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Zahoor ul Akhlaque: Life, Teaching & Work


Doing a retrospective piece on Zahoor ul Akhlaque, the most potent artist of our times is a daunting idea, to begin with. How does one separate his life from work, or teaching? In this one life and a short one at that, it appears he lived many lives, and now that I try to imagine his face, the deepening lines, the intent gaze and rapidly graying beard, all foretold.


I never knew Zahoor ul Akhlaque intimately, actually not even peripherally. As a design student in the late 1980s, I almost always saw Zahoor sahab from a distance. In the college corridors, absent minded, evasive, elusive, engrossed in his thoughts, every inch the proverbial, quintessential artist.   Many years later, on the clean and wet roads of posh Upper Mall, I caught him taking a morning walk often. I would lower the window of my Khyber to say salam and he would respond with a smile. My only memories of a life cut short too soon by murder.


In an ever-developing and constantly unfolding art scene of a third-world country, for this is what Pakistan essentially is, one is always on the look-out for clues, words or phrases directing towards possible solutions, nay understanding. And clues are aplenty. This portrait of Zahoor needs to be created in a Zahooresque manner, each stroke laid down carefully, lovingly, ‘pardakht’ like way, in a bid to present his life/work/teaching to an audience that is new. This writing essentially is a bid to understand Zahoor’s life through people who were impacted by his presence. Tall order!


A number of books by foreign and local authors like Roger Connah, Simone Ville, and Doctor Akbar Naqvi have analysed his work and life in great detail. He has already been examined through many lenses, multiple points of view. Can something new still be added to the existing discourse? I, as a practitioner and someone deeply interested in the actual practices of artists and the theorizing of frameworks informing these practices, aim to look at not just his body of work but also what preceded and what succeeded. Many authors have observed Shakir Ali’s defining role in Zahoor’s development as an artist, but before venturing any further on this, a quick look at Pakistan’s socio-economic and political model in its nascent years will offer valuable insight into understanding the larger backdrop that shaped Zahoor and other preceding artists’ ideas on a subconscious level essentially, to begin with.  At the one hand, the “establishment of Pakistan introduced urgent new questions regarding the need for cultural forms specific to the new nation-state,” and Iftikhar Dadi in his book “Modernism And The Art Of Muslim South Asia” suggests the study of this ‘formative period of intellectual history’ in order to understand subsequent cultural politics. Interestingly and unfortunately, the silencing act of liberal voices started soon after the partition. The repressive administrative steps taken to silence free expression impacted and eventually transformed Pakistan into “a veritable intellectual wasteland” as noted and documented by Intizar Hussain and famous historian Ayesha Jalal in their literary and critical works. It is in such interesting times that in 1958, Zahoor ul Akhlaque entered NCA at age seventeen, armed with a matric degree, some knowledge of calligraphy, western classics like Kafka et al and a readiness to dive in. Connah reports that Yousuf Dehlavi’s calligraphy classes in Karachi in his formative early years had a profound impact on his yet untrained mind. Zahoor’s enquiring mind was to carry those lessons in casual balance and composition very far in his professional practice, years later. He was one of the earliest ‘trained artists, designers and architects of Pakistan’ who studied at the NCA. He began to chart his own aesthetic trajectory, the seeds of which he had within himself, ably guided by Prof. Mark Ritter Sponenburgh, the American professor who was founding principal of the NCA, and who 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.


A continuum of ideas by virtue of inspiration tells the story that is the art of Zahoor ul akhlaque. Almost all the influences in Zahoor ul Akhlaque’s works can be traced back to his four year stint at NCA where they found fulfillment and maturity to a certain extent. He was the receiver and stimuli were many. Shakir Ali and his art was one of them, shaping his future discourse. Haji Sharif, the great miniature ustaad ‘s presence on NCA campus, discussions amongst Shakir Ali and the ‘early moderns’ such as Haneef Ramay, Shemza regarding the meaning of calligraphy as well as their unapologetic stance towards the aesthetic practices of the past, regular trips to Pak Tea House where debates on issues of identity ensued every now and then–Zahoor was part of that sohbat–proved to be quite a post-modernist scenario! And what is man eventually if not a by-product of his life/experiences. He himself acknowledged these influences when he said, “Division of space is very important in Oriental painting…I am very affected by this concept, also by the rhythm of calligraphy.”


Noted scholar and artist Iftikhar Dadi acknowledges Shakir Ali’s decisive role in shaping a new generation of students and fellow artists who emerged between 1950s to 1970s, of which Zahoor was a major exponent, owing to Shakir’s personality and pedagogy but Prof. Sponenburgh’s role cannot and must not be overlooked, neither forgotten


Craft as Influence:

Zahoor’s wife and potter Sheherezade Alam calls him’ Guru Ji’ lovingly and offers the rare and very important insight into Zahoor’s early student life as being an incredible beneficiary of the Sponenburgh’s direct influence on him towards craft. The Swat expedition in 1961 was to have lasting effects on these young artists/designers and Zahoor as a painter for the first time showed those aesthetic influences directly in his work. “Zahoor, in all his travels later, was very interested in sitting with the crafts people who were making their crafts. It was his way of respecting the tradition. Any artist deeply understands how that artistry is translated by various people who work with their hands”. The couple was great collectors too. Their house stands tall as a temple to those times and influences.


“The urge to preserve, conserve, to watch is directly linked to the days spent with Shakir sahib and Shahid Sajjad who were Zahoor’s closest people. One learnt so much as to how to look at and understand craft, and finesse and refinement, and there was always, which I understand better now, a modern approach to tradition to see if you could reign that tradition into relevance of today. Something like that was always at the back of those friends/comrades that their work should have relevance and context.   Shakir sahib and Zahoor were the true scions of art history, with a bend on craft.


Zahoor ul Akhlaque’s experiences impacted him differently in different phases of life/chronological maturity. The teaching model envisaging great investment into the students’ ideas was the model of Shakir Ali and that very model was emulated by Zahoor ul Akhlaque when he finally became a teacher in 1963.  Zahoor’s early post-graduate years as an artist/student at Hornsey School of Art and later at the Royal College of Art are the most meaningful towards contributing hugely into a mature art practice. He was almost like a sponge ready to take in whatever came his way. Looking at old manuscripts, European painting, classical texts, prepared him for what was to be witnessed later.


According to Dadi, upon his return from London, Zahoor floated the idea of a ‘pedagogical re-opening of the role of the Miniature tradition in contemporary Pakistani art”. These ideas found resonance in his work throughout the 1970s.   The ‘social role of art’ came out strong when he prepared a conceptual framework for the Visual Arts Department of the Agha Khan Foundation and encircled himself deep into understanding the Ismaili religious thought. The conceptual leanings found in Muslim geometry made a presence in his later work.


As an experienced artist and teacher of some years standing, Zahoor’s graciousness towards sharing his ideas/knowledge base and systems of enquiry is critical, in my view, in creating foundations on which Pakistani art today stands. Akram Dost Baloch, one of his earlier phase students confirms, “During my time in NCA in the late 1970s as a student, Sir Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq played a monumental role in the manifestation of an artistic environment just by being himself. The time and energy he put into his profession is unequalled. I would always be wonderstruck by the fact he devised a new way of compulsive thinking, by rational assumptions and criticism. I think, he brought about an evolution in the history of Pakistani art by his immense study of modernism. Not only did he establish and develop the style of more simplified and minimal art, but he influenced his contemporaries too.”


This model has its leanings in the mother and child relationship. Conscious nurturing, and yet making the child stand on its feet, to go out and experience life. I seek more from people closer to him. Nazish Ataullah, NCA’s former principal and a mature student in the mid 1980s knew him in various capacities; a friend’s husband, a mentor and teacher and later a friend and a colleague, reminisces that he would know about a student’s thought process and guided him/her through the journey by asking a lot of questions in his famed mild mannerism. As a teacher, he was very keen with establishing a relationship with the city. He would engage actively with his adopted city, its architecture, its woodwork, its copperware…walking along with his students. He was always challenging himself, wanting to look at things anew, afresh. Deeply interest in new materials, new forms coupled with his inherent analytical, investigative quest, making came as a second nature to him.”


A quick detour to early 1980s brings Quddus Mirza into the picture whose earlier works using Mughal miniatures and abstracted imagery of kings and princes does seem to have its underpinnings in Zahoor ul Akhlaq’s works although the use of space is diametrically opposite. By this time Zahoor’s teaching was well into the twentieth year, an important point of departure as in a few years time, he will re-locate to America for a few years.


Quddus states, “He was the real post modernist artist of Pakistan. Zahoor read Muhammad Hassan Askari and Intizaar Hussain and was deeply inspired by those texts. He read Borges too. All this reading did a lot of idea generation within him. His famed use of grid; genre-less; no boundaries effect; open-endedness, all of this alluded to post-modernism and yet I cannot say it was a linear development like in the west. It was cyclical-from the past itself.”    Post-modernism was still not a familiar term in Pakistan of those years and yet Zahoor’s work stood out. The formal element like the decorative borders from miniatures, formatted Persian text, in Zahoor’s immaculately created paintings remained the same but the treatment of space showed an evolution in thought. In Quddus’s view, his expertise and experience as a print maker also informed the creation of heavily laden textured surfaces also alluding to the mark making inspiration, making him the first painter/artist in Pakistan to paint like that. “It is almost an extra-sensory experience to look at Zahoor’s painting.”


Rashid Rana, the critically acclaimed artist of international repute and belonging to almost the last crop of students that Zahoor took under his wings, acknowledges Zahoor’s influence on his art, curatorial practices and his interest and work in curriculum development and terms his art as a ‘departure point’ for him.


“Zahoor looked at the past in the least dogmatic, contrived way. Unlike Chughtai, he remained open to practices across time and across regions. He had a larger or broader perspective. He did not accept or reject any idea regarding the past. He was relaxed about it. He did re-claim his traditions but unapologetically and lovingly.   Here was a person who was relaxed about it. He was well read, well travelled. He was able to make connections between the artistic traditions of different areas. His influences were wide and varied. He gave us ideas. He made us understand that there is no ‘mono-identity’. That was a game changer. Zahoor himself was a game changer, at least in Pakistan. This is very evident from the fact that we are still talking about his work.”


I feel that Zahoor ul Akhlaq’s physical life may have come to an end but his artistic journey has only just begun now when his influence culminating in his students’ work has come to fruition. The continuum of ideas continues! And yes, we are still talking about his works!


















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