Art Is Another Country


The one thing that has eluded Tasadaq Sohail is a sense of belonging. The artist migrated to Pakistan with his family from East Punjab in 1947 and was unable to settle down due to family expectations. He has lived in London for over 30 years, but does not call it home. Indeed, if Tasadaq has any home at all, it is in a strange world of his own invention in which dream and nightmare come together in defiance of nature and life.

Tasadaq left Karachi for England and survived by learning to paint and selling his postcard-sized paintings from the pavement of Bayswater in London, The size of the paintings was determined by his poverty as he was forced to economise on material. Besides, as a short story writer he knew how to deal with what the French philosopher Gaston Bache lard called the “plenitude of smallness”. Fortunately, in these little paintings he created a phantasmal world peopled by old codgers, animals and monsters. While the rabbinical greybeards, the women and rutting goats conjured up a strange melange suggestive of sex and authority in an even stranger landscape, the tragedy of independence (in human terms) and the repudiation of his family obligations coalesced as the suppressed narrative of Tasadaqs art. lt looked as if an ocean of angst heaved and rolled over it without disturbing the peace and tranquillity of the artists imaginative construct. If there was strife in the world above, it was calm and beautiful under the water.

Tasadaq did not conform to the Western rule of composition in terms of a centrally focused unity; instead, following the miniaturist tradition, his paintings presented a birds-eye view. And fantasy, instead of natural science, ruled the roost. Tasadaqs images were part of a preposterous but eminently acceptable design of a reconstructed haven. Home for him was a tiny, cold pad, the size of a short story, an art form in which he was proficient before he left for England. It was hell, nevertheless, on the edge of imagination and madness. But, thanks to his inventiveness, Tasadaq made it comfortable and sellable. It seemed as if the memory of old wives tales of jinns and paris, wicked old men and wise animals sustained his art far from home.

In his recent exhibition at the Indus Gallery Tasadaq showed what Ali Imam, the gallery owner, called his “Hell Series”. Viewing the work, one was struck by the number of paintings, mostly of human heads of no particular interest. Sprung from the painters private world, they did not seem to have been prepared as character or chromatic studies for public interest.

It was the “Hell Series”, though, with which Tasadaq Sohail expected to test his abiding strength. Against his customary practice of being present during the exhibition, the artist remained in London. This did not mean, he reassured me over the phone, that he was bidding farewell to Pakistan. One contrary, he promised to regularly hold his exhibitions in Karachi and other places in absentia.

That he should have carved so much for Pakistan is a matter of psychology and economics. Tasadaq is a dispossessed Jallandhari and could not live in Pakistan for the same reason which motivated thousands like him to leave the country. That is why he took to exhibiting his work here from the 70s onwards. Even though he has lived for over three decades in England, he is not recognised by its art establishment. As an artist he has to find a home, and Pakistan is where he returns annually to record his presence. This, however, ought to be viewed as a positive development rather than a failure on the artists part. If Tasadaq Sohails art is recognised and placed, it is in his part of the global village.

Contrary to being modern, Tasadaq Sohails imaginative world, in which he is in control over his life and expatriate environment, is essentially mythopoeia. It is archaic and prehistoric, and erupts into life and art as shadows from the unconscious. Madness is the stuff of art, and sickness of the soul the inexplicable condition of health for imaginative incursions into reality. Hell existed before time and will be there when time will cease to be. But it has a human dimension as a state of mind or psyche which registers disjunction, dislocation, pain, loneliness and poverty. For long, hell has been a fecund source for art and poetry, as if man could not have invented imaginative or spiritual joys without its current and timely reality. Sadequains sado-masochistic celebration of love and Shakir Alis enquiries into the meaning of unrequited love are monuments of our art which show how artists dealt with hell as an annex to paradise.

The “Hell Series” will delight Tasadaqs admirers and collectors because, yet again, the artist will allow them the pleasure of their own misery and discomfort from the safety of art. Long before the European mind thought of these things, the question of what is permissible in religion was debated, and adab and fun were believed to be autonomous areas of imagination as essential for Muslims as any other civilised people of the world. If he has to survive in the art history of Pakistan, Tasadaq Sohail should be interpreted and understood in terms of the Muslim literary and spiritual culture of the subcontinent.

The paintings also raise questions about the sense in which they are new and fresh. The hell of exile lived as an experience is one thing, that of an alien absorbed into the British welfare system quite another. There are things which do not change but the unchangeable mutates as time rolls over it like the waves.

Tasadaq Sohail has not become rich or famous even though he has had his bit of attention from British TV and Londons galleries. He is comfortable in a small apartment for senior citizens in the semi-rural environment of north London. He lives near an ancient church, close to an equally old forest with its population of foxes and badgers. A lot has changed and yet all is the same. His neighbours, old and waiting for their turn to be carried to a cemetery or a crematorium, are like some of his old friends from his paintings, The picture of hell in which man survives with his pain and fleeting ecstasy seems to have been frozen as the painters permanent identikit. In small details, one can pick up elements which may be appearing for the first time in the paintings, but the overall form and design remains unchanged. There are those who will respond to the paintings as they do to old friends from abroad, noticing with pleasure that they have not changed. Others would wonder at their constancy, despite time and the tide of events.