“I am temperamentally a nomad,” Sadequain once stated in an interview. The self-taught calligrapher and painter from Amroha – often referred to as the subcontinent’s Picasso – would not only physically travel from city to city, absorbing the landscape and infusing it into his work, but also refused to be restricted to the walls of a gallery. As a result, his work can be seen everywhere: on large murals, mounted in houses, schools, banks and offices, on paper, canvas, hardwood panels, marble and vellum. He would often gift a work of art to anyone he took a liking to and would rarely be seen without his sketch pad, pencil, crayon and beeri in hand. Just 57 when he died (virtually penniless, it is said), Sadequain left behind a towering legacy and a huge volume of work, much of it unsigned and unseen by the public eye.
On May 16-17, the Pearl Continental hotel in Karachi hosted some of these previously unseen works from the private collection of Sadequain’s nephew, Sultan Ahmed Naqvi. The exhibition featured the oldest Sadequain work ever exhibited (a side self-portrait in pen and ink from 1942) to the last portrait he made (a sketch of his grand niece, Fatima Zehra, from 1986) a few months before his death. Out of the 31 pieces, 22 are of members of Sadequain’s family while the rest are of family friends, community elders or strangers he met during his travels. There are also a handful of self portraits and studies.
Sadequain experimented with various styles throughout his artistic career – the cacti inspired series he made in Gadani or the muted hues he discovered in Paris – until he mastered the distinct style for which he is renowned: broad, jagged, calligraphic strokes, the subjects painted in an impressionistic, distorted manner, the recurring beheaded John the Baptist inspired figures.
In this exhibition, however, we see a completely different side to the artist. The majority of portraits – made in pen and ink, charcoal, pencil and marker on paper and cloth – are realistic. “[The collection] is indeed unique; these are works from his private moments when he would indulge himself and slip into another mode,” says Sibtain Naqvi, one of Sadequain’s grand nephews. “The world knows and appreciates [his] versatility, but there are some aspects that the world is still not fully aware of. He was a master of surreal renderings of the human form, but was equally good at capturing realistic portraits. Beyond the murals, the poetic illustrations and calligraphy, there is another Sadequain: an artist who created portraits of astonishing vitality and life.”
The exhibition provides an insight into Sadequain’s metamorphosis as an artist, his state of mind at various stages in his life and the process of creating and recreating his own identity. For example, in Figure Two, Sadequain draws a series of self-portraits as a young man in 1948. Unsure pencil lines form a gaunt, young man, but with the familiar thick-framed glasses and sharp features of the artist. In the wake of Partition and the birth of a new nation struggling to find its place in the world, the artist here is similarly experimenting with how to present himself, to find his voice and place amongst the uncertainty of a new land.
Then in Figure Seven, many years after he had cemented his signature style and was hailed as a national icon in art, he experiments again with a self-portrait in which he lights a beeri with a match in 1981. Made in a surreal manner, with rough edges and amorphous, chaotic strokes, the portrait is distinct from the sombre realism of the other images at the exhibition. It shows a different state of mind, closer to the end of his life.
“When the mood took him, Sadequain would pick up whatever materials were available and produce a thing of lasting beauty. They have been hastily drawn in the late hours of night or in the brightness of day. Time and space stood in thrall to him,” Sibtain Naqvi adds.
Art may be seen as sublime or otherworldly, but once a price tag is attached, real world haggling and politics changes its meaning altogether. With his death, Sadequain left behind a second unintended consequence: a counterfeit industry churning out fake Sadequains.
Many local art galleries and international institutions are producing fakes, both duplicates as well as entirely new work. As a consequence, there are more Sadequains in the market than actual Sadequains.
“They get sold for huge sums, [which is] ironic considering that Sadequain himself never sold his own work,” Sibtain Naqvi explains. The counterfeit industry thrives because the public is unaware of Sadequain’s work, even if his name is recognised.
This exhibition, in particular, is a “direct intervention” to create awareness of Sadequain’s work and also to "push against" the counterfeit industry. “In Europe, it is impossible to pass off a fake Picasso. That is because there is so much awareness about his work that a simple art lover will be able to recognise a fake. By hosting talks and exhibitions, we are trying to safeguard and protect the legacy of Sadequain, which is actually the country’s heritage.”
To read more subscribe to the Herald in print
The writer is a staffer at the Herald