Cosmic curves

Farman Ali reports on the efforts to continue the sublime memory of Pakistan's premier artist, Sadequain

Cosmic curves
Sadequain – calligrapher, muralist, poet and intellectual – as Pakistan’s most revered and prolific artist was honoured by Google on his 87th birth anniversary at the end of last month, on the 30th of June, by putting up a doodle. The Google Doodle is a special, temporary alteration of the logo on the website’s homepage meant to celebrate holidays, events, achievements and eminent people.

That doodle created a little wave amongst social media users. And that was that.

Whilst our education continues to focus on grades (read ‘right answers’), others bemoan the broken system that suppresses potential. In the meanwhile, we can conveniently leave celebrating our geniuses to the outside world. After all, to recognise a genius, it takes a genius. Mediocrity holds its own better amongst its own kind. Producing just that is what our system is geared towards.

Google, however, reminds us that it was not so for this artistic giant: “Sadequain stroked new life into the centuries-old art of Islamic calligraphy, turning words into vibrantly detailed expressionist paintings.”

Perhaps, though, not all is lost. Two art connoisseurs, Dr. Salman Ahmed and Dr. Arjumand Faisal, have done some commendable work to keep Sadequain from completely fading out from our collective memory.

Dr. Salman Ahmed, Founder and President of the San Diego-based SADEQUAIN Foundation, when contacted via e-mail to get his comments on the doodle, said, “I would say that it could not have been done for a better person. Sadequain for his intellect and what he gave to the nation has no parallel.”


Indeed, Pakistan could not have hoped for a better ambassador. “In his lifetime, Sadequain was internationally recognised in art circles. But, now in his own nation, his name is barely known,” Ahmed says.

About the steps taken by the cultural authorities and the government for the preservation of the work of the great artist, Dr. Ahmed says the Pakistan Government recognised Sadequain while he was alive in a manner that it has not done for anyone. Among other forms of recognition, the government established three art galleries in his name in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

A mural by Sadequain titled 'Quest for Reality' at Banaras Hindu University, in India

He painted more than 15,000 pieces of gigantic murals, canvases, innovative calligraphic works and drawings

However, after he died all the three galleries were closed and the artworks amounting to over $100 million went unaccounted for. About 10 years ago Sadequain’s name was wiped out from the collective memory of the nation. On his special days such as birth or death anniversary, there was no mention on media or otherwise.

He says the Karachi Municipal Corporation (KMC) used to organise Sadequain Awards in Karachi for approximately sixteen years until 2013. The Foundation refurbished and furnished Galerie Sadequain at Frere Hall and inaugurated it last February.

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

“During the ceremony, I personally handed a letter to the Mayor of Karachi Waseem Akhtar in which I requested KMC to reinitiate the Award and offered that SADEQUAIN Foundation will manage all expenses and organisation. We also proposed that the 40 marble slabs of calligraphies inscribed with picturesque verse of Surah Rehman, that Sadequain had gifted to KMC in 1986 but later relegated to somewhere in the corporation’s facility in FB Area, be relocated to Galerie Sadequain at Frere Hall. The mayor agreed and announced to reinitiate the award but to date, we have not received any response from the KMC,” says Ahmed.

Sadequain never sold his work, except for a very few large commissioned works. He simply gave away his work and hence perhaps harmed his own interests. There were no records, no inventory etc.

A mural by Sadequain in Frere Hall, Karachi

He was an artist for the people and was known to give his paintings away for free, even refusing to take on commissions from royalty and heads of state around the world

“I was very pleasantly surprised to see this tribute to Sadequain by Google,” says Dr. Arjumand Faisal, a noted artist in his own right and curator of Gallery6. “It is heartening to see that the work of all those who have been making efforts to get Sadequain recognised internationally is beginning to pay off.”

But he insists Sadequain deserves far more recognition around the globe.

To give us some idea of Sadequain’s originality and brilliance, Dr. Faisal points out that in the field of calligraphy, he introduced a new script, Khat-e-Sadequain, Dr Faisal says.

Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi was born on the 30th of June, 1930, in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh state of India. After graduating from Agra University in Art History and Geography in 1948, he migrated to Pakistan. He stayed at Sujawal, Sindh, with his brother. In 1976 he started work on two large murals for the Sports Complex in Islamabad, illustrating the struggle of the working class for emancipation, as well as the immense national liberation struggles of the peoples of Asia and Africa against imperialism. During his visit to India after 33 years, he visited Varanasi and executed a mural, “Quest for Reality” for Banaras Hindu University. He illustrated verses of iconic left-wing Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz in 1985.

Sadequain's interpretation of a verse by Iqbal

He composed, inscribed and compiled a collection of ghazals, nazms and marsias, later privately published entitled “Juzway Bosida”. He revived Islamic calligraphy, shaped it with a modernist approach and became one of the most celebrated artists of the world. He painted more than 15,000 pieces of gigantic murals, canvases, innovative calligraphic works and drawings. He passed away on the 10th of February 1987 in Karachi, at the age of 57.

Sadequain’s prolific output still adorns the walls of public buildings in Pakistan and India – such as the Lahore Museum, Frere Hall in Karachi, Punjab University, Aligarh Muslim University, Banaras Hindu University and Indian Institute of Islamic Studies in Delhi, to name a few. His murals frequently paid homage to the socio-economic struggles of the working class, the bounty of mother earth and hope for the future.

He created his own distinct script outside of the traditional Kufic (angular) and Naskh (cursive) styles. Descended from a family of calligraphers, he turned a practical art form into one of vivid expression — a shift that has given calligraphy a presence in the contemporary art scene of Pakistan.

Sadequain also painted vast murals, drew elaborate illustrations, and even wrote powerful poetry. Though he created a large body of work, he rejected material wealth. He was an artist for the people and was known to give his paintings away for free, even refusing to take on commissions from royalty and heads of state around the world.

Acknowledging his contribution to Pakistani art, the government awarded him Tamgha-i-Imtiaz and the Presidential Medal of Honour.

He was also recognised in art circles abroad, receiving the Paris Biennale Prize in 1961.

The SADEQUAIN Foundation was registered in San Diego, California, in 2007. It is dedicated to discovering, preserving and promoting the art of Sadequain. It has executed exhaustive research to locate hundreds of previously unaccounted for and undocumented pieces artwork from Sadequain in places as far as Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the Middle East, Austria, Switzerland, France, England, USA, Canada and many other places.

The Foundation has published 13 books on Sadequain’s life and work. Since 2007, the Foundation has held exhibitions of Sadequain’s artwork at museums in Canada, the USA and in Pakistan.

The Foundation is poised to publish a 12-volume catalogue of Sadequain’s work, comprising over 1,000 pages of text and over 2,000 selective paintings, murals, drawings and calligraphies. It conducts seminars at museums and universities to raise awareness about his prodigious palette. It supports research on Sadequain’s life and work and provides authentication of his works supported by its history, analyses and provenance.

The ultimate goal of the Foundation is to establish a museum in Sadequain’s name.