Sadequain: The Subtle Subversive

Sadequain: The Subtle Subversive
Like many of my generation, my introduction to Sadequain – who was born 90 years ago this year on June 30 – came through oblique references one had read or heard by connoisseurs as in “owning a Sadequain” or when my organization, the Progressive Writers Association, organized a function to celebrate the 88th birthday of the master artist, calligrapher and poet a couple of years ago in Lahore. It was only then that I discovered that art was only one of the facets of this gifted humanist. I was hardly eight years old when he had passed away in Karachi back in 1987.

For Sadequain is one of a set of four of the most gifted artists that Pakistan bequeathed to the world, the other three being Abdur Rahman Chughtai, Shakir Ali and Gulgee. However unlike the other three in this hallowed quartet, Sadequain left behind no school or students to carry on his work. These credentials seem even more bewildering when one considers that  Sadequain has been nominated in this year’s Independence Day honors for the Nishan-e-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s highest civilian award, making him the only artist in Pakistan’s history to have received all four of Pakistan’s civil honours. For this reason alone, the edited volume Sadequain: Shayir, Musavvir, Khattat is of interest as it seeks to give a rounded picture of the man. The very first thing one notes in the biographical details given in the very beginning is that the date of birth is given as June 30, 1930. This may seem a minor detail but is important because Wikipedia gives his birth year as 1923.

The book is divided into four parts: the first part offering more personalized tributes; the second part consists of hitherto unpublished sketches and essays on the man; the third part contains Sadequain’s own reflections on various subjects; the third part consists of reflections on his art; while the concluding section has evaluations of Sadequain’s rubaiyat (quatrains). The poet and short-story writer Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi opens the first section, occasioned by a visit to a Sadequain exhibition in Lahore, wherein the former notes the artist’s new approach to art which has two facets, namely that he shows the unity of man and woman; and secondly the artist has now begun to see himself as a representative of universal ideas rather than merely of anguish. One of the best essays in the whole volume is by Nurul Hasan Jafri, who was a high bureaucrat and the husband of Pakistan’s pioneering female poet Ada Jafri. His essay is a testament and tribute to many of Sadequain’s often contradictory traits which are corroborated throughout this volume in one way or the other: namely, his bohemian appearance; his love for the “daughter of the grape” to the detriment of all other kinds of food; his worship of beauty and seeking of and popularity with beautiful women; his magnanimous kindness highlighted by the thousands of free gifts he made to seekers, admirers, friends and hangers-on of his paintings and calligraphies; his self-love and narcissism which still did not border on arrogance but humility; and his workaholic work ethic both in terms of his art as well as his poetic verses. What is particularly revealing and heartbreaking in this essay is an account of his last days in Karachi and the notion that Sadequain could have been saved by preventing his access to alcohol and bad company. It made me wonder how too many of our great writers went this way like Majaz, Manto, Saghar Siddiqui and Miraji? Munir Ahmed Shaikh’s essay poses the interesting thesis of the end of Sadequain as a painter in 1960 and the rise of his more saleable calligraphy. He sees the iconic painter surrendering to the forces of puritanism and conformism. Mujtaba Hussain (who passed away in Hyderabad Deccan earlier this year) perhaps has the only humourous piece on Sadequain in this collection, where he describes the transformation of the walls of Sadequain’s rented house in Delhi (during his 14-month sojourn in India) to a veritable telephone directory and address book, quipping, “I should tell in passing that some undesirable elements from whom I wanted to conceal my telephone number found my number indeed from the wall of Sadequain’s house. This is another matter that the addresses of some favourite elements, which I was searching for long, I found indeed from the wall of Sadequain’s house.”

Title: Sadequain: Shayir,
Musavvir, Khattat
Compiled and edited by: Syed Sultan Ahmed Naqvi
Publishers: Fazlee Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9694412665

Zaheda Hina provides an interesting anecdote in her piece about Sadequain’s encounter with the formidable Ismat Chughtai who was visiting Pakistan – how the artist who was surgically critiquing her short stories just prior to meeting her, became totally deferential upon seeing her, preferring to sit at her feet rather than alongside on the couch. Sheikh Aziz’s essay christens Sadequain as our modern Prometheus and contrary to Munir Sheikh’s aforementioned essay, he says that the artist ‘painted against obscurantism and stagnation all his life.’ The compiler of the book, Sultan Ahmed Naqvi, who also happens to be a nephew of the book’s subject, not surprisingly supplies one of the best pieces in the volume. Decoding the secret of his raison d’être, Naqvi says, “The objective of his work was to make prominent his creative abilities or salvation from the anguish of the creative process.” Here I am tempted to present my own translation of one of Sadequain’s rubaiyats which he wrote in honour of a young sweeperess in the hospital where he was being treated:

“Go peek bohat thook rahi thi Lachhmi

Khidmat men kahan chook rahi thi Lachhmi

Ispatal ke is viraane men

Koel ki tarah kook rahi thi Lachhmi”

(Thought there was much of Lachhmi’s betel spit

Her service was not lacking in spirit

In this desolation of the hospital

She was cooing like a cuckoo with true grit)

An important theme in Sadequain’s work was the struggle of the working-class for emancipation

Naqvi also informs us that in his early days Sadequain was the author of a collection of poetry which has now been regrettably destroyed. Another piece in this section is a wide-ranging interview of Naqvi, which is the most personalized piece in the volume providing information about Sadequain’s domestic life, and also shattering many myths in the process like the nature of his ‘friends’, who turned out to be little more than opportunists. A great revelation is Sadequain’s will which stated that his body should be committed to the sea rather than be buried; the reason being that he was against the individual ownership of land to such an extent that like in life, in death, too, he did not want that there be two yards of land in his name and  be its occupant. Of course his will was not honoured. Another piece Sadequain Ka Naya Roop (The New Face of Sadequain) by Hasnain Javed is as entertaining as it is instructive. It refers to an exhibition of “lewd paintings” by the “devilish artist Sadequain” at the Punjab Arts Council in Lahore sometime during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s “Islamic turn” in the mid-1970s; and proceeds to lambast Sadequain for his apparent ‘abandonment of Islam’, as well as his series of paintings on kissing. Because there is no reference where the piece was originally published, the reader cannot tell whether it is a satirical piece from an admirer or a serious one intending to morally police artistic creation. If it is indeed the latter, it reminds one of Manto’s essay ‘Allah Ka Barra Fazal Hai’ (Allah is Very Kind) in the 1950s about a fictional, artless dystopia imagined by the writer; as well events more real in Naya Pakistan such as the recent cases of Adeela Suleiman’s wrecked exhibition in Karachi or the recent ban on Sarmad Khoosat’s film Zindagi Tamasha.
Sadequain’s will stated that his body should be committed to the sea rather than be buried; the reason being that he was against the individual ownership of land to such an extent that like in life, in death, too, he did not want that there be two yards of land in his name

The section on unpublished sketches and essays on Sadequain does not add anything substantial to our knowledge of Sadequain and therefore seems unnecessary to the central concerns of the volume. Instead one is inclined to read with greater interest what he himself has written about his work and experiences. In this respect, the first essay on Indian art maybe more useful for art connoisseurs and art historians. However the Muqqadima (Preface) to his rubaiyat is an absolute delight. The initial part of the preface is essentially apologetic and concerned with technical details like the demands and requisites of sketching, pages and scripts, but once the reader can negotiate thus minefield, he finds that the writer is delightfully candid about his creative process regarding his less-discussed rubaiyat. According to Sadequain, “I do not call my rubaiyat poetry.” The following lines remind one of Manto who in his famous talk at Bombay’s Jogeshwari College in 1944 responded to the critics who questioned the ugliness and realism in his stories, and are worth quoting in full:

“The artificial and cosmetic empty smile of some profiteer’s concubine on his decorated throne is meaningless for me. When a naked and hungry man searches for offal thrown on a dustbin and when he succeeds in his struggle, the impression of his face appears meaningful. I am indeed the artist of the gutter, not the marble minaret. I search truth within the stench of the dustbin, not from the decorative environment and fragrance of thrones.”

One emerges from reading this piece agreeing with the remarks in the publisher’s introduction that it is possible to fall in love with this man after reading this piece. The next piece is an incomplete autobiographical account by Sadequain, as a teenaged master calligrapher and budding poet in the making, apprenticing in Delhi, as well as his meetings with and cameos of important people like Miraji and Iqbal Bano. One wishes he had had the time and inclination to complete it and not left it abruptly at his critique of the Naya Adab movement that had just gained traction in colonial India. In his piece Safarnama-e-Sadequain (Sadeqian’s Travelogue),  exploring the background to his trip to the Middle East for an exhibition of his work, he raises an interesting point about the influence of geography on the flourishing of various industries, arts, crafts and movements, hinting at his own industriousness as emanating from the waters of the Ravi. This travel piece too like the aforementioned autobiographical one ends abruptly, leaving the reader desiring more. The last piece in this section on Sher Kya Hai? (What Is A Verse?) is very important if one wishes to understand Sadequain’s poetic philosophy. For students of poetry at any stage of their craft, it has the additional value of putting in verse the answer to the question of the title according to Plato, Omar Khayyam, Goethe, Carlyle, Herder, Arnold, Chateaubriand, Shelley, etc. though one is disappointed not to find Faiz and Ghalib – Sadequain’s beloved subjects – in this imagined pantheon. He rounds off the piece with his own answer to the question in verse. This appears to be a piece from his early days because the essay mentions his earlier nom de plume ‘Sidq’ before he settled for Sadequain.

The section on the analysis of Sadequain’s poetry is peppered with fine essays by Sibte Hasan, Farman Fatehpuri and Khatir Ghaznavi. It is difficult to disagree with Fatehpuri’s concluding thoughts that while Sadequain’s art and calligraphy achieved worldwide fame and deserving critics, the same cannot be said of his rubaiyat, which need to be translated into English like the rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam – after whom Sadequain’s verses were modelled and inspired from – in order to rightfully claim their place in the pantheon of poetic achievements. One wishes that the opinions of Sadequain’s great predecessors in the rubaiyat genre namely Firaq Gorakhpuri and Jos Malihabadi (both of whom were living at the time when Sadequain’s rubaiyat were published) should also have been included in the volume.

Image Credits - Sadequain Foundation and Sibtain Naqvi

This is a great volume commemorating one of Pakistan’s – nay the world’s – great citizens and artistic ambassadors, its value enhanced by the sections on Sadequain’s own writings and rubaiyat and memorable photographs of its subject provided at the end of the book. The appeal of the book is sometimes let down by some shoddy errors of editing and proofreading. Perhaps a future edition might also include some samples of Sadequain’s fabled calligraphy and rubaiyat in his own hand. Also missing are the opinions and impressions of some of his other contemporaries from Europe and the Middle East, where he spent considerable and copious amounts of time before returning to make Pakistan his permanent home. My suggestion also is to include some material in the book which is in English or to have it translated in English to make this edition bilingual and enhance its appeal to a younger generation not familiar with Sadequain’s work beyond the confines of art and calligraphy. One also feels an under-representation or downright absence of some illustrious contemporaries of Sadequain in this volume – and not just from the art world – like Shakir Ali, Satish Gujral (who passed away earlier this year) and Enver Sajjad; and many others who are still living like Mustansar Hussain Tarar, Kishwar Naheed, Gulzar (Deenavi), Jilani Bano, I.A. Rehman, Zehra Nigah, Masood Ashar and Iftikhar Arif. One felt the startling absence of any references, dates and sources regarding the essays throughout the book; even though it is mentioned by the publisher in the introduction that many of the essays in the book appeared first in the ‘Sadequain Number’ of the Tuluu-e-Afkaar journal, still for the literary historians and younger readers alike the value of proper references is one not of merely academic interest.

Perhaps this volume could be the beginning of a definitive biography of Sadequain, in time for his birth centenary in 2030 and who better to write it than his dedicated and beloved nephew, Syed Sultan Ahmed Naqvi?

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently based in Lahore, where he is also the President of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached at:

Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore, where he is also the president of the Progressive Writers Association. He can be reached via email: and on Twitter: @raza_naeem1979