Shahid Sajjad: a man, an institution, beyond his Zeitgeist. He created his own language, made his own tools, defined his own ways of living and led a fulfilling life on his own accord. Very few people earn the privilege to think beyond the usual and question the conditioned socio-cultural practices of their times. It is ironic that some people perceived him as a man with complicated beliefs but only if you knew him and had spent time with him, that you realized that he was in fact a man grounded in simplicity: simplicity of values, systems and relationships.
His artistic practices were deeply influenced by his relationship with his family, work and his art-making material. Mutual sharing and active communication were key elements that defined the way he lived, loved and led.
As his two sons reminisce their father’s legacy, Sibte Sajjad said, “Shahid Sajjad was an ordinary man with less than ordinary needs, but extraordinary views. What we take for granted as meanings and understanding of ordinary issues…held very different meanings to him.” The way he interpreted reality and existence deeply informed his art practice, too. Relationships carried tremendous meaning for him, “relationships not only with fellow humans”, Sibte added, “but with the surroundings, being attentive and present. It could only be experienced, it couldn’t be taught. His relationship with his work matured to a level where he considered his job similar to that of a midwife, a mere facilitator for the material he handled needed to express itself”.
Two thinkers influenced his life deeply: J. Krishnamurti and Baba Bulleh Shah. At a very young age, Shahid Sajjad explored the theosophical views of J. Krishnamurti, whom he considered his mentor. For him, learning was his life. This urge for learning and re-creating knowledge enabled him to bring people together and facilitate intellectual discourses. He believed that people’s “deep conditioned responses to almost all issues of our daily life [we]re based on opinions, ignoring the truth that an opinion about a fact [wa]s not the fact” and that “there [wa]s no shame in not being able to achieve or succeed, as achievement is a figment of our imagination”. He held that people associated “security and comfort” with deep-rooted “traditions, culture and religion”, which for him were “competitive and divisive. The irony of the matter [wa]s such that competitiveness and divisiveness ha[d] become the basis for organized societies and the only tool for progress.”
Shahid Sajjad precluded the norms of society that lead to conformity, an idea he despised. In sync with Bulleh Shah’s philosophy, he strongly believed that “societies and all their functional arms work[ed] towards making clones…teaching their young ones to be a certain way, exhibiting no tolerance towards diversity, defiance, difference. Compliance to a level of blind faith. It [wa]s this veil upon veil that Bulleh [wa]s protesting, requesting the preacher to stop asserting. Let there be difference.”
It was Shahid Sajjad’s quest for life that stirred him to leave home at a very young age and travel to Lahore. There, he started working with commercial artists and gained the skill to draw and paint. Within two years he came to Karachi and at the age of 18, he was heading the creative department of Lintas, one of the leading advertising agencies in the city then. It was his curiosity, pro-risk boldness and love for learning that Sajjad travelled for three years (1960-1963) to South-East Asia, the Middle East and Europe on a motorbike. While travelling, he also visited Japan and amongst many enriching experiences there, learnt lost-wax casting from sculptor, Akio Kato. Later he went and worked in Rangamati, a district in South-Eastern Bangladesh, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, where he was inspired to make some of his iconic large-scale woodcarvings in the 1960s.
The artist’s repertoire spanned a variety of disciplines and mediums: woodcarvings, bronze sculptures/ reliefs, painting, printmaking and drawing. Sajjad had his first solo exhibition of wood and bronze sculptures at the Karachi Arts Council in 1974 and at Atelier BM, Karachi, in 1975. He was commissioned by the Pakistan Army to create a vast bronze mural, Cavalry through the Ages in 1981. In Marjorie Hussain’s words, he was “an artist whose life merge[d] into his sculpture as one entity”.
Trained during the 1950s and 1960s in advertising at various places (Singapore, Lahore, Karachi) Sajjad shared a long history with printing, ink and the use of paper. In 1987, he developed his own technique of printmaking and produced a series of Deduction Prints, exhibited at the Chawkandi Art Gallery, Karachi. He devised his own printing press that operated with a crane and together with his understanding of metal, thinned ink, wax and a variety of paper, introduced this technique of reverse printing.
Sajjad was invited by the Seoul Olympics Organizing Committee to partake of the Olympiad of Art in 1988. Later, he participated in the Indian Triennial in Delhi, India in 1991 and the SAARC Festival in Islamabad in 1992. In the next two years, Sajjad worked in Mansehra on a woodcarving series, attended the 6th Asian Art Biennial held in Dacca, Bangladesh, the International Cairo Biennial in Cairo, Egypt and the IAA-UNESCO Conference at Fukuoka, Japan in 1994. A year later, he participated in the Istaqlal 11 Festival in Jakarta, Indonesia. In 1996, he was part of the UNESCO-sponsored International Sculpture Event held at the Toolangi Forest near Melbourne, Australia.
Sajjad believed in practicing vulnerability; he accepted imperfections, gave space to the unknown, let things happen, and was receptive to change. He considered “trying to be successful is only to feel secure, and security leads to stagnation, it is only when you are vulnerable and insecure that learning happens, only because you are open to the new and are observant of your surroundings… [M]aking oneself vulnerable and insecure is the only way forward. Rejecting the old, to pave way for the new.” This philosophy drove his artistic repertoire too. Unavailability of tools meant re-configuring and improvising his own set of equipment. He was thoroughly invested in his work material, yet he deeply understood the immaterial nature of materiality. He intently observed material possibility, constantly improvised it and pushed its limits, also casting his son’s nappy in bronze once. He redeveloped his own techniques over and over again through an extensive and elaborate procedure of modeling, molding, casting, lost-wax casting, cold bronze casting and firing. In his last series of bronze castings from 2004-2006, the sculptural forms evolved to be like fossilized pieces from an underwater world. His work scale was unprecedented; 42 inch bronze pieces weighing 700 kilos. The entire task was scrupulously process-oriented, from its making to its handling, transporting and preservation. It called for immense intricacy and estimation.
Shahid Sajjad also had two retrospective exhibitions, at the National College of Arts and at the Indus Valley School of Arts and Architecture in 2010, exhibiting more than a hundred art works and documenting his experiences as an artist for more than five decades.
Architect Akeel Bilgrami (founder member and member of the Board of Governors of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture) while paying homage to the legacy of the artist at the flag hoisting ceremony on August 14, 2014 at IVS, shared that the name of the school was coined by Shahid Sajjad. He was also one of the founder members of the art school and strongly believed in keeping the school unsullied by corporate interests. “Teaching, for instance”, Sibte Sajjad shared, was “considered essential and positive, but to him, it was an act of induced control and a reflection of conditioning”. As much as he stressed raw learning, he detested the idea of any school or educational entity churning out students as commodities in a factory. Learning, he emphasized, was more important than being educated.
Seldom can one become an institution in himself without attending an “educational institution”. Shahid Sajjad was one of them. A man who never went to graduate school, yet his influence superseded many successful educators and artists of his era. The non-conforming guru – his freethinking spirit and his passionate soul – lives in our hearts and minds forever.
Rabeya Jalil is a visual artist and art educator who is currently affiliated with the Fine Art Department aat the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi, Pakistan
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