An interview with Rashid Arshad, the calligraphic artist and former principal of Central Institute of Arts and Crafts, Karachi.
Seher Naveed: Your work lies in the genre of calligraphy art. How does the history of modern art inform your work?
Rashid Arshad: With innumerable styles and sub styles, the range of Islamic Calligraphy is very vast, spread over a large geographical territory from south India to the very end of West Africa and Spain; Islamic Calligraphy, which is the source of my inspiration,has all the components of a modern painting. Kufic, the oldest style is the best example of minimalism and abstraction. Shikasta, which developed in 18th century in Iran and practiced in the subcontinent as well, appears like a modern painting. To assume that my art is regional or Islamic alone is not correct. It is based on written word. It is the ‘word’ which sets apart man from other creatures. The entire history of mankind owes its progress to the written word.
Let me also recall that artist of all ages have expressed themselves through writing. The cuneiforms of the Sumerians, Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Chinese writings and Islamic Calligraphy are the best examples. Contemporary western, middle-eastern and Asian artists are also using writing as a theme in their art. The essence of my art is not Arabic letters but form, texture and color which is universal and central to all genre of art.
SN: When and how did you start making calligraphy paintings? For instance was calligraphy always of interest to you? Or was it a chance occurrence?
RA: To put it simply, it was a chance occurrence. But that will not tell the whole truth. I was made to write on Takhti as soon as I was able to hold a reed pen between my fingers and place Takhti on my lap. Takhti was my laptop in early age. Then there was exposure to Arabic and Urdu literature including old manuscripts. Therefore all of this was in my subconscious and waiting to find its way out. It happened, when out of frustration, I wrote some words on a still life painting that I was not pleased with. From that moment on, I only used writing as a subject of my painting. That was in 1969 or so.
SN: What would you consider more important in your paintings — the use of text or application of paint? Also how do you choose the text/alphabet employed in your paintings?
RA: Both. You cannot do one without the other. It is the medium that helps fashion art. Yet medium without subject is just chemistry.
SN: How do you start a painting? What is the process?
RA: You are beginning to invade the privacy of an artist. But this is a secret I do not mind sharing with others. I start with a blank canvas. Does not every one? But here is the difference. The surface you paint on, be it a canvas or paper, is as important as what you paint or write on it. By this I mean the respect and sanctity of the surface. A blank canvas or paper is just as beautiful as the masterpiece painted on it. Hence the art of papermaking and weaving. Although some of my canvases are very complex yet in order to respect the surface I leave vast area which iseither blank or not overworked. You may call it an attempt to reveal the surface. Like most artists I paintin layers,starting withscribbling letters or unreadable words. Often a painting develops as conceived but since I am not painting a portrait, the changes take place progressively. I review my work several times at different stages of development, adding texture here and there. What you have at the end is painting where most important elements are color, lines and texture. The process of painting is similar to cooking. You know the recipe and at what stage to add this or thatingredient or a spice. If you have ever cooked you would know what it means.
SN: Does architecture or ideas of spaces have any influence in your work?
RA: You can bet on it. It is all game of space. A word or even a letter of any language is shaped on the concept of architectural space, and each letter of any language is a work of art by itself. Space has several meanings and applications and the concept is not exclusive to visual arts but it encompasses all form of art including music and literature. Space in a work of art could be accidental and spontaneous or deliberate. In music it is the variation of notes including the pause, which in my opinions is the loudest and most effective note. Compositions of Khurshid Anwar can be cited as an example. In literature it is ups and down of narration and the moods a writer creates. But let’s stick with its usage in two dimensional arts where you have aerial or atmospheric space that is created by color and tones. Then you have space in the picture plane. Since my paintings are basically flat, I only deal with space in the picture plane. I enjoy maintaining relationship between used and unused spaces. By unused I mean not over worked. It is the unused space that really gives importance to and enhances used space. The effort on my part is deliberate but it appears intuitive and natural. It should.
SN: You were principal of the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts, Karachi, in the 70’s. Since it was the only art institution in Karachi at the time – How was your experience? It would be great if you could describe the energy in the space and other artists you worked with?
RA: My, my! Those were the days. It requires a separate article to answer this question. First,Central Institute was not the only Institute of art in Karachi. There was Karachi School of Art and one or two atelier type schools. Central Institute was perhaps the most influential that produced artists who dominate the art and cultural scene of Karachi and Pakistan. Some of them gained international recognition in their respective area of specialization. Imran Mir, Noorjehan Bilgrami, Nahid Raza, Rumana Hussain, Niilofur Farrukh, Shakeel Siddiqui, Samina Mansuri and Akram Spaul come to mind. My contemporaries were, Shakir Ali (also my teacher) Zubaida Agha, Ali Imam, Sadequain, Ahmed Parvez, Zahoorul Akhlaq, Bashir Mirza, Jameel Naqsh and others. I have also met Abdul Rahman Chughtai and we exchanged a few letters. I have many fond memories of them. Although all of them are big names yet those were the formative years for art in Pakistan. Living on art alone was not heard of. Since it is a question of historical nature as well, I leave a detailed answer for some other occasion. Briefly, they were the pioneers who set the standards and paved the ground for coming generations.
SN: What are your views on current art practices in Pakistan?
RA: Historically speaking, and given the relative socio-political situation, all stages of development of Art in Pakistan are very important. But the new crop of artists is altogether a different breed. They are more informed about their surroundings and intellectually better equipped to solve the problems in hand. Undoubtedly, the group of Miniature artist have dominated not only the national scene but made their mark in the international market as well; which was unimaginable in our time. Even those artists, who did not make to international auction houses and world’s most famous collections, have demonstrated exceptional creative energies. National College of Arts is undoubtedly played a leading role in this direction. Indus Valley School has also done well given its short history. Let me add here that the pioneers have their own place in the history and therefore the artists of the old guards will also be considered very important.
SN: You have written two books consisting of playful and witty short stories. Is there a relation between your writings and paintings?
RA: Make it three. My third book which is titled “Teesri Kitaab was recently published in Indiabecause I could not make a trip to Pakistan and also because no Pakistani publisher would respond to my letters. It is good that you have asked about the relationship between my paintings and writings. Apparently none, because my paintings are not witty. But the creative process that is involved in painting has helped me in composing my thoughts in words and phrases. If the content is different, there are similarities in form. The practice of choosing the right color and manipulating other elements in a painting guided me to be selective in words and phrases that fit a situation I am creating. The critics have particularly mentioned this trait in myessays. For example the Dawn critic wrote:
“The book contains a large number of sayings or proverbs beautifully woven into the narrative. I doubt it if any single book ever possessed so many of these. It is simply a relish to find each of them expressed appropriately. The narration is full of puns and pauses. A series of thoughts is born out of a single thought. The change from one mould to another comes like an easy breath.”
Within the context, you could say the same about my paintings as did Quddus Mirza:
“While the writer managed language in his books, the painter manipulated words for pictorial purposes.”
SN: What do you have to say about the expanded field of painting- whereby artists are deploying various other methods to paint or make art works? Would you consider continuing calligraphy via another medium?
RA: There is nothing new as far as non-traditional methods used in a painting. Back in the sixties, or perhaps earlier, the barrier between a two dimensional and three dimensional arts was broken. Painting was done on sculpture and three dimensional paintings were created. There will be no progress in any field if you do not explore new avenues. I have used calligraphy in printmaking and in ceramics as well. I have also done many digital collages using calligraphy. I will continue to find new way to express myself.♦
Seher Naveed is a Fine Arts senior lecturer at the Indus Valley School of Art and has shown in local and international group exhibitions.
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