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The Writer on Art

Just before my last visit to Karachi I was planning to do an interview of Shafi Aqeel, and was thinking to call him as soon as I arrive in his city; but before that journey, one day sitting in my studio, I opened the newspaper – his newspaper, Daily Jang and read the dreadful news: Shafi Aqeel died on 6th September 2013 after a brief illness.
Actually it was as difficult to connect the idea of illness with Shafi Aqeel as it is impossible to add the title of sahib after his name. He came across as warm and friendly – yet extraordinary individual, who can connect with everyone on a basic human level. His simple and humble appearance was merely an outside layer, because Shafi Aqeel possessed a unique analytical and great critical mind, that was busy till his last breath, particularly in his book reviews, published every Sunday in the Daily Jang. These reviews were frank, candid and cruel to some extent, since Shafi Aqeel on a few occasions expressed his opinion on a new book being a waste of paper, printing ink and labour.
This trait of truthfulness was, what distinguished him from a large number of critics, who in order to remain politically correct, favourite and friendly, avoid to state the real view on the works of art and literature. Shafi Aqeel in that regard was as honest and open as a person can be in his private discussions. He expressed his opinion about artists too, but always from the position of a friend rather than a foe.
Probably it was difficult – rather impossible for him to make a foe, because even with a person who was many years younger to him, he seemed as closely connected, passionate and warm as he was with any of his contemporaries. I always paid my respect and fondness for his great contribution in Urdu writing on art, and sometimes he called and informed about his new book. Which was great news, because to read on art, Pakistani art and about his contemporaries was a big treat for anyone interested in our art.
Because his contemporaries include some of the important names of Pakistani art, particularly of Lahore Circle or Lahore School. Although Sahfi Aqeel wrote on a range of subjects, like folk tales, poetry, fiction, authors, but for the art world his part in art writing is unmatchable. In a number of books he described his relationships with artists such as Ozzir Zuby, Ahmed Pervaiz, Bashir Mirza, Kutub Sheikh, Anwar Jalal Shemza and a few others. In these volumes he narrated the life, works, and thoughts of these artists besides his interaction with them. Often delightful, but sometimes painfully disturbing, like in the case of Ahmed Pervaiz, with the details of his last days and the unfortunate decline of one of the most vital person and profound painter into the abyss of drugs.
Along with books on artists (including, Dou Musawwir, 2003; Chaar Jadid Musawwir, 2006; Pakistan key Saat Musawwir, 2011) Shafi Aqeel published a number of books with his collections on art review or essays on different artists. These books (Tasveer aur Musawwir, 2007; Musawwiri aur Musawwir, 2008) provide a valuable opportunity for a reader in Urdu to access a subject that – initially is so much Urdu oriented (since majority of our artists, students and viewers converse in this language) but has been marginalized due to the supremacy of English. Only a limited number of authors are using Urdu to write their art criticism, and amongst them Sahfi Aqeel was a towering figure.
For many reasons. First and foremost of his regular contribution on art in the Daily Jang, which are later collected and composed in a book form (Musawwiri aur Musawwir, 2008). But more than that huge body of work, it is the quality of this writing that distinguishes him from a number of other writers. In his essays, newspaper articles and longer pieces, he tried to explore multiple dimensions of art, without possessing, proclaiming or projecting a single stance, that could be judged prejudicial or bias. Occasionally his writings were adorned with personal and private anecdotes, like talking about Bashir Mirza and Ozzir Zuby and their obsession with women (not a surprize to anyone who knows artists!). But most of the time these offered valuable insight to creative process and its cultural context, most importantly in a language which can reach to a larger public.
In fact his career of a journalist, writer and editor did not stop him for expressing his real reaction to the art of our nation. Contrary to many critics’ practices, his opinion on art was not blemished with his personal relation with the artists. On the other hand one realizes that he was more critical when it comes to his friends’ works. Similarly his approach towards art had a progressive element, usually supporting young and new artists. In a number of columns he introduced artists, which are now the famous names of our art world. However in his writing – despite the fact that he knew artists from the generation of Ali Imam as close friend to artists of today, he never exercised or expressed his power in the business of art. His attitude remained of an enthusiast, who is seeking to know and eager to share his discovery in the realm of art and ideas.
A role model for many writers on art, including me, because his genuine engagement with the art activity kept him as fresh, untiring and entertaining as were his words, printed in Daily Jang during the eighties (which inspired a novice like me into visual art). So Shafi Aqeel is gone, but his contribution can never be forgotten because he remained the sole personality in his effort towards bringing art and public together through insatiable and inexhaustible writing on art in Urdu. But along with that he will be remembered for even a greater endeavour – of liberating the language of Urdu writing on art, from its flowery expressions and grandiose phrases. Thus demystifying the art and communicating with larger public in a convenient way. Commendable deed which he considered his duty for art, literature and culture; and dedicated his whole life, even without any reward, expect the love of his admirers – like me.

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