Art Scene of Pakistan The Unwritten Chapter, by Rashid Arshed. Foreword by Salima Hashmi

This is one of those sad times when an artist’s biography doesn’t want to be a biography and wants instead to give itself more titular importance in the hope that it will be taken more seriously. Rashid Arshed’s new book Art Scene of Pakistan, the Unwritten Chapter traces a remarkable journey that very few artists and educationists, if any, have trekked in Pakistan. There is no reason the name of the book should haven have been cold and academic sounding when the narrative is thrilling, the events awe-inspiring, the tender moments sensitive and the intrigue fascinating. The book is quite a read.

As we read Arshed’s book, we are astounded by the vastness of his first-hand knowledge of Pakistani art history and the sheer number of people he has encountered over the course of his life – all who have themselves influenced and in some measure at least persuaded the careers of several thousand other creative people. Shakir Ali, Mark Sponeburgh, Ali Imam, all three were his superiors at some time; Sadequain, Ali Imam, Ahmed Pervez, Bashir Mirza and so many others were his peers. Arshed’s association with various art institutions has also been unique. But so has his position because he saw a great many historic transitions. He belonged to the last batch of the Mayo School of Art and he was the first batch of the National College of Arts

Portrait of Shakir Ali by Colin David, oil on canvas

Rashid Arshed began his artistic life as an eager young man at the Mayo School of Art when he joined as a student in December 1956. In a piece of NCA history trivia we learn that Shakir Ali became Principal of the Mayo School of Art in 1956 and he remained at the post until 1958 when Mark Sponeburgh assumed the responsibility. Academic rules were pretty much fluid it seems as Arshed was casually admitted in the middle of the term. While regaling us with tales about the School, Arshed recounts its history and tells us that John Lockwood Kipling, then Professor of Architectural Sculpture at JJ School of Art in Bombay was appointed first Principal of the School in 1875, followed years later by Mark Sponeburgh and Shakir Ali.

But the amusing tales that interject the history are hilarious. Shakir Ali apparently had the bright idea of acquiring a scooter to commute but the dilemma was he didn’t know how to ride it. So, a student was requested to teach the principal to ride the scooter.

In another small incident of empathy rather than humor, a farmer wanted to meet Mr Sponeburgh, the first Principal of National College of Arts, who was slightly alarmed and sent for Arshed as interpreter. It turns out the man was offering Sponeburgh a watermelon as a gift. Arshed’s ability to recount with facility, no matter the smallest incidents or an event of significance is a gift for storytelling. It uplifts him

Huguette and Mark Sponeburgh. Mark Sponeburgh was the first Principal of National College of Arts from 1958-1961

There are innumerable eye-witness events scattered across the decades through the book and the historical research gives it the framework of solidity and elevates it. His view of other artists is objective and we learn about his relationship with his peers and sometimes his juniors without any manipulative ingenuity through comments on their work. It is easy for reviewers to proselytize and pontificate but Arshed is not interested in that. He tells us how it was. How these artists, no…people existed in their daily lives. Of course, art consumes and immerses so there is never any escape from art. But there is banality and there is penury and Arshed talks about the artists who made desperate decisions because they wanted to survive and sustain themselves.

When Rashid Arshed moved to Karachi from Lahore he worked as a lecturer at the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts (CIAC). Ali Imam was Principal and remained there between1970 and 1975, at a time when it was an exemplary place for the teaching of art; and artists, scholars and poets of renown like Sadequain and Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ahmed Parvez offered discourse and polemic on art, literature and culture. When Ali Imam left as Principal, Arshed was made Principal, a position he took on reluctantly but discharged his duties admirably and with more than dedication.

Rashid Arshed, Ali Imam, Ahmed Parvez

An incident with a student whom Arshed had to expel is an example for all those who hold responsible positions, specially in educational institutions. The student was a bully and was infuriated at his expulsion. He sent two thugs to threaten Arshed and they placed pocket knives on his table to suggest his life was in danger. The event snowballed as a Major in the army then tried twisting his arm followed by a three-star general. The last straw was a letter from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the then president of Pakistan and Chief Martial Law Administrator. The matter went to court and Arshed’s extrication was assisted by a lawyer suggested by Justice Nana.


Bashir Mirza, Ahmed Parvez and Rashid Arshed

When the unrest in the country grew alarmingly, Rashid Arshed felt uncomfortable living in Pakistan and he decided to emigrate to the US. He would return to Pakistan to hold exhibitions in Karachi which were always well-received so his career remained buoyant. In 2006 he took on the challenge of post of Department Head of Art at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture in Karachi but returned to the US a few years later.

There is so much to talk about the book but the events and people in it require discovery by the reader. It seems the book owes much to Salima Hashmi who never turns down a request for assistance no matter how busy her schedule. I can vouch for that. But the most surprising element was that during my correspondence with the author, he wrote — albeit in another context — “I am not a well-known person”. For the people who do not know Rashid Arshed, it is their loss.

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