Syed Ali Imam- Iron Jawed


Syed Ali Imam- Iron Jawed

Every time I sneak around and snoop into the life of an artist, I draw some kind of a guilty pleasure. Looking back at artists’ lives does not only in

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Every time I sneak around and snoop into the life of an artist, I draw some kind of a guilty pleasure. Looking back at artists’ lives does not only inform one about those great individuals but also rekindles their creative legacies.


The first-generation artists of Pakistan cover personalities who are well rounded and have deeper connections with the core idea of art and creative quest. This may be due to the reason that most of them have departed after living lives full of purpose. Their entire course of creative quest could be read or found out through one source or the other.


Syed Ali Imam is among those who with his inspiring existence and patronage nurtured the former generations and enriched the art scene of Pakistan.


His name is attached with places like the J. J. School of Arts, Gordon College Rawalpindi, Lahore Arts Circle, Central St. Martins, Hammer Smith College West London, CIAC Karachi and Indus Gallery Karachi. He is known to be heralding modernist spirit to Pakistani art and hence, played an integral role in the development of art of a country who was just trying to recover from a war for independence. But how is Ali Imam’s work and passion relevant to the recent time? How does knowing about his life and work benefit the reader in the time when, besides post-colonialism, they have had to deal with the tragedy of 9/11?


Working as a medical artist at Tata Memorial Cancer Hospital didn’t satisfy his creative quench and he decided to spend his evenings to gain more skill at J. J. School of Arts. There, under a moment of realization with K. K. Huber, his life was put on a whirlpool as he decided to leave Bombay.


After 1947’s partition he chose his own path and moved to Pakistan unlike his elder brother whom he really admired and looked up to. Strong willed and self-determined, Imam was always found on the side of the weaker, though not interested in politics initially, and later became so rigorously involved, retiring from it later entirely. He spent his early days at Gordon College, Rawalpindi to finish his formal education where painting in leisure time continued.


Before settling in Karachi, he had been to other places like Murree and Bahawalpur serving institutions like Lawrence College and Sadiq Public school. He would have been clearly recalling the scenic beauty of those places when he painted landscapes and city views during his early artistic venture.


Some resources say that his reason of flying to London lies in his political involvement with the communist party but his exile turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Not only did his art grow but so did his quest for self-betterment.


Exiles and immigrations have always played a key role in any artist’s creative journey. It often changes the fate of the place also where he lands. Several German artists fled to America, when Europe went under the world war, ultimately contributing into America’s culture high or low!  Some emigres feel lost and homeless yet some thrive. Imam Saheb hailed from India and settled in Pakistan been fully conducive to the art scene of Karachi. His work also flourished while he made waves in Lahore during the 1950’s. Where his talent won Shakir Ali’s heart and he became one of his ‘Piyaras’, ultimately meeting other artists who shared similar thoughts on art and its newly waging challenges. The timely arrival of Shakir Ali in Lahore worked as a catalyst for the already fueled minds. Previous art platforms like Punjab Society and new established ones like Lahore Arts Council were dominating by the conservative approach. On contrary the younger artists were energetic, ambitious and were in no sync with the old school or style. Considering the changing realities of his contemporary times Ali Imam joined hands with other modernist souls like Moen Najimi, Shemza and Ahmed Pervez and thus formed a group called the Lahore Art Circle.


Although the modern spirit in the subcontinent was kindled at the beginning of the 20th century, Prof. Ijaz ul Hassan mentions Ali Imam as one key agent of the ‘reawakening in Lahore’. His new company and firing ambition to practice modern approach made him share his work multiple times in Lahore before he would leave for London in the mid-50s. Initially appearing in group shows along with some of his Lahori chaps, he finally exhibited solo. Spending little more than a decade in London brought more confidence and new angles into Imam’s personal and professional repertoire. Feeling happy about the way things are heading up, Imam shared his work in various galleries across London. His expression with a slight shift gained maturity when he ‘inverts the principles of cubism and emerges with a decorative system of references to natural objects’ as G M Butcher wrote.


Only when I look at his painted images it makes me think about how a man with such a resilient personality and affirming views can paint with such delicacy and compassion! The answer may lie in his constant concern for ‘inner striving and searching’. The answer may also lie in his Marxist ideas that caused him a lot of emotional stress and trouble. Knowing he had deep respect for life, human condition and factors that surround it, it seems worthwhile to speak about his passion and heartfelt concern with all human creative capacities.


The initial imagery of his work appears modest not only in medium, forms, choice of color palette but also in subject matter. A view of a valley, a winding road with surrounded meadows, scorching sun hitting the tapered tops or sides of a building, a couple of laborer women in local dress etc. His 1950’s water colors are interesting as they offer simple observational studies of valley views well-lit by sun forming alternating patterns of light and shadow. Standing at Cezanne’s ‘view point’ thinking with his eyes he let the Color play an equal role, as his brush strokes, in commanding us filling our eyes and mind. It is as if he was finding refuge while admiring the beauty he got surrounded by after a nerve wrecking period of party politics and its aftermath.


At first appreciating the subject matter done in apparently light hearted water color studies, later he becomes interrogative. Painting a subject (Murree Hills) repetitively means he is looking more than the hill tops perhaps the atmospheric feel! Staying in London made him view his work in a different light. His concern with color gives a lot of decorative appeal to the visuals. The texture adds too into the feeling. With texture growing thicker and brush mark getting intense, Imam perhaps tried to empathize with his protagonist. Human figure becomes a reoccurring element in his later works. By leaving the work untitled (many are untitled) he may have wanted the spectator to come into direct contact with the painted imagery without being influenced by the given captions.


After 1965 he couldn’t stay longer away from his homeland and his return brought Karachi into the limelight. It must had been his urge to contribute towards his own land, his own art. First serving as ahead at CIAC and then opening Indus Gallery, Imam made Karachi a hub of creative activity.


Whoever has met him has confirmed the charisma of his personality, strength of his character and kindness of his soul. His students recall him as a man of few words. With one look of disapproval he would put his point across. Besides teaching anatomy and drawing he delivered content on art history too enriching the brains of young art enthusiast and making them realize the importance of understand art through history. With his sense of commitment and enthusiasm he would instill the values and ethics of an artists into his students. Nahid Raza, a famous Pakistani female artist who was Imam Ali’s niece too claimed that all that will and vigour of her art has come from his teacher who was her mentor too and who besides giving her formal training of art had enlighten her about the world and its atrocities.


Surrounded by not only books and artifacts Ali Imam had an extensive art circle too. The days must had been glorious and heady at the CIAC under Imam Saheb’s tutelage as he had visitors like Sadequaein, GullGee, Ahmed Pervez, Shema, Zubaida Agha who would come meet him to share and discuss their art and ideas.


It must have given a heart ache to his students when their most beloved teacher decided to open a Gallery. But Ali Imam would have seen this as a bigger opportunity to expand his horizon. He might had left formal teaching at a formal art training center but journey of teaching and training got bigger and broader.


Art scenario of any third world country is generally in a deplorable state as the matters of concern are different. And more than traditional practice, its Contemporary art which is typically on a verge of vulnerability may be because its Contemporary and its nature makes it to be in a state of turmoil as it deals with evolving ideas and erupting thoughts that continuously change due to the change in time and situation. Imam Sahib was quite well aware of this all. He often raised debates among the art circles and its connoisseurs. What fire his famous scholarly encounter, with fellow artists and other literary members of society, had ignited in the hall of the National Art Gallery that visitors never wanted to an end and where various matters on art and its role were resurfaced.


Without out being scared of criticism he emerges as someone of clear thoughts. Often emphasizing on having an interdisciplinary approach in art education Imam Saheb was well aware of the teaching trends as he taught also during his London stay. In his iconic meet up ‘Dialogue with Art’, he would put the authorities to reconsider their institutional criterion by calling local art syllabus ‘absolutely bogus’!


Imam Sahib was man of distinct personality and vision. He made history by initiating dialogues regarding appalling state of local art and its stakeholders. In one of the photographs taken at the Indus Gallery Karachi, he could be seen lost in his thoughts on how our art and our artists could be synced to the changing reality of emerging times.


Ali Imam believed to build meaningful connections whether its teaching art learning art or appreciation of art. His intellectually charged mind had made him wear various badges on his shoulder. After leaving much impact on his students he decided to take on another responsibility. And that was to educate the other stakeholders of the art world. The Indus Gallery under his aegis increased the community of art buyers beside producing an ever-growing number of art lovers. However, this was not it he silently was building a repository by keeping newspaper clippings and other print material on Pakistani art in his study room which now is well archived by Fomma Trust Karachi.


He seems to be living up to the role of his sur name Imam. Under his captaincy, an era was steered that nurtured the minds who later became prolific artists, designers, writers, critics, directors. To name a few are Nahid Raza, Noor Jahan Billgrami, Nilofer Farrukh, Tabinda Chinoy, Imran Mir, Shakeel Saddiqqui, Shakeel Ismail etc. He will be remembered for his insightful discourses he initiated and extended about artists roles and the impact they can create and his visionary approach to help flourish the art of a striving country. He will also be remembered for the support he provided, while chairing one of the earliest galleries of Karachi, to flourish the already reputed names like Sadequain, Jamil Naqsh, A R Chughtai, Mansur Rahi to name a few and by providing platforms to new entrants like Lubna Agha and Mashkoor Raza.


All thinking souls go through a constant battle that stay till the time of their departure. Very critical of his own skill never satisfied with his work Imam had a progressive mind. However, at some point he also thought that his work has stopped as he gets so lost in looking and losing his self at other people’s creativity. G M Butcher, as mentioned my Marjorie in her monograph on Imam Saheb, has given the credit of his artistic growth to his ‘essentially intellectual mind’.


While going through the contemplative life Imam had, there is a lot to take home for us when art and everything associated with it has become a commercial entity. Contributing more than just being a practitioner towards his fellow art community he was incessantly bestowed with highest official awards which he tried refusing every time. Imam Saheb never sought for money or fame. By intensifying his canvas, traversing areas like teaching philosophy and scholarly approach towards art he left a legacy on a broader scale. Besides being a practitioner, he was more of an ideological person too. With a strong will of incorporating modern thoughts into art learning and art practice he created a milieu in which not only he himself grew but also helped others to.






Image and Identity by Akbar Naqvi

The Painters of Pakistan by Prof. Ijazul Hassan

Ali Imam, Man of Arts by Marjorie Husain

The Artist Extraordinaire: A life well spent, by Salwat Ali, Dawn Newspaper, July 05, 2015