Gentle Savages

DATED: 24 NOV 1994

Shahid Sajjads primitives have few conventional charms. Their bodies are thick-set, their features simian. They have low foreheads, close-set eyes and prominent noses. And yet they have a strange beauty which transcends form and line. lt is there in the gentleness of expression, the smoothness of limb and the quiet, peaceable stance

Currently on show at the Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi, these 21 sculptures are the works of a mature artist who has returned to rediscover a medium and relive an experience after a break of many years.

lt was in the East Pakistan of the mid-60s that Shahid had his first encounter with primitives”. Escaping from the numbing monotony of his life as an advertising executive in Karachi, Shahid arrived in the hill tracts of Chittagong. And here amid steamy jungles bristling with wild beasts, he says he encountered true civilisation. “l had come with the vision of the Sunder bans in my mind but when I arrived in the hills, I said to myself, Yes heres where lm going to stay”. His enchantment with his surroundings was due in no small measure to the tribal inhabitants of the hills.

Though primitive in their technology, they had sophisticated, refined ways. “They were gentle, peace loving people”, he recalls. “ln the two years that I spent with them, not once did I ever hear them argue or fight with each other. I didnt even hear a parent yell at a child. They were the most civilised people lve ever met. I think their attitude to life stemmed from their very close relationship with nature. They met life head on.”

Not only did h.s experience in the hills provide Shahid with a subject but it also gave him a medium in which to express himself. Picking on wood, he set about carving, sculptures of his tribal friends. “That was more a learning experience than a sculptural experience”, he reflects, “lt had more to do with mass and muscle than art. But this time around. lm more concerned with the medium. I want to see what it can do with expression.”

Shahids preoccupation with the medium is obvious in the manipulation of texture. The 15 reliefs have been signed, painted and scratched. The six free standing figures, on the other hand, have smooth, rounded surfaces. Firs singed to expose the grain; the wood has been polished and waxed to a sinuous smoothness.

But nowhere has the subject had been new ondary to the medium. As with all Shahids art the medium facilitates the thought. Here, with strange-totem like figures, wood seems the natural choice. These primordial forms and ancient features so reminiscent of Mayan sculpture would have been inappropriate in anything but wood or stone.

I asked Shahid why he has returned to his primitives after a break of twenty years. “I havent returned or arrived”, he replied. “The primitive lives within me, The contact, therefore, is unbroken”. The retrieval of the experience, however, is dictated by his response to current day conditions. “Economic growth is achieved at the loss of a certain quality of life. ln so called advanced urban societies, there is an inner poverty, an inner darkness in the heart and mind. In fact there is sadness in the entire human race.”

It is this sadness which is so evident in his primitives. With their downcast eyes and arms crossed over their bodies they look as if they are warding off some outer danger. But it is a pathetically inadequate defence. Their stumpy arms and rounded bodies look unequal to the task. Shahids primitives are like a threatened species awaiting extinction. And in fact they are. As Sajjad mentioned, the hill tribes of Chittagong are no longer what they were twenty years ago. Their jungle Eden has been invaded by encroaching urbanisation. Civilisation, it seems, is doomed around the globe.