ArtNow talks to Rashid Arshed, artist and former Principal CIAC about art past and art present.
ArtNow: You were Principal of CIAC in the seventies at a time when it was a school of great merit and produced some of our leading artists and though they may not have gone on to pursue art practice, these are people who have a deep association and understanding of the arts. What role do you think you played in nurturing these ‘students’?
RA: I served as Principal of the Central Institute of Arts Crafts from 1970 to 1975. I was lucky to have such talented group of students who made a strong impact in various branches of art. Perhaps the best thing that I did was to allow their talent and thoughts to grow in an atmosphere of freedom. Most of my students pursued career in art and became artists of national and international renown. Others became prolific writers, illustrators, film makers, art curators and fashion designers. You have already said that these are people who have a deep association and understanding of the arts. I concur with you that no matter what field you choose for your career, the central point is the understanding of ‘aesthetics’. And this is the key to the success of that group of students. I was also fortunate to have a team of sincere and dedicated teachers like Meher Afroz, Wahida Mansoor, Khalil Ahmed and others. There was no distance between teacher and the taught. It was a close knit family. We all moved in one direction, working for a common goal.
AN: What was the socio-political scene at the time?
RA: We had military dictatorship of Ayub Khan from 1958 to 1969. Despite the ills of dictatorship, the economy was on the move with major foreign investments. The situation of peace and order can be judged from the fact that during a state visit Jacqueline Kennedy rode in an open car through Qissa Khawni Bazaar while thousands of Pakhtuns stood by along the road side and on the balconies. Common white men and women could also travel with freedom from Karachi to Khyber to Koh Kurrakaram. Religious extremism was pretty much on check and communal riots and violence was minimal as compared to today. School and College girls rode their bikes to school without fear.
Then came a brief period of Yahya Khan that culminated with debacle of East Pakistan. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto emerged as the leader off the west wing, what was left of Pakistan. He sent a major blow to the growing economy by nationalizing financial institutions and industries. To manage the business and industry he appointed bureaucrats and buddies with no expertise or experience in the area. We saw many industries fold up and their owners went through financial ruin. In the area of art and culture Z. A. Bhutto took a bold step by forming the Pakistan National Council of Arts. Faiz Ahmed Faiz was appointed its first head. A travelling exhibition of Pakistani paintings was arranged that was shown in major museums and art galleries in Europe. The purpose was to introduce Pakistani art to the world and at the same time to try to remove the stigma of atrocities committed in East Pakistan. The National Council has continued to play some role in the development of art and culture of Pakistan.
In order to understand the environment of the yester years we must look at the art scene of today. Now there are dozens of well-known and very successful artists in the area of Miniature Painting alone. Some of them are hot under the hammer in auction houses in London, Dubai and other art centers of the world. In our time, you could count active and exhibiting artists on your fingers because there were around ten or twelve of them. There were no commercial galleries and no serious collectors. Look at how many art galleries have sprung up now! How many art schools and art departments in colleges and universities there are? How many artists are graduating every year? National College of Arts that emerged from Mayo School of Art gradually came of age and produced artists of international renown. The Fine Art Department at the Punjab University was not lagging. The CIAC and Karachi School of Art also contributed substantially. In our time, in the sixties and seventies, artists were starving and struggling. This included the rich and famous of today. The only sponsoring bodies were arts councils which were administratively sluggish and much of the funds that came from the Government were absorbed in administrative expenses. Buying a painting or collecting art was the last thing on the minds of those who could afford it. In fact, there was no awareness. Ali Imam and his Indus Gallery made a big difference to nurture the sense and the importance of art collecting. More galleries surfaced and collecting of art became a serious business in our social life. The wealthy of yesterday ‘stashed their wealth under the pillow’ so to speak but their children, mostly educated in the west, grew up thinking differently. Today they are major art collectors.
AN: Was there camaraderie amongst the groups of artists? What was the relationship between teachers and students?
RA: We know well that there has always been professional jealousy among various groups. No exceptions. In the history of mankind it began with Habil and Qabil (Abel and Cain) the two sons of Adam. The jealousy of Qabil made him kill his brother. If you saw two artists sitting together, you could bet they were talking against the third. There was a lot of bickering, leg pulling and intrigue. Some artists loved to interfere in others’ business. “What we say goes” was their axiom. I hope that is not the case today, at least not to that extent. Most artists of today are too busy painting and making money, anyway. I am sure some still find time for this extra- curricular activity. People at CIAC and Karachi School of Art showed unity. NCA was politicized and there were instances of students’ demonstrations and violence there.
AN: This time around when you were heading the Fine Art department at IVS, did you feel a dramatic change in the art environment? Tell us about the caliber (or lack thereof) of the students now. Tell us about the industry as you saw it and the changes in it. Were you disappointed or were you pleasantly surprised?
RA: Yes there was a dramatic change. But before I go on, let me explain that the talent has always existed. It is the challenge offered by the environment that is different. As I mentioned earlier, the first two decades of Pakistani history enjoyed relative peace and tranquility. Things dramatically changed during the military dictatorship of General Zia. He imposed restriction on freedom of expression. He dictated how people should think and what they should or should not paint. While it curbed the freedom of expression, this policy also produced a reaction and that reaction brought a new vigor in expression in painting, poetry and other arts.
Then related to this, there the Russian invasion of Afghanistan occurred. This brought Pakistan and Afghanistan in the focus on the international scene. The plight of the women and the oppressed, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan was highlighted in the world media. Young Pakistani artists responded to this challenge and their response was creative and bold. Artists were responding to social and political issues more than ever. With the news of war on our borders, our artists also made headlines around the world. This should explain the change that has taken place form my early teaching days in the third quarter of the 20th century to now, in the first decade of 21st century. It was in this backdrop that I was asked to take over as head of the Fine Art Department at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. Pakistani art had made tremendous progress. Young artists were thinking differently. They were responding to the challenges of the time. There was no reason for disappointment. I was not surprised either. I was simply pleased; very pleased.
AN: In your practice you were amongst the first artists who used calligraphy as part of a larger idiom and not as a decipherable element. Why did you choose to see the aesthetic form of the words rather than their semantic resonance? Your peers, like Sadequain, were taking the art of the written word more seriously and evolving their praxis around calligraphic elements. Why did you choose to distance yourself from the order of the day?
RA: I wish there was an easy way to explain the ‘why’s and ‘how’ of art. The chemistry of the creative process works differently than the chemistry of objects and elements in nature. It is inexplicable in simple and mathematical terms. An artist’s mind works subconsciously when things are happening. He does not and cannot keep record of the creative process. You only see the result. And based on this result you can arrive at a judgment, form an opinion or analyze the process. I know when I was experimenting with calligraphy, in the late sixties, I was not writing words. I was dissecting Arabic alphabets. As a painter, it gave me no satisfaction to write poetic verses. I did not want the audience to read my painting and search for literal meanings in them. When we look at a traditional masterpiece of Islamic calligraphy, an aged Kufi, Maghrabi or Naskh, we appreciate the lines, the curves and the surface texture. These are the ingredients of beauty. In my paintings, I have tried to capture this very essence of Islamic calligraphy. In most cases, the traditional calligraphy is difficult to decipher in any way. As a painter, I cannot imagine treating calligraphy any other way.
AN: This calligraphic element in your work has ranged from dense, crowded and meticulously arranged to strong, stark and minimalistic. What takes you from one to another in the course of your practice?
RA: Working with calligraphy is very interesting. I want the change of taste for myself and for the audience as well. I also don’t like repetition, which, unfortunately is labeled as style. Then, looking at traditional calligraphy, you will see all these variations in many styles of Khat or script. Ghubar, for instance, is crowded, Shikasta is dynamic, Kufi is bold, Naskh and Sulth are elaborate and Maghrabi is royal and fascinating. I want to explore every possibility of the script in my own way.
AN: One body of work that you had produced in the US and exhibited in Pakistan consisted of a series of works based on pulp painting. Why did you not pursue that thematic thread?
RA: In 1991, I attended some workshop courses of nature at the Rutgers University. The professor in charge advised me to take up pulp painting to explore further creative possibilities. I enjoyed this process immensely. I also studied intaglio at Rutgers under a Russian teacher. The experience led me to do some experiments in xerography. The passport series emerged from this experiment. In 1992 or so, I had a show at the Indus Gallery which included all of the above plus quite a few works with brown paper. Why did not I pursue that thematic thread? Incidentally, these days I am digitally recording my work and when I came across this very body of work that you pointed out, I badly wished I could explore further avenues in this media.
AN: Why did you start writing? Was expression in paint not enough for you?
RA: I am amused by this question. It sounds like I have done something wrong. Well, I went to Karachi in 1992. That same year I had my show at the Indus Gallery, and I had some unpleasant yet funny experiences that strongly contrasted with my life in the USA. I began writing down the experiences under the title of کراچی میں چند روز my first essay that is part of my book Jungle main Mangal. I never ever thought that I will be writing humor in Urdu but after writing two books and receiving critical acclaim for them, I wish I had started writing at an earlier age than 57.
AN: You have written two books in Urdu, Jungle main Mangal and Zair-o-Zabar. Both are satirical and witty yet critical. What are the metaphors expressed in these books?
RA: My first book, ‘Jungle main Mangal’, is satirical and humorous. Social and political issues are raised in a very subtle way. The second book, ‘Zair-o-Zabar’, is slightly different and we must understand that it was written in the backdrop of the Iraq and Afghan wars and how war on terrorism turned our lives upside down. So, along with the humor I have also touched on the sufferings of people of the region. For instance, in an essay “Kharguzisht” Story of a Donkey, I have used the donkey as a symbol of oppression and suffering of the common man in our society. This very funny story highlights every ill that our society is plagued with. Some people told me that they cried reading it. “Writing good humor is a serious business,” said Professor Seher Ansari commenting on “Zair-o-Zabar” and “good humor tickles your sensibilities and makes you think and this is the type of humor you will find in this book” she concluded. Those who reviewed my upcoming book believe that this will be better than the previous two. It is simple, subtle and makes us smile on our predicaments. No tears, no hiccups!