Many artists in Pakistan have earned a place in Pakistan’s art history. It is in this context that the inauguration of the new space for the Jamil Naqsh Museum in Karachi, which opened last week, is an important land mark for Pakistan’s art community.
Sobia Naqsh, the curator of the museum, addressing a big gathering of friends and enthusiasts at the opening ceremony, said, `Jamil Naqsh Museum was first inaugurated in February 1999 to honour and commemorate a living legend. It was proof of love and respect of his admirers and friends that it started from a small space on Sharea-Faisal and has expanded to this beautiful and purpose-built space designed by Cezanne Naqsh.
Senator Aitzaz Ahsan, who was the chief guest on the occasion, congratulated the museum`s team. He also commented on the ever present pigeon in Naqsh’s work and said to him it meant as a message of peace. Aitzaz Ahsan also commented that how art contributes to societies being civilized from those who are uncultured and uncivilised.
The museum houses hundreds of paintings made by Naqsh, opening with a section featuring works from the 1960s to the start of the 2000s, there are separate areas for his figurative works, miniatures, calligraphy and pigeons. Some of the works on view have never been viewed in Pakistan before, and are an absolute visual delight. The curatorial team’s endeavors reflect the different phases of the artists work.
Eminent art historian and critic Edward Lucie Smith writes in his book on Naqsh. “Jamil Naqsh is generally – and deservedly – thought of as Pakistan’s most prominent representative in the rapidly expanding universe of contemporary art. He seems to say things for, and about, the culture of his country that no other artist articulates so clearly. This, in spite of the fact that he now lives as a recluse in London, with his companion, muse and pupil Najmi Sura, whose likeness can be found in so many of his paintings, made since she first appeared in his life in 1970.
Naqsh was born at Kairana in Uttar Pradesh, the youngest child in a cultivated Muslim family. His mother died when he was very young. At the time of Partition (1947), he and his brothers moved to Karachi, leaving their father behind in India. Naqsh never saw him again. He was to return to Kairana at the age of fourteen, after his father’s death, only to realize that the place could no longer be home. After wandering through other parts of India, he returned to live in Pakistan.
Once settled in Karachi, Naqsh and his family were, like many of the refugees of that time, originally very poor. Naqsh remembers that his first drawings were made on newspapers. There is an echo of this in recent paintings where fragments of newspaper are incorporated into the work. The newspapers can perhaps also be seen as a statement that the paintings can be read as messages about the human condition.
What led Naqsh towards a career in the visual arts was something paradoxical – his childhood memories of other art forms – Indian classical poetry and music. Kairana had long been a centre for Indian classical music. The ghazels of the great 19th century poet Mirza Ghalib, known to Urdu speakers throughout the world, have had a particular influence on Naqsh’s work.
One striking feature of ghazel poetry is that its over-riding subject is love – in general, unrequited and frustrated love. Many of the paintings here can be seen as the equivalents of ghazel couplets, Each work is a representation of a particular emotional moment. This helps to explain the fact that women play such a prominent role in Naqsh’s painting, often combined with images of pigeons. Pigeons are, in this case, the messengers of love.
They also have additional meanings. As a child, Naqsh saw them flying in and out of the windows of the family house. For him they offer a glimpse of the familiar, the domestic, the soothing – the pleasures of traditional family life, snatched away from him by the trauma of his mother’s death and the violence of Partition.
When Naqsh decided to train as an artist, in the aftermath of that event, there seemed to be two paths open to him. The most obvious was to become a painter using European techniques, which had first been introduced in India in the late 18th century. These had been codified by an education and training system introduced by the British. He could experience essentially European methods at the Mayo School in Lahore (now the National College of Arts), founded in 1875, and named after a British Viceroy. The apparent alternative was to learn the traditional methods of Mughal and Rajput book art and miniature painting.
Much earlier than his contemporaries, Naqsh decided that the two approaches were not mutually exclusive. He became the disciple of the leading modern miniaturist Ustad Mohommad Sharif, who also taught at the National College of Arts. At the same time, however, he was, like the other young artists who were his compatriots, exposed to the major figures in oil on paper European Modernism. Though they had no direct access to the original works in European and American museums and private collections, they could learn about them from books and magazines. Theirs was perhaps the first generation to benefit from the post-World War II revolution in colour printing, which brought a flood of images from all over the world, and with it the creation of what the French writer André Malraux called the ‘Imaginary Museum’, wider in its scope than any physical museum could ever be. Certain images, a reproduction of a painting by Bonnard, for example, acquired iconic status with these young enthusiasts in Pakistan.”