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Bashir Mirza: the inventor of BM

 

This retrospective text on one of post-partition Pakistan’s pioneering artists, Bashir Mirza or “BM” as he later reinvented/redesigned his name, is the author’s bid to re-investigate his oeuvre as one of the major players of the Pakistani art world. The aim is to delineate him as one of the main building blocks (the load-bearing ones) of Pakistan’s short art history to today’s audience.

 

In many ways, BM’s personal story echoes the story of the post-colony in its early days, complete with all the hardships and struggles. His birth in an un-divided India in 1941 and subsequent migration to Pakistan with his family has been documented many times.[1] The art of Bashir Mirza has been talked about no less.[2] Valuable inclusions are Marjorie Husain, Dr. Akbar Naqvi, Ijaz Ul Hassan, Marcella Nesom Sirhandi and F. S. Aijazuddin who have written about his work, albeit through different angles and multiple points of view. The author proposes to use all of these texts as a cumulative lens to view, review and understand the enigma that BM was. The firsthand account of BM’s life and art by Shafi Aqeel, author and BM’s friend, is an absolutely rare treat that lays bare a highly complex, multi-faceted existence. Dr. Naqvi, on the other hand talks about his art and life in a detached manner, appearing harsh at times. Hassan’s and Sirhandi’s survey texts discuss fewer but important details.

 

Palimpsest then, is a concept that allows the author to contextualize the great narrative of “art” with the greater narrative of “life” or vice versa.  As written elsewhere, and warrants mention here, “The creative being exists in multi-layered realities; ‘the temporal-spatial’, the physical, the emotional, the imagined, the existential, the experiential. And yet all these layers coalesce to create one final reality and that is their art.” I believe the concept of palimpsest explains well the art of BM more than anything else. All the information culled through these varied sources, when coalesced, humanizes BM for the author and hopefully for the receivers too.

 

 

 

 

The NCA’s first batch:

The modus-operandi for contextualising BM’s art is to find a window and look through it with the hopefulness of finding the possibilities, aspirations, modalities, formulations and contradictions of the nascent state to which this first generation of “trained’ artists, designers and architects belonged. That window is the National College of Arts, established in 1958, where this first generation was nurtured. BM’s art must also be looked at through the prism of his training as a graphic designer at the NCA, “the most fertile and nourishing environment” in order to fully understand his desire for innovation.

 

Many files in the NCA Archives reveal that Bashir Mirza got his professional training as a member of the first batch of students at the NCA where competent foreign faculty such as James Warren, Koichi Takita and Mary Lewis were working under the most able mentoring of Prof. Mark Ritter Sponenburgh. Albeit a famed disciplinarian, Sponenburgh understood the onus of training the first ever batch of artists, architects and designers of Pakistan to come out of the NCA. He made sure these young minds learnt what treasures there were in the local, indigenous and folk art specimens/forms, simultaneously training them according to the Bauhaus model of the happy co-existence of studio and workshops. It is important to state that BM’s contemporaries included Zahoor ul Akhlaque, Ahmed Khan, Salahuddin Mian, Akhtar Hilal Zuberi and Nayyar Ali Dada amongst others.

 

Many writers have acknowledged the great shock value his paintings had for a post-colonial Pakistani nation state. Was he not fortunate to have been born in an era where he could still say what he wanted to say via his paintings instead of being one of the herd? Can and should his art be used as a lens to review a society, its inhibitions, anxieties, a society in transition?

 

According to Shafi Aqeel, his life was one big frenzy. An untiring artist he was. Apart from Chughtai and Sadequain, there are not many artists who worked as hard. He was a painter of life itself, so his subjects were aplenty.

 

 

Simone Wille in her book “Modern Art in Pakistan: History Tradition Place” observes that modernist artists in Pakistan largely draw on “memories-available through textual and visual records-of the Mughal and Persianate Worlds” and seek to articulate a cultural imagery in order to create links with a ‘transcultural past’ in a bid to construct a sense of self and locality. BM, by virtue of being an unstoppable artist kind of negated this argument in his earlier works only to return to it later in a few of his collections, like “The return of the lonely girl”. Possibly his training as a designer pushed him towards innovation and versatility more than anything else.

 

He has already been examined through many lenses, multiple points of view. Can something new still be added to the existing discourse? Through his art he made sense of his life and experiences. The author, as a practitioner and someone researching the actual practices of artists and the theorizing of frameworks informing these practices, aims to look at not just the body of work but also what preceded and what succeeded. Many authors have observed Shakir Ali’s and Sadequain’s influences in BM’s individual paintings and his development as an artist of great repute.

 

Noted scholar and artist Iftikhar Dadi acknowledges Shakir Ali’s decisive role in shaping a new generation of students and fellow artists who emerged between the 1950s and the 1970s, of which Zahoor Ul Akhlaque and Bashir Mirza were prominent beneficiaries owing to Shakir’s personality and nurturing style. According to Naqvi, BM was “one of the two bright students of the NCA that Shakir mentioned as his true contemporaries and future Hope’s.”
Bashir Mirza: the Person, the Artist

 

Life and art and life were constantly intertwined. BM, about whom Naqvi says, “…one cannot help but notice him”[3] was the ultimate show man of Pakistan’s still young art world of his time and yet way ahead of his time in many respects.  Another writer remarks, “If art reflects the artist’s personality, then Bashir’s lack of a systematic pattern of development is appropriate for him. He has long been regarded as the impetuous, restless, outspoken, daring rebel.”[4]

 

Marjorie Husain, noted writer on Pakistani Art and artists, in BM’s biography, “The Last of the Bohemians—Bashir Mirza” acknowledging his brilliance and innovation, termed him as the best among his generation of the artists from 1960s. She called him “outspoken, fearless, always forward thinking” and “keen to initiate a positive art ambience in Karachi, having great respect for the talents of his peers.”

 

Aqeel’s book “Dou Musavvir- Bashir Mirza aur Ozzir Zuby” accords a great lens to view and understand BM’s lifetime from Bashir Ahmad to Bashir Mirza to finally BM.  Using his reminiscences, he created his portrait through text and tried his best to present the life and art of Bashir Mirza in true colours without diluting or tampering, he states.
An excerpt from the book presents BM talking about his first exhibition in 1963.

 

“When I look back, I feel that work was very good. If today I try and recreate it, it will not be possible. Because it was an outcome of hardships and difficulties that I faced at that point in time. The work was reminiscent of the times.” [5]

 

Here at this point, it is important that the important exhibitions of BM must be taken into account. “Portraits of Pakistan”, “The Lonely Girl”, “The Return of the Lonely Girl”, “Flower Flower series”, “People of Pakistan”, “Dawn of Democracy” and “Songs in Colour” are some of his most prominent exhibitions.

 

Aqeel believes that the 1960s had great significance in BM’s life. All the big events of his life happened in this decade: graduation from NCA, various jobs in Karachi, exhibitions, opening of the first commercial art gallery, initiation of the first art journal  “Artistic Pakistan”, and international travels which impacted and broadened his craft, as well as his desire to experiment. He began to work with a lot of thoughtfulness.  Resultant exhibitions are a testament to that. “The Lonely Girl” series was a departure from his earlier works that shocked the art world of Pakistan. This was the birth of BM, the colourist.

 

Between the first and last exhibition of BM, the thirty-six years’ journey was one of different phases, varying styles, changing mediums, exploration of differing dimensions, turns in thoughts, experiences bringing forth seriousness and depth, but never of stillness or boredom.

 

Sirhandi confirms, “In contrast to Jamil Naqsh, Bashir Mirza has never stayed for long with one theme or one style. His artistic credibility has been established through his powerful, figurative ink drawings: his reputation was secured with smooth, poster-like paintings of women-nudes and semi-nudes with pretty faces. Bashir’s style is varied: realistic, abstract, and nonobjective, and his media and subjects diverse and inconsistent.”[6]

 

Ijaz Ul Hassan in his survey text analyses BM’s work by dividing it into phases. The early sixties were “unsettled” though interspersed with seeing, learning and interpreting.  The succeeding phase in late 1960s was of “Abstract Landscape-like Paintings” finally leading into an exhibition called “Compromise” which in the words of Ijaz Ul Hassan was “an attempt to arrive at a compromise between the formalism of Mondrian and the abstract expressionism of Jackson Pollack.” [7] Although Akbar Naqvi differs strongly and states that “his own understanding of abstract art and abstract expressionism was confused.”

 

Prof. Ijaz ul Hassan also writes about how BM felt about a lack of social and political insensitivity amongst Pakistani artists.

 

A restless soul he was, moving from subject to subject, style to style. Could this transience be traced in his training as a designer?  He was a risk taker to the core, with many firsts to his credit, like the first commercial art gallery to the first publication dedicated solely to art and artists. Sirhandi confirms, “It was Bashir’s timing, in addition to his skill and creativity that brought him acclaim.”[8] Sirhandi locates BM’s importance as an artist/painter both in the “structural strength and expressive quality of his ink drawings” as well as in his success in the revival of figurative art.

 

Later in 1966, the cross-hatched and overall hatched paintings were a clear influence of Sadequain. The bird, according to Naqvi was from Shakir Ali’s painting. “Bashir’s debt to Sadequain and Shakir Ali is obvious; what is also remarkable is that he put his own stamp on what he borrowed.”[9]

 

“The greatest fun, of course, was painting, swinging from the abstract to figurative” and vice versa. For BM, these styles were an “emotional release rather than aesthetic discipline.” [10]  Sirhandi also observes, “In contrast to Jamil Naqsh, Bashir Mirza has never stayed for long with one theme or one style. (p. 72)  The author’s conjecture is that the main reason for this shift in styles can be traced in his training as a designer under the watchful eye of Professor James Warren, the Canadian design professor who had come to set up the design department at the newly founded NCA.
Bashir’s Famed Women:

 

BM ‘s main claim to fame have undoubtedly been his nudes.  Hugely criticised but in Aqeel’s account, he comes out a fearless man, not a hypocrite who depicted the “living life” that was all around him. He was certainly not bothered by social and ethical restrictions.
He said the same in so many words.

 

“I feel that I do not owe any ethical responsibility. I believe that an artist is not linked to the public directly. I’m not a tooth paste seller. I am a creative being. It is up to the people to enjoy my work or vice versa. Even if they don’t like it, I will still welcome their opinion. To educate the public is not my job. I’m not a teacher. I accept that my nudes have a certain sexual sensitivity but they are not vulgar. As an individual, free expression is my fundamental right and that’s what I am doing.”[11]

 

Naqvi talks about the stylistic evolution in Bashir’s women from European to ethnic contemporary in the years from 1988 to 1990s.[12]

 

Sirhandi while shedding light on BM’s depiction of female figures locates the reason for the immense popularity of BM’s series “Lonely Girl” and “Flower Flower”  being in welcome contrast with the “ubiquitous non-figurative paintings” on the market.  While according to Hassan, the “supposedly more urbane art crowd of Karachi created a furore over them.” [13]
BM, the social & the political

 

BM makes for a very interesting study when as a conscientious being, he promised proceeds from his various artistic activities to many social causes; an unusual one being a set of six paintings that he presented to Women Action Forum on its first birthday.

 

He was not just a painter of ideas, thoughts and feelings but also got inspired/affected by major political happenings such as the 1965 war and the fall of Dhaka, amongst others. According to Shafi Aqeel, his art has perspectives on history, civilisation, technology, culture and nature.
In 1989, after Zia ul Haq’s regime ended, he presented two series of paintings namely “People of Pakistan” and “Dawn of Democracy” as a tribute to those commoners, politicians, poets and artists who voiced their opinions during Zia ul Haq’s strict and callous martial law regime. In BM’s own words, “…an artist depicts his personal, society’s, and the entire era’s sadness and angst.” These depictions make him all the more relevant as an artist in our society where ground realities are different today.

 

“Bashir Mirza had a talent far beyond what we can measure……It was a talent – irrepressible and audacious – that drew him to tutors like Professor Shakir Ali, who recognised in him their own successor. And it was the sheer range and versatility of his talent that captured, and then commanded for over forty years of his creative life, the attention of a wide audience of admirers and art-collectors across our country.”

 

So wrote F. S. Aijazudin in his obituary on 24-02-2000.

 

 

 

[1] Shafi Aqeel”s “Dou Musavvir- Bashir Mirza aur Ozzir Zuby”book, Dr. Akbar Naqvi’s book, S. Amjad Ali’s book.

[2] ibid

[3] See Akbar Naqvi’s “Image and Identity” for a complete review on Pakistani artists.

[4] Please see “Contemporary Painting in Pakistan” by Marcella Nesom Sirhandi, p. 72

[5] See Shafi Aqeel’s book. P. 51

[6] Contemporary Painting in Pakistan by Marcella Nesom Sirhandi, p. 72

[7] Ijaz Ul Hassan’s “Painting in Pakistan”, p. 100.

[8] “Contemporary Painting in Pakistan” by Marcella Nesom Sirhandi, p.73.

[9] Dr. Akbar Naqvi’s “Image and Identity”, p. 484.

[10] Ibid, 484-5

[11] Shafi Aqeel’s book “p.61

[12] Naqvi, p. 493.

[13] Ijaz Ul Hassan, p. 97.

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