Ustad Allah Baksh: A Retrospective


Ustad Allah Baksh: A Retrospective

  Allah Bakhsh who rose to become Ustad Allah Bakhsh was no ordinary man. His story likewise is an extra-ordinary story. The wondrous tapestry

RETROSPECTIVE: Anna Molka Ahmed, One of Pakistan’s Early Art Pioneers
Shemza: No longer the unsung hero
An ‘artwork’ on Imran Mir’s Papers 


Allah Bakhsh who rose to become Ustad Allah Bakhsh was no ordinary man. His story likewise is an extra-ordinary story. The wondrous tapestry of his life and art is so intricately woven that patterns emerge, disappear and re-appear thus bringing newer perspectives to light all the time. The year 2018 marks his 40th death anniversary. An appropriate time to look at this life again: in the hope to find the said perspectives and to re-present him to the generation that might never have looked at his work with its context and underpinnings.


Ustad Allah Bakhsh’s art is certainly and unarguably an important part of the over arching background narrative of Indian art of late 19th and earlier 20th century. Equally important is the fact that the work of this noted artist is not part of curriculum of many major institution of art teaching in this country today.


Art, in more ways than one, is a marker of zietgeist, of the times. Now that the visuals of the work of artists from Pakistan are accessible to the art world and common people at large is without argument the best time to re-visit, re-vision and re-visualize the times Ustad Allah Bakhsh lived and worked in. He was aptly termed as one of “The Predecessors” in the colossal book “Image and Identity” by Dr. Akbar Naqvi on the 50th birthday of Pakistan. Almost every author writing on art of early 1900s has included Ustad Allah Bakhsh’s name in the list of prominent artists and thus his place in the art of undivided sub-continent remains undisputed.


Why Allah Bakhsh’s person and art are both significant? Merely by virtue of the temporal significance of that era or is the work connected to the larger narrative of the time? The art historical lens suggests that both the facets are significant and must be re-looked.


The times when Allah Bakhsh lived and worked were times of social and political changes as well as of new value systems. Newer standards in art and literature were being created. “Palladianism in architecture, Roman-revivalism in full figure statues and busts of politicians and administrators, and in landscape the picturesque and sublime of Walpole and Burke, were transplanted to Indian soil and grew.  A world of new taste and perception was created, and it held as the dominant culture of the eye and the mind.  In this world, art became the mirror of life and nature in terms of ideas acceptable to the colonial art establishment of the time in England.” (Naqvi, p.101).


Art and its history essentially is a history being informed by the trade of ideas—exchange, evolution, assimilation—and creation. Indian art like Indian people endured many colonizations—in the hinsight for benefit—for what is art if not an enriched set of ideas duly traded/exchanged, evolved and assimilated. One such earlier evolution of Indian painting into “breathtaking genre” happened as a result of Mughal arrival in the sixteenth century. (Art of Modern India by Balraj Khanna and Aziz Kurtha).


Naqvi too talks of the positive impact of colonialism and art in terms of the prestige of European tradition of art being invested in India, notwithstanding its evil intentions, through which “a new way of observation and perception created an epistomology which had a far-reaching influence upon the Indian mind”. P. 104. Naqvi.
Ustad Allah Bakhsh lived and worked in the years that can safely be termed as the most important, potent, and turbulent years in the historical perspective of modern India/sub-continent. His art should/must be viewed and studied with the knowledge of this backdrop. In Ravi Verma’s person, the first embodiment, appropriation as well as confluence of Britain and Europe by India can be witnessed.
According to Naqvi, the Euro-Indian art deserves our respect because it gave the subcontinent yet another opportunity to see itself through the eyes of the Other. “In course of time, the Other was assimilated into its culture.  It is against this art, and it’s long history, that the modern art of the subcontinent makes sense. Not Chughtai, the artist who was repudiated for his loyalty to an old tradition, but the Ustad’s, as a benchmark in the long years of the westernization of the art of the subcontinent, acquires significance. And in fact, his art/skill/technique is an embodiment, a reflection and a responsive act of the impact of British art. The other forms that developed during his artistic journey made his art practice rich and profound. Although Ustad Allah Bakhsh caught this radical tide of “Indian-ness” at its ebb so what really makes his art interesting in the art-historical perspective is that “how he transformed his situation into a genuine experience of his own”. (Naqvi, 98)
Most of his art is not chronologically available to us as Ustad very seldom dated his works. So the supposition is that in the absence of dates for his paintings, speculation can be through the various life events. Ustad Allah Bakhsh’s art underwent many consequential changes as a result of his re-locations to Bombay, the biggest port city of Asia and the economic capital of the sub-continent. Allah Bakhsh before entering this new world was a small town, lower middle class boy who out of economic necessities went to train with Master Abdullah and later Ustad Meeran Bakhsh Naqqash, a relative of Abdur Rehman Chughtai, who guided him in his creative journey. What is also important to know is that Allah Bakhsh was not a product of the British -established art schools but his teachers were as both of them rose to prominence at the Mayo School of Art.


While in Lahore, Naqvi states that“the Ustad’s reputation was built on his Hindu mythological subjects in the grand manner of history painting. Abdur Rehman Chughtai, (a contemporary of Ustad) in his essay/article on Ustad Allah Bakhsh confirms that a Hindu household in 1920s not holding a religious painting by Ustad would be a rarity.



PaintingTheatrical Backdrops in Bombay:


While in Bombay, whether Ustad was an active or a passive recipient of the new ideas in art is open to further discussion and debate but Abdur Rehman Chughtai in his article confirms that Allah Bakhsh’s new found strength in attempting his ideas with a fearlessness of a soldier was a direct consequence of his work and exposure in Bombay’s theatre companies. Bombay in the early years of twentieth century was the biggest port town in Asia and third largest city of the Empire hence was marked by circulation of people, ideas and goods. Port cities generally are way ahead of others in terms of commercial activity so it was no surprise that Ustad relocated to Bombay not once but twice.


Many writers have commented on his job at Agha Hashar’s theatre company in Bombay. Chughtai specifically talks about a newer vigor that he witnessed as a post-theatre era after his return from Bombay. Agha Hashar Kashmiri, too, at age 18 in search of occupation chose Bombay that was the commercial and intellectual capital of India in the early 1900s.


As Balraj Khanna and Aziz Kurtha state that direct contact with the West “opened doors to new ideas—scientific, technical, democratic—that were shaping Europe.” New ideas were being brought by the Gujrati and Parsi students too who were returning to India after completing their education. Some of them having been inspired by European and British theatre decided to open theatre companies in India. While in Europe the various art movements along with WW1 were impacting every conceivable idea. Theatre was definitely one of them. ‘Expressionism’, ‘Absurdism’, ‘Theatricalism’ and ‘Realism’ helped evolve stage, backdrops and the way actors perceived their roles. Conjecture is that all these new thought processes found their way into India by way of new theatre companies. Ustad Allah Bakhsh’s new vigor might be traceable to his stay and work in Bombay with Agha Hashar.


According to Naqvi, the paintings of Punjab’s folk romance depicted the influence of Agha Hashar Kashmiri the most. Theatre and Nautanki made a huge presence in his work. It’s interesting to note that Chughtai and Naqvi approach the same topic so differently.


‘Hir Ranjha’, ‘Sohni Mahewal’ are some of his paintings in the theatrical vein. It’s interesting that most of influences are attributed to his theatre company employment days. Critics and others tend to overlook the fact that he did not go through a regular/formal education system. Whatever influences are there, these have come through his life experiences. Painting theatre backdrops on a regular basis provided him with ample and varied opportunities to understand, design and create compositions that were to give way to his innovative viewpoints and vantage points in his rural landscapes.


Landscape painting is what Ustad is best known for today. Akbar Naqvi enlists Claude Lorraine, Jacob Ruidael, Aldorfer who painted the ‘picturesque’ and suggests that Ustad might have been exposed to Dutch and Classical European Nature painting but how this may have taken place bewilders him. In the absence of any other data, my conjecture points to the backdrop scenery in theatre companies of Bombay where he sought employment.


Tired of the monotony of repetitiveness of the work expected of him in Bombay, he returned to intellectually rich  Lahore, where the outside stimuli helped develop and mature his art and he talked about the change. (Chughtai)


For him, the new art of Europe that he experienced in Bombay symbolized commercial undercurrents. Talking to Chughtai, he expressed his discomfort regarding the influence of commercial art in Bombay which he felt lacked any innovation as it was copied from the west. He was concerned that not one artist can be spotted who has influenced the west.


His diversity and treatment of subject matter did not cease to amaze Chughtai. He talked fondly about a particular painting on the subject of famine, about twelve years before the famine hit Bengal. The painting got rave reviews and got prizes in almost all the major exhibitions of the time. Chughtai was fascinated by the humanism of the painting and the painter. During his association with Maharaja Patiala’s court, he was over awed and wonder struck with the European paintings in Maharaja’s collection. He perfected his style that was to culminate in his ‘bazaar studio’.


Lahore for Allah Bakhsh brought an intellectual departure but did not provide material success so he re-located to Bombay. This time he actively participated in Bombay art circle’s activities and entered his paintings in many major exhibitions, earning accolades and prizes.


In the rapidly developing consciousness of Indian society, the culture of exhibitions introduced by the colonial masters/government was fast taking roots in the cultural centres in and outside of India. Major cities like London, Wimbley, Calcutta, Simla, Darjeeling, Mussourie, Madras, Lahore and Bombay had displaced the importance of already fast vanishing court culture.


His art had traces of evolution and abstraction. He was called a ‘versatile’ artist by Tribune in Bombay when Independent Art Club was founded and he was selected for demonstration. The strength of his brush and uniqueness of his technique spell bounded everyone present included the press as well as the art critics and it was said that his art has milestones/traces of evolving and abstraction.


He also painted landscapes, rockscapes, and genre scenes of village markets, festivals and the romantic folklore of Punjab. He used the Punjab village with its totemic buffaloes….to humour the land.” Naqvi further wrote “He and Anna Molka, not Chughtai, were the founders of a Punjabi school of painting.” (Naqvi,p.105).


“Ustad Allah Bakhsh belonged to the warp of colonial times in India, and he ought to be judged against his cultural background.” (Naqvi, p. 109). Dr. Enver Sajjad called him a documenter and an illustrator of the Punjab.


And then partition happened. Ustad’s understanding and reaction to 1947 should be understood in regard to his physical and mental maturity. “His art became tough, honest and necrophobic”, Naqvi wrote.


At the height of his career, in a newly created Pakistan, his art touched the heart of the most influential Pakistani of the times, General Ayub Khan who reminisced that he grew up in such landscapes. He declared him the painter-laureate of One-Unit. Should one then term him as a politically astute artist?


Towards the 1950s, after the very strange case of castration, “his paintings/art had been invaded by a new power and occupied by thoughts and feelings intriguingly strange”. Critics wrote that his art entered “forbidden territory”.


He continued to paint and take in students till his health permitted. His last show became a synthesis: a coming together of the major influences namely ‘Euro-Indian academicism’, Punjab folklore and Sufi poetry.


Open-ended Conclusion:
Through this study of Ustad Allah Bakhsh, the aim is not to re-interpret the meaning and meaningfulness of his paintings or a re-appraisal of his techniques—it is to introduce him as a context to what the art world and art community of Pakistan has achieved.


He painted quite a few thousand paintings in his life time but he remains just a name to the younger members of the art world today. So what are the bigger questions that one leaves with after studying Ustad’s art? Was his art a cushion between ‘high’ and ‘low’, ‘kitsch’ and ‘modern’, ‘popular’ and ‘elite’. These are questions that must be embraced first. Art and its perception in different eras has been fluid and continues to be so. There can be no final verdict. And we still ask the valid question if Allah Bakhsh had any role in the art history of this area. What may be said with some finality is that him and his art sensing the zeidgiest, moved with it. His art changed, transformed and matured with his life’s experiences or advancement. His life and work were not two entities but one, informing each other. His art should be studied as a prism or as a lens guided towards an understanding of the times that he lived and worked in. Art and artist eventually must become documentation.


We tend to internalize that modern art coming sometimes directly from the continent could possibly not have a common thread with the colonial past. Pakistan and many other post-colonial states/countries try to make sense and distinctions among things that were thrust upon them and things that could not be internalized successfully. Conflicts abound these states whether in bureaucracy, politics or in art. No short-cuts unfortunately are available.


Is his life/art one of painstakingly created opportunities or a just a chance? Will critics ever know for sure? I am yet to find any answers for these existential queries.


Notwithstanding his detractors’ claims about his art not surviving the vagaries of time and waning of his artistic influence, is it only fair that his position as one of the ‘predecessors’ of ‘Pakistani’ art not be made questionable. Lets look at his work more, debate more, write and criticize more and leave the rest to the time.


Through his life, for sure, one gets to understand how a life/art passes through different phases and blossoms!




Image & Identity by Dr. Akbar Naqvi.

Maqalat-e-Chughtai published by Idara-e-Saqafat Pakistan.

Musavviri per Muntakhib Mazameen published by Punjab Arts Council.

Youtube videos documenting Indian Parsee theatre.