Trial By Fire


It is not customary to look at the work of a sculptor through the eyes of a poet, but Shahid Sajjad, whose quiet authority is well-established in Pakistani art circles, lent himself by accident to this approach when a poem that I had not read for three decades rode into view when I was thinking about his works. The verse in question was T.S. Eliots Four Quartets. Soon after, some couplets of Khawaja Mir Dard followed. If poetry was so eager to help me with Shahid Sajjad, who was I to refuse?

The occasion to review his work was the Asian Biennale in Dhaka where Shahids wood carvings were to represent Pakistan. It was a harking back to the medium of his first love – the woods from the Hill Tracts of Chittagong. But the material he has been working on recently is from the northern parts of Pakistan, and if the earlier wood was nurtured by tropical heat and rain, the later material is seasoned by bitter winters and cool summers. Both are types of wood, but their properties and behaviour under conditions of carving and finishing are very different. The passage from the one to the other is also a journey through time -from resonant Marisha in the Chittagong Hill Tracts to sonorous Mansehra in Hazara division.

Shahid Sajjads first wood carvings were associated with travels abroad and within the country. So was his shift to bronze casting. The recent wood carving came from the sculptors visit to a friends furniture factory in Mansehra. Shahid Sajjad thus completes a loop of experiments and achievements, and each step also brings about a change in the artists mind and personality.

It is curious that fire- reserved for metal casting – plays a major role in the latest wood carvings. Images are carved with the sharp edges of steel and then subject to trial by fire. Surfaces are burnt with a blow torch to reveal the striped fibres hidden under the skin. They stir to life only when caressed by flames. Didnt Khawaja Mir Dard say “Har aik sang mein hai shokhie butaan pinhan/Khanak hein sub ye, pa dil mein sahrar rakhte hain.” So, in retrospect, one sees Shahid Sajjads art seeking its first beginnings. Eliots last poem, too, makes sense of this arching back to the past. I read this passage from The Four Quartets with Shahid Sajjad again:

“We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time. ”

Eliots allusion is as much to the voyages of Ulysses, the legendary Greek seafarer, as to the inner voyages artists undertake to lose and find themselves. The poem is constructed musically like chamber music, and the movements played in it create the pattern of departure and return, of time moving forward and backward. Journeys and time coalesce as spatial form and design, because this is how art retrieves what it desires of the past while, at the same time, it anticipates the future.

The first lines of the first movement, called Burnt Norton, declares:

“Time present and time post Are both perhaps present in time future And time future continued in time post… The time-circle wheels What we call the beginning is often the end And of make an end is to make a beginning … Eliot also visualises stillness at the heart of time as a Chinese jar still moves perpetually in its stillness.” You can see and feel the spin of the potters wheel, of how movement becomes a spatial image.

Shahid Sajjads images of wood from Rangamati are as still and in-gathered as the trees before the outbreak of a storm. He deals with their becalmed surface, not with their panic and anxiety. To do otherwise would have amounted to intrusion into privacy, and Shahid Saijad was a guest who could not risk rudeness.

No less significant for his sculpture are his journeys of self-discovery. Physical withdrawal was resorted to for experiences not available in Karachi or Lahore. The images of travel on a path, or without one, is used in spiritual literature and art. They stand for both knowledge and the cleansing of the mind and the soul.

Shahid Sajjad cast himself adrift into the unknown only to return with a wealth of perception and experience. There was the three-year-long motor-cycle tour through Asia in 1962. He had left a promising career in advertising because he wanted to be free. This urge to be away and gone began in 1952 when he ran away from school. Only three months after his Asian tour, he set out for Europe in 1963, and visited London and Paris. In the Louvre, he was beckoned by Gaugins wood carving from Tahiti. He was struck with the conviction that he had found his vocation.

On his return to Karachi, he knew that he would never go back to advertising or any other settled job. Shahid Sajjad took the vow of poverty. From the first exhibition in 1964, he accepted nothing for his drawings, paintings, prints and wood carvings. He wrote to his Japanese friends for the carving tools, and when they arrived, he set about educating himself to carve under Gaugins inspiration. His life, too, took its cast characterised by self- education, travel and life without means. He did not stay in Karachi long, and only a year later was off to the jungles of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. He lived there for two years, going native, carving sculptures from trees felled by storms and lightning. He wanted to belong as much as his own past would allow. He was accepted as a special guest, and paid his tribute to the Chakmas by creating them in his own tenderly loved images.

For five years he carved, in wood, his mongoloid human figures and faces, pale as the colour of his polished medium and strong as trees. Shahid Sajjad says that his Rangamati experience was a reaching after the source of a primeval life. Charged with the spirit of animism, he came as close as he would ever be to the life of the aborigine with whom he lived. He carved to remind himself of the vitality of wild nature and its people and objects.

He believed he was living close to the soil and the earth spirits which haunted the land. But Shahid Sajjad remained a visitor. The cultural gulf between him and the Chakmas was impossible to bridge. He had no local model to emulate because the Chakmas did not carve in wood. Shahid Sajjad had to fall back upon the resources of the tradition of the primitive in modern art.

Remarkable works of their kind, these icons hold their own as emblems of innocence. They are the embodiments of an idyll. Gaugin said that to appreciate his Eve we “have to go back to the sources, to mans childhood. My Eve is almost animal. That is why she is chaste for all her nakedness”. Shahid Sajjad has to add that his images are as saintly as the trees. Nature, as Shahid Sajjad knew it, with its dark hostility and tender beauty, its oppressive, evil-haunted darkness and rejuvenating dawn, moves like the sap in his statues but without disturbing them and their viewers.

The mongoloid features are real, but the faces are often like masks which veil their dark mind, one with the elements and the vegetation of the land. Shahid Sajjad does not take the risk of stripping their psyche with savage slashing and gouging of steel upon wood. They appear to be walking in their sleep on the edge of time.

One does not know from their visual and physical appearance as such how they would react when rudely awakened. This is not meant as criticism, but as a reminder of the fact that cultural barriers are difficult to cross. What we take from another culture is what is available to us as outsiders. ln Rangamati, Shahid Saijad discovered himself, and in this search- and-find mission, the Chakmas had a significant role. His Chakma sculpture is what Picassos African art was in his Les Demoiseile dAvignon.

Shahid Sajiad carved in wood for five years and then came across a book on bronze casting. He read it and tried to become a bronze sculptor. His life and art needed a new adventure, new risks and failures. The initial experiments with bronze were disasters. He says he wasted three years, but all was not lost because each failure, he hastens to add, was a text for new knowledge about himself, the medium and his capabilities. He went to Japan again and was introduced to a bronze sculptor Akio Kato, who showed him his work, answered his questions in a four-hour session, but did not let him into his workshop.

Another three years of trial and error were spent which produced 15 or 20 bronze sculptures. lt was not the creative halt of bronze casting, which is the modelling of the image in a discipline completely different from carving, but the other half of metallurgical technology which he found intractable. In 1976 he took off again for England to visit bronze- casting foundries and to absorb as much as he could. As soon as he returned, he cast his most ambitious one ton mural relief, 15 feet by five feet, for the Armoured Corps mess in Nowshehra. It was cast in six sections and the first was a total fiasco.

Shahid met Kato San in 1988 in Japan, who told him that “you are now my teacher”. Kato San was honouring Shahid Sajjads grit, his quick learning abilities, and his hard-won mastery over the medium on his own terms, and the qualities of his sculpture.

His wood carvings were dedicated to the human figure. ln bronze, his range is varied and wide. Both abstract and human images abound. ln them Shahid Saijad does not attempt to go to the origin of things, and his vista is modern with the nineteenth century vanishing into the twentieth. In some of his studies of the body, he interprets Rodins and Henry Moores contribution on a scale of his own.

In his abstract sculptures, there are interesting explorations of the ground and objects thrusting vertically from it like geological outcrops or nightmarish witches castles. This sculptural totality of the ground space and the objects on it has been explored by Anthony Caro with his horizontal, floor- hugging steel fabrications. Against Cards installation, Shahid Sajjad creates this totality as a single image. ln the first wood carving, time was a dimension of the primitive. ln bronze, it is the Euro-centred sculptural tradition.

For Shahid Sajjad, the recent Mansehra wood carvings are the rejuvenation of a moribund love. The woods are different, and so are the faces of the statues. They look like homo erectus, for the sculptor the source image of our humanity. Once again, the northern parts of the country have no tradition of wooden sculpture, but for the crude, ideogrammatic figures of wood representing man or man-on-horse which can be seen stuck to the graves. These images have no bearing upon Shahid Sajjads handling of the medium from the region.

The faces in the new carvings are sharp and edged, like a better version of Gaugin. Shahid Sajiads carving is a testimony to his mastery over drawing. His charcoal acquires the properties of the sharp-edged steel chisel. The processes these images undergo are a radical departure from the early wood sculptures. Carved, sand-papered and stood up, their skin is burnt with a blow torch. The unpretentious wood is then worked over with shellac and wax polish. It is only then that it reveals its resplendent grains. These images have the curious appearance of being dressed in paint and stripes as the original Australians. The statues look like burnished bronze when light plays on them as on this most mystic of metals.

To return to poetry, Eliot speaks of fire in the concluding lines of his poem: When the tongues of flame are in-folded into the crowned knot of fire and the fire and the rose are one.”

The coming together of the fire and the rose is the sign of redemption, achieved both in religion and in art. ln Shahid Sajjad, fire and form are one, whether the medium be bronze or wood. His art is redemptive, for him at least. It would be fitting to conclude with another couplet from Dard: “Hai ishq se mere hi tere husn ko shuhra/Mein kuch nahin par garmi-a baazar hun tera “.

Only someone possessed could have given as much to wood and bronze as Shahid Sajjad has in our context.