Sadequain is arguably responsible for the renaissance of Islamic calligraphy in Pakistan

Sadequain is arguably responsible for the renaissance of Islamic calligraphy in Pakistan.

February 10 marks Sadequain’s 23rd death anniversary. Sadequain Foundation estimates he painted close to 15,000 paintings, murals, calligraphies and drawings. Most of his work was gifted to institutions, individuals, acquaintances, and total strangers. Sadequain, at the time of his death was painting the stupendous ceiling mural at the Frere Hall, which though left incomplete, nonetheless, adorns the ceiling of the historic building.

Sadequain is arguably responsible for the renaissance of Islamic calligraphy in Pakistan. A review of the history of calligraphic art in the country during the decades of the 1950s and ’60s reveals that there was minimal activity in this genre of art form. Syed Amjad Ali wrote in his book, Painters of Pakistan, that after Sadequain’s first exhibition of calligraphies in December 1968, “For next fifteen years or sixteen years, a veritable Niagara of painterly calligraphy flowed from his pen and brush. He initiated painterly calligraphy and set the vogue for it in Pakistan.”

Calligraphy by Sadequain “Kalma-e-Tayeba”

Calligraphic art had enjoyed a revered status in the subcontinent, reaching its pinnacle during the glorious days of the Mughal Empire. But after the downfall of the empire, calligraphic art fell so far out of favour that in post-partition Pakistan, it was considered to be a mere vocational skill and not a serious genre of creative art. Searching for a new form of expression, Sadequain commemorated Ghalib’s anniversary by illustrating his poetry in 1968. To enhance the paintings, he inscribed Ghalib’s verses in Urdu to append the paintings, and that experiment later led to more calligraphic inscriptions in the Arabic language.

Calligraphies by Sadequain: Illustration of “Sura-e-Rehman”

In a manner similar to his figurative paintings, Sadequain followed the same principles in his calligraphic art. His calligraphies represent the most radical departure from the established norms for hundreds of years. The centuries-old guarded traditions, watchful eyes of the religious police, or pitfalls of the uncharted waters did not deter him from going where few had ventured before him. He invented his own iconography and produced a dizzying array of calligraphic marvels at such large scales that had not been witnessed in recent history. His art became the most effective ambassador for the country and his impact was so profound, that on a number of occasions, Pakistan was represented in international forums only by Sadequain’s masterpieces.

Special mention must be made of some of Sadequain’s major works, which are spread over Pakistan, India, and the Middle East. He inscribed four versions of complete sets of the beautiful Verse, Sura-e-Rehman; the first two versions of the Verse, which consisted of 31 panels, have been preserved, one at Staff College Lahore and one with a private collector. Another version, consisting of 40 panels was painted on transparent cellophane. The fourth version of the Verse was painted on marble slabs, which Sadequain gifted to the citizens of Karachi in a ceremony held on the lawns of the Frere Hall in 1986. The intent was to place the complete set of 40 marble slabs on permanent display at the Gallery Sadequain of Frere Hall. But soon after Sadequain passed away, all forty panels disappeared from the premises, leaving no trace behind.

Paintings on display at the Mohatta Palace Museum

“Saga of Labor” Portion of the Mural at Mangla Dam – largest mural in Pakistan 200 ft x 70 ft

During the early 1970s, Sadequain completed several large calligraphies for the historic Lahore Museum, and gifted them to the citizens of Lahore. Eight of these large calligraphic panels, each measuring approximately 20 x 20 feet, are on display in the Islamic Gallery of the museum. He also inscribed Sura-e-Yaseen on to a wooden panel measuring 260 feet long and gifted it to the Islamic Gallery of the Lahore Museum. A large calligraphic mural adorns the power station at Abu Dhabi, which Sadequain completed in 1980.

During his stay in India, end of 1981 through 1982, Sadequain painted several large calligraphic paintings and murals. One of the most significant calligraphic works was the rendition of the 99 panels of Asma-e-Husna (the beautiful names of God) that he inscribed on the circular wall of the rotunda, which towers an imposing five stories high in the Indian Institute of Islamic Studies at Delhi. This rendition of 99 panels is one of the three complete sets he finished in his life. In addition to the calligraphic work at the Indian Institute of Islamic Studies at Delhi, Sadequain painted or sculpted calligraphic works at Aligarh Muslim University, Ghalib Academy, Jamia Millia, and the tomb of Tipu Sultan. In his customary practice, Sadequain gifted all this work to the Indian authorities. In addition to painting the murals and calligraphies in India, he exhibited his works at Delhi, Lucknow, Hyderabad, Aligarh, Banaras, and several other cities.(Edited excerpts from the book ‘The legend of Sadequain’ by Sadequain Foundation)

THOUGHTS ABOUT SADEQUAIN’S CALLIGRAPHY

Annemarie Schimmel

“One of the most exciting experiences of an orientalist is the discovery of mutual relations between various aspects of Islamic culture. The study of the visual arts in Islam excellently complements that of poetry, and poetry can often help to elucidate particular aspects of miniature painting and, even more, of calligraphy. For Islam, the first religion to distinguish between those who were blessed by a Divine Scripture and those who were not, has always largely dwelt upon the importance of the written word. A contemporary historian of medieval philosophy at Harvard has even coined the term “inliberation” God, God’s becoming manifest through a book for Islam, denote the theological concept corresponding to the Christian “incarnation”, God being manifest in a human being.


It is therefore small wonder that the imagery of letters and writing plays such an immense role in the history of Islamic poetry. Beginning with the early Sufis of the 8th and 9th centuries who realized in the letter “alif” the perfect symbol of God’s unity and unicity, there is barely a poet in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian not to mention those writing in Urdu, Sindhi, Punjabi, and Pushto, and even in the vernaculars of Islamic Africa, who has not dwelt upon the imagery of letters, for here he could be sure that his allusions were under-stood by everyone in the Islamic world, including the illiterate at the least sensed the deep meaning of letters, and knew of their mysterious powers.”

Click here to know more about Sadequain

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