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Sadequain: The People’s Painter

Sadequain remains one of the most distinguished artists ever born in the subcontinent who brought a revolution in the field of calligraphy. He was the most prolific painter in the period following independence. He used to make it clear that he was not interested in decorating drawing rooms of the rich and powerful. He worked on large murals for public buildings, symbolic of the collective labour of humanity, and his work was mostly donated to the public.

Often pronounced ‘Sadequain Naqqash’ by admirers, Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi remains one of the most talented artists that the subcontinent has ever produced. He was born in 1930 in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh. During his school days he used to draw lines and pictures on the walls and the floors of his neighbourhood which made the elders lose their temper. He was born in the family of calligraphers, and in a way art was always ingrained in his blood. Growing up, he started to work part-time as an art teacher at Imamul Madaris Inter College in Amroha, where some of his art works exist to this day. 

After partition, his family eventually emigrated to Pakistan. During the 1940s, he joined the Progressive Writers’ and Artists’ Movement. His skills and true talent gained the attention of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrwardy, Prime Minister of Pakistan (1956-1957) who was a patron of arts. Sadequain worked his finger to the bone producing over 15000 artworks. The influence of Picasso can be felt in his works from the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

Sadequain was the first artist to paint the artworks inspired by Quranic verses and the poetries of Iqbal, Faiz and Ghalib, where he profoundly used his exceptionally gifted calligraphic and artistic skills. He made the most unique combination of poetry and art which had never happened before, thus making poetry easily intelligible to the common man. He also illustrated French author Albert Camus novel – ‘The Stranger’. He repeatedly said that he wasn’t interested in decorating the drawing rooms of the rich. Most of his works were donated to the public.

Illustrations by Sadequain for ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus

Though he was a Pakistani, he never failed to recall his birthplace. In 1982, Sadequain arrived in India where he went to meet the then Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi and had a conversation with her on various topics. When he told the ‘Iron Lady’ that he was there on a visa of about half a month, she said that he could stay as long as he wanted. Soon, he got engaged in a lot of exhibitions, one of which was at the Lalit Kala Academy, (New Delhi) where he met the celebrated painter, M.F. Hussain who was co-hosting the event. This was followed by programs at esteemed institutions like Ghalib Academy (New Delhi). He also paid a visit to his hometown, Amroha.

Meanwhile, he decided to work for the educational institutions by painting murals but he didn’t expect any charges in return because he wanted to present them as a gift to show his affection and attachment to his birth country. Making those murals required funds for which he wrote a letter to the President Gen. Zia-ul Haq, where he stated his desire to make murals and asked for funds. 

The Iconic Depiction of Asma-ul- Husna (Beautiful 99 names of Allah) at Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi by Sadequain.

Surprisingly, he got a sum of One Lakh Rupees within two days. He worked at several institutions like the prestigious Aligarh Muslim University, Banaras Hindu University, Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi, Geological Institute of India, Bangalore etc. Many of those murals survive to this day. While he was living in Delhi, he used to visit the mausoleums including those of Sarmad Kashani, Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Nizamuddin Auliya and Ghalib to feel the serenity and silence which can be felt in his works. He was also a poet who wrote Rubaii’s (Four-lined stanzas; Quatrains) in the poetic style of Omar Khayyam and illustrated them too. Once he said:

“Main ku-e-rubaii ke jo andar aya;
Jis tarah keh ban mein Ram Chandar aya;
To bole Madina-e-Sukhan ke shehri;
Kon yahan mast qalandar aya.”

(“When I entered the lane of quatrains;
Like in the woods Rama came;
Seeing this awed the inhabitants of the city of eloquent speech;
Who could be this mystic who came.”)

Sadequain is the only Pakistani artist to receive all of the four civilian awards of Pakistan i.e. Tamgha-i-Imtiaz (1960), Pride of Performance (1962), Sitara-i-Imtiaz (1980) and Nishan-i-Imtiaz (2021, Posthumously). He was also honoured with several international awards including Government of France’s Biennale de Paris award (1961) and Australian Government’s Cultural Award (1975). In 2006, the Pakistani Government also released a postage stamp in his honour in the ‘Painters of Pakistan’ series. Google also remembered him through a doodle on 30th June 2017.

He made his last mural in 1986 titled “Arz-o-Samawat” (heavens and earth) and dedicated it to the citizens of Karachi. This mural became a popular sighting at Frere Hall, Karachi. He was a people’s painter; he showcased the issues in the life of a common man through his art. When he was interrogated about his inspiration, he replied: “What inspires me is a person who has gone hungry for hours and is struggling for survival. The expression that lights his face at the end of the day when he has finally found some scraps, that is what touches me. I am a painter of the expression of reality.” 

Abdullah Khan is a student pursuing B.A. in Turkish Language and Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Gunjit Verma

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Written by Abdullah Khan

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