Last look at the first artist

July 5, 2020

Jalal Uddin Ahmed was a powerhouse of art. He encouraged others to be partners in his journey — to take the art of Pakistan to a higher level

Jalal Uddin Ahmed (1925-2020).

During pandemic times, we can only mourn the death of Jalal Uddin Ahmed in the solitary confinement of our hearts. As a passionate supporter of Pakistani art and a pioneer when it came to recording our art history, Ahmed’s contribution to the art scene is unsurpassable. Yet he was humble, friendly and accessible.

I remember meeting an enthusiastic, yet unassuming person, at the Alliance Francaise de Karachi several years ago.

Someone introduced him as Jalal Uddin Ahmed. The name brought back many memories as I held his hand in an ardent show of respect and admiration. I recalled stumbling upon a book, Art in Pakistan, in the library of Murray College, Sialkot, as a freshman in 1980.

Ahmed was the man who had revealed Pakistani art to a young boy who then abandoned medical education and decided to pursue art. Jalal sahib’s book was the beacon that first brought light into my life. For that I shall remain indebted to him. Who knows how many more have benefited, and will continue to benefit, from the book.

Art in Pakistan was the first book on Pakistani art. It remained the only such book till Ijazul Hassan’s Painting in Pakistan came out in 1991. It was first published in 1954. A second (revised) edition followed in 1962 and a third edition in 1964. It was a valuable publication because it was the first to recognise that Pakistani art deserved writing a book about.

The book begins with an introduction to miniature painting craft and art education in Pakistan, before talking about artists like A.R. Chughtai, Allah Bux, Zainul Abedin and others. Zubeida Agha, Shakir Ali, Gulgee, Shemza, Pervez, Ali Imam and Khalid Iqbal are mentioned in the chapter, Evolution of New Visual Vocabulary. Sadequain is described as a ‘younger artist’.

Meeting Jalal sahib made you realise you were face-to-face with the living history of Pakistani art. He also shared his knowledge of Pakistani art through a quarterly magazine, Contemporary Arts in Pakistan, which he edited. It was published by Pakistan Publications in the 1960s.

Leafing through pale pages of the journal, one can appreciate the vision of its editor. The magazine covered all arts and did not exclude music, theatre, design, architecture, dance or folk arts and crafts.

It also contains some historically important texts like Altaf Gauhar’s writing on Zubeida Agha’s [then] recent paintings.

Today, one may debate about the context of terms ‘contemporary’ and ‘arts’ in the 1960s’ Pakistan, but after a conversation with Jalal sahib, one was clear about the man’s inclusive views. He was eager to invite anyone from anywhere who could advance and promote art in/of this country.

Ahmed was also instrumental in organising the first (and last) seminar of the Association of International Art Critics (AICA) held in 2005 in Karachi.

As the Asian regional secretary of the AICA, he edited and published Artasia, a magazine of contemporary Asian art, from Rawalpindi during the 1960s. Contributors to the magazine included Meyer Schapiro and Mulk Raj Anand. The first issue of the magazine, Winter 1965, was reprinted in 2003.

Art in Pakistan was the first book on Pakistani art. It remained the only work of its kind till Ijazul Hassan’s Painting in Pakistan came out in 1991.

Ahmed’s life was dedicated to art — of Pakistan and the Islamic world. Born in Lucknow in 1925, he had graduated in1945 with a master’s in English literature from Aligarh Muslim University and taught at his alma mater.

After migrating to Pakistan, he was first selected as an assistant director and later appointed director general of the Films and Publications unit of the Ministry of Information. In 1972, he conducted a six months’ research at the British Museum on arts from the Islamic world.

His love for arts of the Islamic world led to launch of a magazine, Arts in the Islamic World, in 1983. It was an attempt to bring contemporary art of Muslim countries to the mainstream. Some of the volumes were dedicated to art from Egypt, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Published twice a year, the magazine opened a window to what was being produced in these cradles of civilisation.

Jalal sahib was 95 when he died. But you could never associate the term old with his name. He remained energetic, passionate, untiring and active long after the time when most people retreat to comfortable corners.

After leaving civil service in 1977 and ending his sojourn in London as publications director for the Islamic Council of Europe, he and his wife moved back to Karachi to spend more time with family and almost immediately became active members of the Foundation for Museum of Modern Art (FOMMA).

The Foundation sought a public museum for modern and contemporary art of Pakistan in Karachi, but before this dream could become reality, Ahmed started pursuing other goals.

FOMMA published monographs on Pakistani artists: Ali Imam, Zubeida Agha, Laila Shahzada, Lubna Agha and Rabia Zuberi. These publications, written by Marjorie Husain, Musarrat Hasan, Marcela Nesom Sirhandi and Salwat Ali, have acquired great significance in the absence of public galleries and state museums of art. One must acknowledge the role of Jalal sahib without whose perception, planning and persistence these books would not have been printed.

Jalal Uddin Ahmed’s Art in Pakistan was first published in 1954.

When he moved to Lahore in 2015, he was thinking of documenting information on Pakistani art from the National College of Arts library. He would stress the need to record and preserve our artistic history “for generations to come”. One searing June afternoon he came to visit the library. I offered him a cold drink which he politely declined. He was fasting, at age 90. I am sure it was this determination and discipline that made him undertake ambitious art projects.

Jalal sahib was a powerhouse. He kept illuminating others, encouraging them to be partners in his journey — to take the art of Pakistan to a higher level.

His quest to serve the art was insatiable. For years, he kept pressing me to bring out a book on art, a selection of published work. I still hear his voice cajoling me to do this, or to start a magazine on Pakistani art.

Jalal Uddin Ahmed was a doer. He accomplished so much in a single lifetime ordinary mortals cannot hope to do.

Now that he has gone to meet his Creator, I can only think of him as being busy planning his next project: a book, a journal, a seminar, some documentation of Pakistani art. Jalal Uddin Ahmed passed away on June 23.

The author is an art critic based in Lahore

Last look at the first artist: Remembering Jalal Uddin Ahmed