Why must one write a retrospective of a creator whose work and life merited an entire book that embodied his work/life: the ethos of his art/design; narratives of people closest to him; his work in almost all its entirety? What more can this retrospective offer, I wonder. In my quest to find an answer to this, I delve deeper, for clues that would make this a worthwhile exercise, for me and receivers alike. This writing needs to re-vision and re-present his oeuvre through its contextualization to a meta-narrative, for an interested audience by raising some pertinent questions.
So what should a retrospective on Salahuddin Mian, one of the pioneering designers/artists who were credited with heralding the modern movement in this nascent state of Pakistan include? What should be celebrated and what aspects of his art/design should be critically analyzed? Should Mian’s work be studied in the context of the overarching socio-political realities of his times coupled with his complexities of his personal life? Such questions abound.
“born of fire: salahuddin mian”, a posthumous book and the accompanying exhibition on the life/work of Mian Salahuddin by Noorjehan Bilgrami remains the most crucial lens that helps in a better envisioning of the many obscurely lit angles of a mostly misunderstood and misinterpreted life. It is through the writings of his friends, colleagues and some students that different facets of his personality come alive to the reader one by one. By virtue of being at NCA in its 29th year in 1987, when this first batch of NCA was enjoying a prime time, I could be a facet of that lens too.
To exercise dispassion and objectivity while looking at someone’s oeuvre who one has worked closely with and in many capacities is difficult if not downright impossible and yet, to look back at his life through my life is an exercise I must go through. The time when as a student, I was afraid of him morphed into a time when he would come to textile studio to look exclusively at my work. The year was 1991. I did not matter to him but designs inspired by the Indus valley civilisation rendered in fluorescent colours visibly excited him. And then finally to have been handpicked by him to teach remains my greatest honour to date. Euphoria of those precious moments when one was trained unconsciously is not without the realisation and criticism of the dichotomy that was felt then and more so now. It evaded me always how and why the principles of apprenticeship based on the oral tradition were being amalgamated with the Bauhaus-inspired education model at the NCA. It didn’t make sense to me then but going through the multi-layered dichotomies of everyday life in a post-colonial state does somewhat explain it today.
The NCA’s first batch:
The modus-operandi for contextualising his art then is to find a window and look through it with the hopefulness of finding the possibilities, difficulties, 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 1958, where this first generation was nurtured.
This must always be remembered that Salahuddin Mian was from the first batch of students who enrolled at the newly founded NCA and were trained under the most able guidance and mentoring of Prof. Mark Ritter Sponenburgh who, though a famed disciplinarian understood the onus of training the first ever batch of artists, architects and designers to come out of the NCA. He lovingly showed these young minds 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. Among Mian’s contemporaries were the likes of Zahoor ul Akhlaque, Ahmed Khan, Bashir Mirza, Akhtar Hilal Zuberi and Nayyar Ali Dada.
It is crucial to look for and analyse ‘influences’ in his design/art: the markers of zeitgeist; ever-changing times; the ever-evolving palimpsest of his life.
Call them influences or exchange, evolution, assimilation—and creation, art and its history have always been informed by the trade of ideas. Mian whose art and life form the subject of this retrospective piece, was creator of things that bore testimony to all of above.
I would argue that through the very model of looking back at tradition, being inspired by it and bringing it forth to inform professional practice that Nayyar Ali Dada, Zahoor ul Akhlaque and others adopted, Mian Salahuddin benefitted too. And although he shunned tradition as abhorring many a times, it was inherent even in the choice of his material, medium and aesthetics. At the NCA, he studied in the “most fertile and nourishing environment”, benefitting immensely from James Warren, the Canadian professor of Design and the Head of Design department and Koichi Takita Sensei, the Japanese Ceramist who was brought to design and teach courses in Ceramic design at the NCA through The Asia Foundation’s grant. Takita was in his mid-thirties at that time and already an accomplished ceramist in his home country, having received many awards. A Fulbright scholarship to study for one year in a non-degree programme at the Cranbrook Academy in the US accorded Mian another meaningful opportunity to gain greater exposure and hone his skills. Knowing this backdrop is important and crucial for understanding Mian’s trajectory of future art/design practice that brought together a confluence of Japanese aesthetics coupled with American avant-garde, and of course nuances of tradition from this river valley civilisation and yet, as Ajaz Anwar states, “he was not a traditionalist. His innovations later became traditions. He had a new way of looking, conceiving and creating things.” Further confirmation comes from Quddus Mirza who calls him “a modern aesthete” who rejected tradition’s sacred status throughout his life and yet his works were “a blend of tradition and modernity.”
Once back at NCA that was in its eighth year of existence, Mian worked as a man possessed. Creation and production became an everyday ritual. Following quotes betray how his practice of later years was eulogised by his contemporaries. Dada called his pieces “startling” and “dramatic” while Rashid Arshed credited him as “a pioneer of contemporary ceramics in Pakistan.” Likewise, Akhtar Hilal Zuberi, his close friend, confidant and class fellow proudly states, “When the history of creative ceramics is written in Pakistan, his name will be on top of the list among the very few who laid the foundations of ceramics in the country.”
Salima Hashmi reminisces fondly that his office space at the NCA was blooming “with evidence of a wonderful sense of design, and a passion for aesthetic order.” She further confirms that “a fertile, inventive practice emerges over the years. Constant experimentation with form and surface; with shape, pattern, and texture define his work.” Dr. Ajaz Anwar, in an essay calls him a “ceramist with a sculptor’s feel” who had the “delicate aura of a painter.” “An explorer of forms”, Mian the versatile, crossed the boundaries of all aesthetics according to Ajaz Anwar. These comments from the bigwigs confirming Mian’s stature in the Pakistani art world notwithstanding, no book on Pakistani art worth the name carries anything on his artistic ingenuity except for one book, “50 years of Visual Arts in Pakistan.” Thus the politics of this art world are revealed to us. And along with that, binaries of art and craft make their presence felt yet again. One of his students, Salman Asif, capturing the gist of his life/work writes, “.. …his work remained beyond the biggest flaw in the art world called compromise, and unwilling to be committed. In that he was incorrigible. Not just incorrigible but also invincible. And so is his creative legacy.” The politics of the art world never could take away that legacy.
A New Kind of Aesthetics:
One has to admit that Mian introduced a newer kind of aesthetics and I don’t mean just his glazes. The imagery that he chose was startling, unsettling to say the least. The question marks on his pots, imprint/impression of a hand, Urdu words, calligraphy never fail to surprise the viewer. His pieces were/are straight forward, simple but are not simplistic. By his own admission, he lived in reality and in the present and that is clearly visible in his art. He comes through in a very forthright manner and states the way it is. “He fashioned extroverted works that can be classified as three-dimensional realisations of abstract expressionism.” Asim Akhtar brings out another dimension in “born of fire: salahuddin mian.”
While Mian states emphatically in an interview,”There is no pattern. The ideas come from many directions, sometimes out of nowhere. The process of converting ideas into art is very complex and unpredictable. I cannot say beforehand what I am going to do next. Sometimes forms are taken from nature and then I manipulate them. At times these can be accidental.”
So by his own admission, he believed in non-formula art, as he believed in keeping pace with the rapid changes occurring in art and aesthetics.
Still some people look for clues of a broken life in his pieces. Hashmi talks of ‘fissures’, ‘schisms’, ‘enigmas’ that remained unresolved but credits these to have fed his talents. “Deep, unresolved contradictions mark Salahuddin Mian’s life and work.” She analyses.
The usual folklore at NCA about Mian sahab is horrid, unsympathetic to say the least. Humans of course are made up of contradictions. Some can cover them up while some flaunt them and some accept them. Accepting ones are the bravest. Mian was definitely a braveheart.
Could it be said conclusively then that his unresolved life gave birth to a highly resolved art/design practice?
He chose the way of ceramics as art pieces, as statement pieces. He actually predated the advent of post-modernity in Pakistan. His’ dairh eent’, ‘samosas’, his mounting of a piece of charpoy on gallery ceiling, his tea cups with lips attached to them, are all markers. His panel that even today adorns a wall at the NCA incorporated ‘jhanvay’, empty tins of pepsi alluding to a Makli-esque composition, is an apt comment on the ‘pakistani’ thought processes. Did he desire an audience for his meaning and purpose-laden work?
Teaching at NCA:
He is occasionally blamed for his ineffectiveness as a teacher. An archival survey reveals that his life/career as a teacher and as an artist/designer is of import in the larger backdrop of design education and the larger industrial design field in Pakistan and must be studied, analysed and commented upon in that vein.
As a teacher, he certainly believed in rules that he made himself. Living life on one’s terms might sound like a cliche but Mian’s life was a testament to that. Whether this bore fruit as a teacher or not did not really interest him.
As a design teacher, he believed in ‘interdisciplinary’ before this term became fashionable in art schools here. He was interested in textiles and one could see this clearly in the way he dressed or for that matter dressed the walls of his office. He delved in metals too.
Ahmad Khan, his class-fellow and friend calls him “a spiritual instructor, a comprehensive teacher,” but the system demanded more of him as archival evidence confirms. Should this then be argued that if placed in a better, well structured, well disciplined system of teaching, Mian could be a better teacher to his students? NCA, that was planned as a college of Industrial Design as per the original vision of the government of Pakistan and duly developed by professor Sponenburgh, could have benefited more from Mian’s expertise? Could this country could have benefitted more? The archival records further confirm that the system itself was flawed and problematic as Sponenburgh had left and the succeeding team found it difficult to manage matters.
It is only an idea how well he could have changed the look of ceramic products commercially produced in Pakistan, if things were running smoothly at his workplace.
And yet his work and art is still relevant and being talked about. This says much about him as an artist/designer.
The references for this article are:
“born of fire; Salahuddin Mian” by Noorjehan Bilgrami.
Forthcoming dissertation titled “From Craft to Art and Design: Changing patterns of Art Education:. (From Mayo School to The National College of Arts)” by the author.
National College of Arts Archives.