The Old Master

Zohreen Murtaza reviews Dr Munawar Ahmad's tribute to Khalid Iqbal, peerless painter of the Punjab plains

The Old Master
Why don’t we celebrate our true heroes? The men and women who have added immeasurably to our lives – activists, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, artists – without obtaining the spoils of power. Artists, especially, suffer from the neglect of a philistine state and society.

Dr Munawar Ahmad, a medical practitioner with a passion for art has tried to address this imbalance by producing “The Marvel that is Khalid Iqbal”, itself a marvelous tome. The book is meticulously researched and insightful book sheds light on the life, work and personality of eminent landscape painter Khalid Iqbal.

Mention of Punjab’s distinct landscape or the shady Laburnum tree and flaming Gulmohar of Lahore is incomplete without referring to the father of landscape painting, a man who  brought the essence of a scene to life on his canvases.  Khalid Iqbal’s passion for landscape gave rise to an entire generation of painters who came to be known as “The Punjab Landscape School”.

Khalid Iqbal studied at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Arts, London and returned to live and teach in Lahore where he passed away in 2014. He taught at the Punjab University followed by the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore where he was Principal and also had the honour of being nominated Professor Emeritus.

What makes this book unique is the style, intention and the writer himself. Both the preface and book jacket make it a point to state that the writer was a close friend and confidante of the painter for many years and was even witness to the creation of some his paintings. Therefore the book as a whole is an earnest and unique attempt on Dr. Munawar Ahmad’s part to proffer a personal glimpse into the life and work of Khalid Iqbal as he, the painter’s family and many of his colleagues in the artist fraternity knew him- through their own particular lens.

Flame of the Forest

It is worth mentioning that Dr. Munawar Ahmad himself is a practicing pediatrician but has always expressed a strong inclination for the arts. The esteemed painter Rahat Masud has written in glowing terms about Dr. Munawar Ahmad in the Foreword to the book stating that the author has read papers at art seminars and even occasionally contributed art reviews to newspapers. Well-travelled and an ardent collector of Khalid Iqbal’s work, Dr. Ahmad says he wants to introduce to the reader “a different way of seeing Khalid Iqbal that combines an appreciation of his masterpieces with an understanding of the context in which they were created”.

The preface itself begins by offering the reader a detailed account, both in written and visual form of the journey, trial and ultimate triumphs that were Khalid Iqbal’s quiet personal life and prolific professional history. Marshaling one’s myriad thoughts about a friend and painter one has known and conscientiously observed and to some degree looked up to is there for all to see, but the author approaches the subject both sensitively and systematically. Dr. Ahmad has quoted Khalid Iqbal’s siblings but where his professional life is concerned, detailed remarks of his old teachers and old photographs have also been painstakingly retrieved from archives and other sources that supplement the simple yet absorbing writing style.

'Canal Near Lahore' - a work by Khalid Iqbal (c. 1985)

Regarding the section on the paintings and their analyses which forms the bulk of the book, it is interspersed with anecdotes and incidents that echo with humour, wit and sometimes sadness. The writing does, as the author states in his Preface, allow the reader to glean something new from each painting. One comes away with having gained a fresh perspective on each painting, its making, challenges and qualities. Some of the conversations and discussions recorded as incidents that compliment the paintings are frank, unassuming and deliberately eschew any inclination towards formal critique or analysis.

This writing style that veers from intensely personal and poetic to almost casual is what creates a common shared space where both art connoisseur, student and layman can all lay claim to having gained something substantial from the reading. These fragments and semblances that constitute a touching portrait of a quiet and gifted man do not just pay homage to Khalid Iqbal’s generosity, skill or painterly virtuosity but also conjure his love for life, friendships and Lahore itself with its distinct landscape scenes and environments that have succumbed to the march of time and urban development.

Dhobi ghat

In Khalid Iqbal's brushwork, you can see the influence of that Old Master, Cezanne, great post-Impressionist and precursor of modern art. You can also see the parallels in both men's love of their environment - in Paul Cezanne's case the southern French area of Provence and in Khalid Iqbal's the Punjab plains

This is augmented by the fact that slides and sketches of Khalid Iqbal’s elaborate garden at home have also been included that depict his love for nature. Art and life are inextricably linked to each other and a study of such aesthetics that have shaped the painter’s life underlies the author’s understanding of Khalid Iqbal and his work. In this, and his brushwork, you can see the influence of that Old Master, Cezanne, great post-Impressionist and precursor of modern art. You can also see the parallels in both men’s love of their environment – in Paul Cezanne’s case the southern French area of Provence and in Khalid Iqbal’s the Punjab plains.

Generously spread out over 200 pages, Dr Ahmad’s book is an impressive visual treat with some paintings and their close-ups reproduced in vivid detail as double page spreads that provide an in depth view of the opacity, tones and strokes of the landscape all rendered in glorious detail. Impasto or translucence, cross-hatching or scumbling, the artist’s surface is clearly visible in some slides. For this alone, simply leafing through the book is a treat.