structured, it cannot function. Now, the problem that I see taking place in an organised society, with something like education, is that certain things. by sheer misunderstanding by over- emphasis on the wrong side of something, end up distorted. By and large this is what I see happening. For instance, lll give you just one example. In an art school you are all the time talking of creative activity. Now, l dont think anybody even thought for a second that tradition and history are anti-creative. They have nothing to do with creative action or even the understanding of creative action, even remotely. If history and tradition is understood in its right perspective, I think, it can do a lot of good, but because it is taught in a different context, because it is taught to make people clever, so both tradition and history end up destroying the fresh mind. This is my feeling.

A.N. What do you mean? You said just now that, if for nothing else but convenience, a structured education as in a college or school is necessary.

S.S. Yes, within the framework of organised society. Yes. ideally, where you end in an institution, you begin outside the institution, because its the same as in the earlier part of our conversation. This accumulated knowledge is mechanical knowledge which has been learnt, stored and refined. l spent 15 years learning to cast because I had to collect bits and pieces of  information from England, Japan and America, wherever I had the opportunity to be. Whereas, had l been Japanese, l would have learnt bronze casting in six months or one year. I wouldnt have had to spend 15 years. Similarly, there are other aspects, like information, which when I ponder over it, my mind really blows.

A.N. What you are saying is, as somebody said, the process of education is that the four years or lifetime or whatever you spend in acquiring knowledge, experience, skill, and when you get out of the institution, the rest of your life you struggle to unlearn it in order to become an artist, to become a professional.

S.S. Unlearning, I think, in any discipline is vital. Because, let`s assume our brain is like a slate that we use in a classroom…

Ghazala. You didnt go through a structured education and had to learn in whatever way by making your own mistakes. Didnt that open up your mind a great deal more?

S.S. Life is such a strange phenomena, such a strange thing. Each one discovers in his or her own way. Now, I would both agree and disagree with you. Yes, it was wonderful. Sometimes I realise that it was marvellous that I was saved from the onslaught of conditioning, but, as doctor sahib earlier questioned, institutions have a certain kind of accumulated knowledge and information which comes in handy. It is not very intelligent to be discovering America again and again, when Christopher Columbus has already done so.

Ghazals. Certainly, it is not intelligent to be discovering America again. But as you said earlier to doctor sahib, it is not the end-result, the sculpture that is important to you; it is the path you are treading, the journey that is important.

S.S. Yes, even going a little further, through sculpture to discover life. We cannot really divide the path from the end. They are integrated. One is not without the other.  At a point in my life I could have been a fongeywala, I could have been a rickshow- wala, I could have been…

A.N. A label designer…

S.S. A bearer in a dingy…

A.N.  …and the most serious thing would have been, you could have been in the Pakistan Navy.

S.S. Yes, that would have been the greatest disaster…

A.N.   to see Shahid in uniform, toting a gun.

S.S. The thing is, the necessity at that time was that I needed a shelter and I needed some place where I could eat, sleep and be. I had nothing at that point.

Im a firm believer in the maxim that “all life knows how to take care of itself.”

A.N. It must be Krishnamurti.

S.S. Yes.

A.N. You picked up Krishnamurti and went on reading him, and you have read practically everything he has written. This deep interest may also have developed because of the fact that in Krishnamurtis writings you found a confirmation of your own life. The way you have led it.

S.S. Very true. I think this was it.

A.N. When your eldest son was growing up, wasnt that the same phase when you were struggling with bronze.

S.S. Yes, actually, bronze and my marriage came together. Almost the same year.

A.N. Which was harder- fathering or casting in bronze?

S.S. Casting in bronze was harder.

A.N. You had to play both father and mother – a double role.

S.S. Yes, very right.

A.N. You had to be the father. Building the facility, supervise, responsibility and

S.S. And without any means.

A.N. And then, you had to be the mother too.

S.S. But then it was so rewarding. I have never in my life felt so rich.

A.N. Do you think youre going back to bronze casting again?

S.S. Oh sure. Certainly.

A.N. You dont know when?

S.S. I almost know, because my mind is also cooking certain images.

A.N. Because I felt that in your bronze phase, as I call it, lots of possibilities emerged but they were not realised for whatever reasons. I dont know you may think afresh, in a new way.

S.S. In lots of efforts you only find directions and the rest comes later.

Zahra. As I understand, its helped you understand life and learn how to live and your own experience of life is channelized through that. Do you sculpt mainly for yourself then?

S.S. Yes and no. As I understand it, if one is in a relationship. Now, if that is correct, then to my mind, the correct and most immediate way to begin anything in life is to begin with the nearest, which is oneself. If I can learn to deal with myself kindly, then my relationship is of the same response. So it cannot be divided, like words are divided, or as these words suggest. I think it is essentially the understanding of life which spreads. After all, we are distributing chaos, we are distributing misery, which we are all suffering. Nobody can absolve himself or herself. We are all responsible for what is happening – in our day-to-day life.  Zahra. Can you say  something about your present work? How is it different from your previous wood-carving?

S.S. Perhaps it is a mirror image of myself, and this sorrow-filled heart that I carry with me makes me sad to see everything in my relationship. This work basically is a reflection of relationship and what is happening to it. Beyond that it would become descriptive, which I do not wish. You can at best call it a comment on my own life or a comment on my relationships. My own “society”.