the-south-asian.com August 2004
Culture & History
– the enfant terrible of Pakistan art
at Iqbal Hussain’s Coco’s Den and Haveli,
So Khaled Iqbal was your mentor /Guru.
Yes - I did not know anything about theory, I was really bad at theory. I remember in 1st year there was a girl Nada in my class ……she lived near Daata Darbar [the Sufi shrine near-by in the old city of Lahore] she sat behind me and told me in Urdu & Punjabi [Iqbal ai haiga - this is the answer, etc.] And I tried that to write the theory exam. She herself failed, but I passed. Even before and now, I am a very strong believer in God - He makes ways for you. First, that girl helped me and then Khaled Iqbal sahib. It’s unbelievable when I recall those days. So I passed my thesis. After that I looked for a job but could not find one.
There were teachers who knew nothing about painting- they pretended to be painters, but basically they were confused. Now I realize that in the NCA [National College of Arts – also called Mayo College in pre-1947] nobody knew anything about Arts. The teachers took short courses (6 months to 1-year ) from abroad and started teaching students here, which was really very bad. The only man who knew painting was Khaled Iqbal. Others copied styles of Picasso; some copied others - I also copied Picasso at the time.
After I did my thesis I started looking for a job. Chugtai at the time was doing very different work. He was feted and dined when he joined NCA. I took my entire portfolio of paintings along with me on a Tonga [the traditional horse carriage] to the social welfare department to meet Abida Hussain [a feudal politician from south of Lahore] who, at that time, was heading the social welfare department. She would look at my paintings and say "Very good…" but without meaning it, and that was that.
Then there arose a vacancy in NCA for a lecturer. I did not have any "approach" [lobbying] to get that job but nevertheless applied for it. There were 25 to 30 applicants for the job. Talat, and Pirzada were among the candidates. Peoples Party was in power and I did not stand a chance. Anyway, I gave it a try. I was teaching at the time at Cathedral School – from where I was subsequently thrown out.
Again, coming back to the story, a miracle happened. I got an interview call for the next morning and luckily the night before my interview, they [the interviewing NCA teaching staff] were all caught in the Ghazala Sana scandal case, and they all confessed their crime. The Interview could not be postponed and the government orders came that the interview should be carried out on a merit basis. I was selected. This, to me, was a miracle. I began teaching at NCA.
There was not much age difference between the students and me because I had just passed out and started teaching .I was constantly working and Khalid Sahib often visited me at home. I owe him a lot because he lived in Model Town and in the summer heat he would sit in a wagon, get off at Taxali gate and walk from there to my home to see my paintings. As Head of the department, he would come to see my paintings. He may have seen some spark in me. The good thing in him is that he was always encouraging. He would say stuff that had no parallel. He was an excellent landscape painter.
In 1975-76 before starting the teaching job I opened an Art Gallery in the ground floor of my present house [called "Holy Palace" & Cucoo’s Den- the cafeteria] and used to teach the children. I told Khalid Sahib that I want to open an Art Gallery, so he gave me his paintings for display. Those days I did a lot of landscapes and went to Islamabad and Rawal Dam on motorbike for landscape painting.
Then one day Khaled sahib came to my house, saw my landscapes and said that this was not his way of seeing things. This was the second turning point of my life – the first one being the black and white drawing. Following Khaled Sahib’s honest comments, I forgot about landscapes and started portraits and he visited me constantly. I did my first one man show exhibition in Punjab Arts Council. Once again Khaled Sahib said to me, "Look Iqbal your paintings are not going to sell [teri paintings vikni shikni koi nai ….] so keep on working.
At the time of this exhibition I
invited all my neighbours - the singing, dancing girls were all there.
Ghulam Mustafa [deputy Director Arts Council] took off my exhibition after
two days and said that there is going to be an exhibition of a Turkish
painter. After three days they again put on my exhibition - that’s how
they killed my show; they always said to me that they will buy my paintings
but never did.
There were many instances of Khaled sahib helping me out. During my thesis when I had my theory paper, he called me early in the morning and explained the theory to me in Punjabi, because I don’t have any qualification as I had just done Matric in 3rd division. He said, "Look Iqbal, this was Michelangelo, [ai ainj see, ainj see], and this and that, etc. [pass ho jain, Bas too chaalli – 40- number lai key aa jain ….] He told me to just get 40 marks and pass the paper. I said to him ok. He tried to educate me but I did not take any interest in studies. I just looked at pictures and paintings. In Hazoori Bagh [gardens near Badshahi mosque] in the evenings, our teachers would ask us "German Expressionist ka pata hai?" I would say, "Who is that? "
Who were you impressed with at that time?
Now I realize that at that time nobody taught us anything correctly, hundreds of slides of paintings were thrown at us, and this is still going on at NCA, theoretical teaching is bad because nobody knew anything about painting. At that time Van Gogh appealed to me.
People at NCA were such pseudos, painting with tissues… if you ask any teacher to demonstrate how to make a drawing of a glass… they can’t do it. "NCA noo kahk nahin aanda" [at NCA, nobody knows an iota]. They can’t demonstrate. [Kuch nahin] – Nothing, they are just covering up. That’s it. They ask students to look at Chaggal, Picasso, Mark Rothko, and say "Pai twhanoon kee……….. [What’s that to you]? They imitate art, [hai kuch nahin]; at the most they will do miniatures and say this is the culture of Pakistan. I am not getting personal. I have to be vocal, just want to be honest for the sake of future generations. If I am not honest, they will say, koi rakh rakhao tey nahin? [is there any give and take going on………….?]
Then I stopped copying Khalid Iqbal and was really impressed by Van Gogh. Khalid Sahib supported me in many different ways, financially etc. He was treated badly at NCA. Once he asked for leave but they refused him and then he resigned and they accepted it.
What was Khalid Iqbal’s strength?
He was a specialist in landscapes. As a teacher he was excellent. He knew everything about painting and history of painting. Whenever I meet him he says that I fight a lot and everyone in Lahore is annoyed with me because I am honest. All I have said is that people should stop painting after 60 because their hands shake a lot and they are not able to paint, but if you can paint, then carry on, that’s why everyone is annoyed with me.
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