1985

Jamil Naqsh and poetic justice

 

There was poetic justice in giving the prestigious Shakir Ali Award to Jamil Naqsh, in the list of awards announced recently by the Idara Saqafat-e-Pakistan on the occasion of the 5th National Art Exhibition held in Lahore. Though Jamil Naqsh was never a student of Shakir Ali, he studied miniature painting for two years at the National College of Art, Lahore, where Shakir Ali was Vice Principal at the time and later became Principal.

Jamil Naqsh adores Shakir this side of worship and loves to talk of him fondly for hours. This admiration was there earlier also but it was intensified by a very touching gesture of Shakir Ali’s which left an indelible impression on Jamil Naqsh’s mind. A few months before his death, Shakir Ali was painting a horizontal panel which is still lying incomplete in the Shakir Ali Museum at Lahore. At that time, it happened that he was shown some recent work of Jamil Naqsh, who always looked up to Shakir Ali as a guide and teacher. Somehow, Shakir was so deeply impressed by Jamil Naqsh’s work that he broke his brush and threw it at the canvas he was painting, saying that now he did not need to paint any more as Jamil Naqsh was worthily taking his place.


Jamil Naqsh treasures the memory of this magnanimous gesture of the eminent artist whose role was crucial in the development of modern painting in Pakistan. The work of the two is vastly different. Shakir Ali is austere and cerebral while Jamil Naqsh is flamboyant and corporeal but they have this in common —that both are conscientious artists and dedicated paintprs. Both plan most carefully and judiciously and execute freely and dashingly. Both are basically figurative but take some liberties with the natural form in the interest of design, and this is far more so the case of Shakir Ali, who often distorts and reduces the natural form to its basic geometrical patterns to show up its Structure and design quality. The similarity cannot be pushed too far.

Jamil Naqsh was born in 1939 at Kairana, U.P with a brush in his hand, as it were, because his father, Abdul Basit, was an accomplished miniature painter in the Mughal tradition. After passing high school, he joined the National College of Art in Lahore, where he studied miniature painting under the late Ustad Sharif. It was typical of his nonconformist ways that he left after two years, without getting a diploma because he said his object was to learn the art and not to get the diploma. Jamil Naqsh had no intention of becoming a miniature artist but it was extremely important for him, in his view, to get thoroughly grounded in the art of his country and his soil, so that he could strike roots and get that sustenance of feeling and that strength which only belonging to a cultural tradition can give.

After leaving school, he tried his hand at all kinds of art expression, painting water colour bazar scenes, faces and figures, still life and much else. After three years, he started painting in oil, first with the brush and later wholly with the palette knife. He held his first solo exhibition at Lahore in 1962 under the auspices of the Pakistan Arts Council. In the same year, he came to Karachi and participated in the Karachi Artists Exhibition at the Arts Council of Pakistan where he won the First Prize.

In 1963, he held an exhibition in Lahore and also in Karachi. More solo exhibitions followed in 1964, 1965 and 1966 which showed his astonishing fecundity and also public acclaim which made the holding of such frequent exhibitions possible through the Arts Council and other art sponsors. After twenty-five years of work, he has now reached a stage when he does not have to hawk his wares in an exhibition or even through offering his work for sale to private art galleries, because buyers come to his house and snap up whatever is available, before the paint is dry on the paintings.

In fact, he can be quite choosy about his buyers and likes his paintings to go into “good homes”. Therefore, apart from two painting in the collection of the Idara Saqafat-e-Pakistan, Islamabad, most of his work is in the private collections of Mr. Fayyaz, Mr. Aftab Tapal, Mr. Inqilab Matri, Mr. Muzaffar Ghaffar, Shaikh Talib Rasul, Mrs. Shireen Beg Mohammed and some others. It is not only art collectors that are avid buyers of his work; he is the most popular cover designer of books of Urdu poetry and Urdu literary magazines. What is more important, he is held in high esteem by the artists themselves for his superb command of the craft of painting. One secret of his wide popular appeal, of course, lies in the theme of his painting, which he has been using for so long, namely, the nude young woman and the pigeon. It is hard to beat the appeal of this subject for the public. For the discerning, he has imparted a distinct character to the female type that he has created, especially the face. The figure is somewhat large-limbed, thickset and fleshy but girlish, with small high breasts.

The neck is elongated, the face broad, the chin small, the forehead narrow, the nose long and straight and stylized, the lips thick with Ajanta-like curves, and the eyes large with big pupils that have a blank stare and a mysterious look created by many lights and shadows playing on them. The head is made flat and the hair are in a thin band that tapers down on either side over the ears. The right arm is often upraised upon the face with a pigeon sitting on it, drawn with endless variety but mostly realistically with some idealization.The subject, however, is the basic raw material and it is the way it is rendered that makes or mars the picture. There is a marked design quality in the paintings which has grown stronger with time.

In the earliest pictures, there was merely a nude torso which did not create much problems of composition. Later, he consciously arranged the different elements of the figure, the head, the arms, the torso, the pigeon or pigeons, and some abstract squares and rectangles of colour in the background or even on the figure itself.This quality of organization of the elements of the picture is some times very striking. For example, in one picture, the face in profile and the long neck fill one side of the canvas and parallel to these is the upraised arm, with the open palm coming up to the face. The other arm Is stretched exaggeratedly across the canvas to the other end, in the form of a long curve, and the intervening space is filled with rectangles of various shapes and sizes. The interplay of the human and the geometric forms and the judicious placement of each create a satisfying composition.

Except in pictures in which simply the straight figure or the torso or only the face is shown for its own female charm and play of colour, in others it is worth observing how he arranges the elements of the figure: the head and the two arms and hands in relation to each other and in relation to the rectangular space of the canvas; and then these organic forms are contrasted and played against inorganic geometrical area, sometimes on the face and figure itself but mostly in the background. Linked with this quality of judicious planning is the basic linear framework of his work. Though he never draws the plan of the picture in pencil, but paints directly, his forms have an outline and linear pattern.

The line is sure and firm and measured and yet the variation of thickness and stress makes it very sensitive and expressive of feeling. Whether he is describing a clean sharp profile or depicting the fluttering wings of a pigeon with a tangled skein of lines, he is in full command of the medium and his drawing is impeccable.This becomes all the more obvious in the ballpoint drawings that he often makes of nude females and also in pencil drawings that he occasionally does.

One most remarkable pair of drawings with Mr. Fayyaz is that of a prancing horse and another of a supine reclining nude in which the huge buttocks have been patterned after those of the horse and even the rear legs added, partly like the mythological satyrs. The line work is so fine and free flowing and yet true to the subject that it bespeaks of thorough discipline and this is no doubt the gift of his training in painting miniature.

The third important aspect of his work is the flickering light and shadow which he casts on the subject to create a mystifying and bewildering effect. The fairly simple and normal human forms are thus broken up into segments that puzzle the viewers and demand careful observation, besides offering an independent play of light and dark tonal pattern.

Often these light effects are in colour but sometimes the different areas of the picture can be bathed in colour independently of the light —as, the upper one third in pink, the middle in blue and the lower one-third in purple —quite apart from the light effect.

The best paintings of Jamil Naqsh have a high degree of this chequered light effects which impart a quality of strangeness to familiar forms. A more popular type of mystification is the bathing of different areas of the picture in one colour each as if a coloured light is being cast on each area.

The fourth important element of his work is the texture which was the main charm and distinguishing feature of his early work. It involved application of different tones of one colour, layer on layer, in a special kind of stippling technique which became his signature.

It was very dense stippling and the dots did not show but they created a crinkly corpuscular effect of colour that reminded one of the textural effect of silk. It was very laborious work and was much loved by art collectors but lately Jamil Naqsh has replaced it with straight layers of paint, of course ,much varied and diversified but still comparatively plain.

The salient features of his work then can be said to be the judicious organization of the elements of the picture, which is more prominent in the best work and much less in others; the quality of the line which is sensitive and full of feeling and yet firm and sure and true; the mystifying play of light that gives a new and puzzling look to familiar human forms and thus demands closer attention of the viewers and finally the fine and subtle and dense textural quality which makes the colour vibrate in many tones.

The drawing is mostly realistic except in those interesting and fine paintings in which organization becomes more important and the demands of organization and composition stronger, so that the neck or the arms are elongated, or curved or the fingers tapered, or other such liberties taken with the natural form.

Lately, for the last two or three years, he has been painting a series of pictures in which the natural form has receded into the background and the organizational element has become dominant. Gone at last are the nude and pigeon, a theme which has been worn threadbare by him, and in its place is the artist and his nude model. But the subject is rendered in terms of certain curves that he claims to have discovered as his basic alphabet.

This is in the form of three wavy curves, one crest, one trough and one crest, which in the eyes of Jamil Naqsh describe beautifully thousands of features of the human anatomy, such as the eye brows, the eyes, the lips, the breasts, and much else. Quite apart from the theory, it is a kind of semi-abstract creation in which the elements have curvilinear contours and therefore a very organic quality different from the triangles and rectangles which are so expressive of the Western sensitivity but not of the Eastern. When to his linear pattern is added play of light and colour in the peculia mystifying and magical     manner of Jar Naqsh, the result is a work of art that we have all come to recognize and admire as that of Jamil Naqsh.

Dawn, Friday, April 26, 1985