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Q: Do you think Pakistani artists have been influenced by or not by art movements of the

west? Discuss the work of any artist in context of a new nation or their aspiration of being
part of the international Art scene.
t is not easy to write about Zahoor ul Akhlaq (1941-1999), an artist whose life and work in so
many ways encapsulates the troubled soul of Pakistan. Ten years ago, on a grey, brutal January
day, the great artist Akhlaq and his gifted daughter, Jahanara, were shot dead. This was not a
run-of-the-mill incident. The innate humanism of Akhlaq and his family was shattered to bits,
much like the splintered state of Pakistan, where art and life are either marginalised, silenced or
blown to pieces.On this January afternoon, Shahbaz Butt, an acquaintance of Pappu Sain, shot
Jahanara and her fiancé, Al-Noor. Jahanara, 24 years old at the time, fell on the ground, to die.
The noise, alarming Akhlaq and his fellow artist Anwar Saeed, sent them rushing in to see what
had happened. Anwar Saeed was injured by Shahbaz, who shot Akhlaq. He died on the
spot..Shahbaz now languishes in jail, while Pakistan is deprived of two inimitable souls. It is
unclear what prompted Shahbaz to wreak this senseless violence: drugs, inability to cope with
life or an extreme sense of inadequacy that could only be corrected through violence.
A decade later, Akhlaq’s immense legacy is all but invisible, thus marking a post-death
demise. How and when did we come to such a pass? This is what the conspiracy of circumstance
and the context of Pakistan have done. “The single most important influence on contemporary
Pakistani art,― in the words of Salima Hashmi, renowned artist and Akhlaq’s close
associate, is absent from art discourse. It is this apathy that I wish to remember on his tenth death
anniversary, along with the infinite spaces that his art nurtured and created for generations to
As an avid student of Pakistan’s avante garde modernist, Shakir Ali, Akhlaq was destined to
radicalise the sensibilities of art movements and pedagogy at Lahore’s famous National
College of the Arts (NCA). The young artist, Akhlaq, had the good fortune to live in Shakir
Ali’s home in Lahore’s Garden Town suburb for quite some time, and this is where he
imbibed the iconoclasm and poetry of Ali’s work and continued the experimentation right
into the mainstream of art education. Akhlaq’s early work bears testimony to the influences
of the newly emerging school of modernism shaped by the visions of Shamza, Ali Imam, Ahmad
Pervaiz, Moyene Najmi and others.
For this writer it was a gargantuan challenge to recount his legacy and re-discover him. Walking
into the room where Akhlaq and Jahanara were ruthlessly murdered gave rise to mixed feelings.
Akhlaq’s wife, the eclectic potter-artist Sheherezade has been struggling to deal with a life
permanently altered on that fateful day of January 1999. The house, painted in bright colours,
displays the vibrant world that Sheherezade has created; memory mixed with longing, recreating
Jahanara’s dance, using colours from Zahoor’s palette for embellishment.
As we commenced our conversation, we soon found ourselves lost. The little corners of silence
between sentences were filled with the mysteries of Akhlaq that still remain undiscovered, at
least in large measure. Sheherezade told me about his journeys from Delhi to Karachi in the
forties and eventually to the NCA in the sixties, where he found his voice. In 1966, Zahoor was
awarded a British Council Scholarship and joined the Hornsey College of Art, to be followed by
a stint at the Royal College of Art. This is where the interaction with the British Museum and its
priceless, tragic collection of Mughal miniatures opened new vistas for Akhlaq. Once back in
Pakistan, he started to imbibe the miniature forms, spaces and poetries into his style, as well as
setting up the miniature department at the NCA.
As an exuberant and bohemian student, this was the time when Sheherezade met Akhlaq, found
herself under his spell and defied her family to marry him at the Karachi flat of Shahid Sajjad,
the eminent sculptor. Jamil Naqsh was also there and the group of friends had a long, fun-filled
day on the shores of the salty Arabian Sea. Sheherezade had a glint in her eye as she narrated the
event before she remarked: “Zahoor was the first and perhaps the last interesting, ah the most
interesting, person I have ever met. I have never found anyone as enchanting as him.―
Akhlaq was a man of few words, another trait he might have inherited from Shakir Ali. Space,
silences and reflection defined much of his time. This is not to say that he was not sociable. His
closest friends were at the NCA, with whom he spent a fun-filled time when he was not delving
into philosophy, or creating his masterpieces in states of frenzy, intoxication or exceptional
Sheherezade further mused how the NCA and Zahoor developed a symbiotic relationship that
was mutually transformational. Akhlaq was a “peculiar and an unusual husband, but he
enabled me to develop a parallel life and thus expanded my life-experience―. Like his other
relationships, the marital partnership was also intense yet parallel to his inner life. Zahoor needed
a lot of space, “the space of night― in the words of his biographer, and sometimes he did
not get it. It was one of those extraordinary experiences that entail a life of one’s own.
Added to this was Zahoor’s immense knowledge, spanning subjects as varied as art, history,
philosophy and calligraphy, a discipline in which received training from an early age from the
renowned calligrapher, Yousaf Dehlavi. His appreciation of the skill and intimacy with discipline
therefore were passed on to him in his childhood. Behind the screen of tradition, and going back
to the roots, was also the classic scar of migration and uprooting. Akhlaq’s family left their
beloved Delhi for Karachi at the gruesome moment of Partition in 1947. The nostalgia and the
sense of separation which underlies Akhlaq’s work were pervasive. Later, his various travels
to different parts of the world intensified both the rootedness and the contemporaneousness in his
Such profound influences – of heritage, training, travel and intense relationships – enabled
Akhlaq’s work to straddle both the traditional and the contemporary, encompassing visual
traditions that represented as well as defied the geographical and political boundaries of Pakistan.
Akhlaq could concurrently weave the discipline of Islamic geometry, the iconography of the
Mughal manuscript, the well-worn genres of European painting and Pakistan’s colonial
heritage all into one space, and yet there was space left over to express the contemporary artist of
today. There is not a single moment when his work is bound by the constraints of the past or the
woes of the present; there was synthesis, a fluid one, merging the thousand years of
Pakistan’s heritage onto speaking canvases. Rashid Rana, the young artist of global
recognition and an avid student of Akhlaq narrated how the latter helped his generation liberate
itself from the onerous baggage of tradition by reinventing ‘tradition’ itself.
Along the fascinating journey of Akhlaq’s creativity, the two daughters of the couple,
Jahanara and Nur Jehan, help deepen that quest for equilibrium, the synthesis of the old and the
new; of creativity and the institution of marriage. Concurrently, Akhlaq’s genius flourished
as an outstanding sculptor, printmaker and painter, and he received multiple awards within
Pakistan and abroad. By the 1980s, he was criss-crossing disciplines and art forms, thus delving
deeper into Islamic art, painting, printmaking and sculpture. In 1989, Akhlaq joined Yale
University, USA, to pursue post-doctoral research at its Institute of Sacred Music, Religion and
the Arts. After retiring from NCA as the head of the Fine Arts Department in 1991, Akhlaq
proceeded to Bilkent University, Ankara, as a visiting professor, and by the mid nineties, the
family had landed in Canada. Here, Akhlaq received an appointment at the Ontario College of
Art in Toronto. The return to Pakistan in the late 1990s was the finest of hours, when he had
acquired the status of a guru of sorts. But the apex of Akhlaq’s artistic, cultural and
philosophical abilities was truncated, and left a trail of blood on Pakistan’s conscience. And,
it was not only his. With him, Jahanara, a passionate Kathak performer, the symbol of Akhlaq
and Sheherezade’s commitment to lead a life of creative spaces and non-conformity, was
also murdered.
The tragic irony of these murders, in the cruel, ugly daylight of a messy society, was a result of
Jahanara’s foray into Sufi music played at the shrines, and in her pursuit of humanist
moorings. Her’s was an eclectic upbringing that emphasised unpacking class and status and
finding oneness with music. How bitterly was that dawn prevented from turning into daylight.
Ten years later we grapple with the question raised by a student of Akhlaq, Quddus Mirza, who
is both an artist and an art-critic. Mirza said rhetorically that Akhlaq had died again, in the
erosion of his pivotal influence on the Pakistani art scene and especially from strands of art
Salima Hashmi agreed with the unfortunate trend, but said that Akhlaq’s legacy lives in the
form of Pakistan’s best artists today. While elaborating on this, she mentioned Quddus
Mirza, Naazish Ata-ullah, Ali Raza, Shazia Sikander, Rashid Rana and Imran Qureshi. If
anything, since her assumption of the office of the Principal of NCA, Naazish Ata-ullah has
revived many of Akhlaq’s teaching methods that involve interaction between students and
faculty, and other innovations that made art-education step beyond the limits of formal
instruction and enter the nebulous domain of the self.
In fact, Ata-ullah is emphatic in stating that Akhlaq was the best teacher she ever encountered;
and recalls the relationship that he nurtured between art, rootedness and the self. He constantly
sought feedback on his work and encouraged discussions that took art practice beyond studios
and classroom – straight into the threads of living.
Hashmi, however laments that most of Akhlaq’s works are abroad in private collections of
the West and not much is available for students and teachers to view. A relationship with art can
only be established through “intimate interaction with the canvas―, and the blank spaces of
art galleries, including the National Art Gallery in Islamabad testify to the way many forces have
rendered Akhlaq invisible. In fact, there is hardly anything available in the public domain and
whatever is found, is limited and unrepresentative. The NCA art gallery was named after Akhlaq
and this was one of the last things that Salima Hashmi accomplished at the end of her tenure as
Sheherezade recounted the lobbying she has been doing to make Akhlaq visible again, since
there is much that needs to be explored from the gamut of his larger than life persona and his
treasure of scattered works. Sheherezade has been active in documenting, preserving and
exhibiting Akhlaq’s work under her organisation called Laal. A small and beautiful book was
also published by Laal on the artist, though it is another matter that this small red-dotted volume
“is not even found in most Pakistani libraries,― said Sheherezade. “Today’s younger
art practitioners and students are barely familiar with Akhlaq, and even the students at the Indus
Valley School of Art, whose logo was designed by Akhlaq, have little idea of who the brand
creator was!―
We as a society excel at tottering on the shores of forgetfulness; and as a state we are constantly
in denial, quick in erasing history lest it haunt us and ask unsettling questions. The National Art
Gallery in Islamabad, built after decades of inaction, needs to reclaim Akhlaq’s work and
bring it back to Pakistan. The ‘natural resting place’ to use Salima Hashmi’s
expression, for Akhlaq’s oeuvre, is the National Gallery, and the government has to make a
concerted effort to effect this homecoming. As I write these lines, I am also disturbed at what the
National Gallery has become. Currently, it is hosting fashion shows and screening feature films.
Someone has to take notice of this regrettable situation.
We have to begin somewhere. As Roger Connah who is writing a book on Akhlaq, informs me,
the artist Anwar Saeed, who was also shot on that cruel day, had remarked that “no one
person at present appears able to understand it [Akhlaq’s work] or structure it from a wider,
detached view―. Well, how could that interaction with Akhlaq’s art and its wider
appreciation start, when his works are not here and we are so involved in the act of forgetting.
Connah has completed the manuscript entitled Exiles and Danced Furies: Zahoor ul Akhlaq, Art
and Society in Pakistan that is due for publication in 2009. It will surely unpack his artistic life
and its legacy.
At his tenth anniversary, on a frosty January evening, Sheherzade with Akhlaq’s friends,
lights candles and lamps at her neo-mystical home on Lahore’s serene Scotch Corner, and
resolves that the year 2009 will be the start of rediscovering Zahoor ul Akhlaq. It is heartening to
hear that Quddus Mirza is pursuing doctoral research on Akhlaq and a Master’s thesis on the
artist is underway at the Beaconhouse National University. NCA plans to highlight and refocus
Akhlaq’s major sculptures; and The Drawing Room, a new art gallery, will organise a series
of exhibitions of his work in 2009 culminating in a major retrospective.
On this occasion, there were some moments of silence and of erudite reflection by Naazish Ata-
ullah, Salima Hashmi and others stating that this is the beginning of a long celebration of Zahoor
ul Akhlaq’s intricate life and extraordinary work. Amid trays of fresh roses, the dancing
lamps flickered in agreement.