Syed Sadequain Ahmed Naqvi also often referred to as Sadequain Naqqash, was a world-renowned Pakistani artist, best known for his skills as a calligrapher and a painter. He is considered as one of the finest painters and calligraphers Pakistan has ever produced.
Sadequain was born in June 1923, descending from a family of calligraphers. In late 1940s he joined the Progressive Writers and Artists Movement. His true talent was discovered by Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy who brought Sadequain into the limelight He also spent some time in Paris augmenting his skills. Sadequain received much praise for his calligraphic style, which is widely considered iconic by many critics of South Asian art.
Speaker of truth
In an interview he said, “People ask why I don’t paint flowers, butterflies and landscapes? I tell them that I seek the truth and I am after reality. I am not inspired by someone posing against the backdrop of roses in a vase or pink curtains. 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.” Self-proclaimed “Faqir,” Sadequain was outside society’s worldly greed or hypocrisy and called himself “speaker of truth.”Best known for his calligraphies, Sadequain painted abstracts, drawings, and sketches on thousands of canvases, volumes of paper, and multitudes of other conventional and unconventional materials.
Renaissance of Islamic calligraphy
Sadequain was responsible for the renaissance of Islamic calligraphy in Pakistan. He was one of the greatest calligraphers of our time and helped transform the art of calligraphy into serious expressionist paintings. He claimed that his transformation into a calligrapher was manifested by divine inspiration. He did not follow the tradition and created his own style of script. His alphabets exude motion, mood, and paint vivid pictures of the message of the word. Sadequain claimed that many of his paintings especially after the seventies had been based on calligraphic forms to portray images of cities, buildings, forests, men, and women. In Pakistan, the art of calligraphy was relegated to a second-class status until Sadequain adapted this medium in the late nineteen sixties. Until then a few painters experimented with the medium but it remained as just that, an experiment. After Sadequain transformed the art of calligraphy into a mainstream art form, most of the known Pakistani artists have followed Sadequain and calligraphic art now dominates the art scene.
Many painters have emulated Sadequain openly and widely and even the copies fetch large sums for the copiers, an irony since Sadequain himself hardly ever sold his paintings in spite of offers from the royals and the common public. In a recent auction in a London auction house one of his painting was sold for $108,000. His masterpiece rendition of “Sureh-e-Rehman” has inspired many known painters of the modern era and it can even be found adorning the facades of many houses in Karachi in exacting resemblance of Sadequain’s signature script.
In nineteen sixties Sadequain was invited by the French authorities to illustrate the award winning novel “The Stranger” by French writer Albert Camus. Sadequain also illustrated on canvas the poetry of Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz as homage to their place in classical literature. Sadequain wrote thousands of quartets, which address a common theme of social and cultural dogmas and published them. A special word is warranted about the large murals Sadequain painted, which are spread all over the subcontinent. His murals depict man’s struggle, his achievements and persistent thirst to discover his endless potential. His murals are full of activity, ideas, and they read like an unfolding story about their particular theme.
One of his most powerful works is the gigantic mural measuring 200’x30′ for the Power House of Mangla Dam. He completed it in an incredible period of three months during which he worked day and night. Aptly so, the mural is titled “The Saga of Labor,” The mural, one of the largest in the world portrays the history of mankind. Its pays homage to its characters, which are exclusively labourers and worker, facing and struggling against the powerful elements of the nature. Sadequain was a social commentator. He crafted his message on canvas by the aid of powerful symbols and rich colours. Characteristically he would address particular situations through a series of paintings, which would follow a common theme and yet maintain their individuality. His symbols transformed with time as he adapted to the changing conditions.
During nineteen sixties he stayed in interior Sindh in areas surrounded by desert where nothing could grow except cactus which would break through the rugged sandy ground. The sight of the wild cactus growing in scorching heat and surviving the harshest of conditions left a lasting impression on Sadequain. He adapted this symbol to depict labour, struggle, and persistence against natural elements of resistance and triumph of hard work.
Sadequain sketched numerous drawings titled Cobweb Series, Crow Series, Christ Series, Hope Series, and Sun Series during sixties, which were commentaries on prevailing social and cultural conditions. Sadequain saw cobwebs engulfing our society rendering it speechless and motionless. The Crow Series projected men as timid worshippers of scarecrows because they have lost self-respect and spirituality. Crows however are not intimidated and gang up on humanity in flocks and pick on lifeless humans. In the Christ Series Sadequain showed the crime being committed in front of the Christ while he was still alive on the Cross.
Contrary to man’s images portrayed in Cobweb or Crow Series of drawings, Sadequain glorified the hard work and labour of ordinary workingmen by showing them struggling with primitive tools during the stone age, developing agricultural land, discovering scientific breakthroughs, and exploring the universe. He sometime used Kufic script to form human images and carried that theme through vast canvases. One of the representative works of this genre is titled “The Last Supper,” which was awarded the prestigious Binnale de Paris award in France. Sadequain was awarded first prize in National Exhibition of Pakistan in early sixties. He was bestowed with several awards and medals in Pakistan as well as foreign counties. But he seldom attended the award ceremonies neither accepted the award money.
Sadequain had commanding knowledge of literature. He wrote thousands of “Rubaiyats,” which he published in several books. These verses have been adjudged unique and critically acclaimed by literary elite. Like his paintings, the verses also address the topics of human nature, virtues and weaknesses of society. During his life Sadequain exhibited his works on all continents. His exhibitions in foreign countries were sponsored at State levels and were attended by large audiences of all walks of life. A “faqir” at heart he gave away most of his paintings to friends and foes, and painted gigantic murals in public buildings at no cost. He declared the giveaways as gifts to the citizens of the cities where the public building were situated.
Sadequain has been covered in the print and electronic media extensively such as the TV series “Mojeeza-e-Fun” which highlighted his work in a masterful documentary. “The Holy Sinner” is a book published in 2003, cataloguing a number of his paintings, which were exhibited at Mohatta Palace, Karachi during the same year. The massive book is one of the largest and heaviest ever published in Pakistan and it also has a collection of articles about Sadequain published previously in magazines and papers over the course of years.