Today was a bad news day. Not because there was no news, but because the news that was there was particularly bad; even by Pakistani standards.
With all the political shenanigans of late one thought that one had gotten used to bad news. But the hurt today was particularly deep. It hit exactly where it hurts the most. In the heart.
First, there was the tragedy of the ‘Karachi Express’ full of pre-Eid traffic to Lahore which left over 50 people dead. Then there was a stunning news the renowned artist Ismail Gulgee was found dead in mysterious circumstances along with his wife and their maid.
For some of us it was Eid today. But not much of an Eid. All day I have met Pakistanis stunned by these tragedies and the mix of these with Pakistan’s staple political instability left deep scars of depression on all. I should have written about these earlier today but could not, partly because I was not near a computer much of the day, but even when I was (in the last many hours) because I was – am – too stunned by the medley of tragedies and events.
I also feel bad because Gulgee was on my (now very long) list of ‘Posts To Do’ and I had been thinking of writing about him for a while. It would have no difference to him or to what happened to him had I, in fact, written about him earlier. But I do wish I were writing this under less despressing circumstances. As Munir Niazi (who I also wrote about too late) said: “hamaisha dair kar daita houN meiN.”
But first, as they say, the news (from The News):
In an incident that shocked art lovers and a legion of admirers, the countryâ€™s most celebrated artist Ismail Gulgee, along with his wife and maid, was found strangled to death at his home in Clifton on Wednesday. The bodies were three days old and the artistâ€™s driver and other servants were missing. A case was lodged at the Boating Basin police station on the complaint of the son of the deceased, the well-known sculptor Amin Gulgee.
The Station House Officer Boat Basin Imran Zaidi said that it was between 11:30 am and 12 noon when the police were informed about the incident. The police reached the house and found the bodies of Gulgee, his wife Zareen and maid Asiya. The SHO maintained that the bodies were three days old and the smell was overpowering. The bodies were shifted to the Jinnah Post-Graduate Medical College for a post mortem and medical examination.
Amin Gulgee lived in a separate section of the same house in Clifton that had long been the focal point for art lovers in the city.
SHO Zaidi claimed that Amin had been involved in a minor domestic dispute with his parents and had not been in contact with them for some days. After the passage of three days, when his parents did not respond to his phone calls, he directed his servant to go next door and check whether his parents were home or not. When the servant was unable to establish any contact, it was decided to smash the windows of the house and break in. When they managed to enter the house, they found the bodies of the Gulgees.
Meanwhile, the watchman, a cook and a driver were not present on the premises. The driver, it emerged, had escaped with the family car. The body of Gulgee was found on the floor next to the drawing room, while Zareen Gulgeeâ€™s body was lying in the kitchen. The body of the maid was found on the floor of a room next to the kitchen. A bucket of oil was found in her hand. On reaching the scene, the police called fingerprint experts who began to take imprints at the scene of the crime. The police also recorded the statement of Amin Gulgee and registered an FIR against unidentified men. Amin told the police that his family had no enmity with anyone.
Tayyab, the son of the deceased maid Asiya, said that he and his mother lived in Mehmoodabad. Some months ago, Gulgee had hired his mother as a housemaid. He said that the family then went abroad for some time and dispensed with her services. After they returned, the Gulgees contacted his mother on Friday and reappointed her. Tayyab maintained that his mother came home everyday. When she did not come home for three days, he became anxious and went to the house where she worked and asked the watchman about his mother. He said that the watchman refused to give him any details and said that he had no information. Tayyab said that he continued to visit the house and today he found that the watchman was not present. He saw the police at the premises and later discovered that his mother had been killed.
Medical Legal Officer Abdul Razzak Sheikh of the JPMC said that the post mortem of all the three bodies was conducted and samples were sent for chemical examination. MLO Sheikh said that there were marks of fingers on the necks of the deceased who were probably strangled to death. He had also found some signs of head injuries on the body of Gulgee. Asked if there was any trace of poisoning, he said the possibility could not be confirmed and samples had been sent for chemical examination. A senior investigating officer said that Ismail Gulgee owned four cars, including those with registration numbers AEJ-234, AHW-241, AMQ-1806, while one white Toyota Corolla was missing, which was believed to have been taken away by the absconding driver. The police also confirmed that several cases had previously been registered against the servants in various police stations of Clifton Town and further probe into the incident was under way.
The mystery and suspicious circumstances surrounding his death will continue to be a topic of discussion. Too little is known just yet to be able to say exactly what happened and why. Ours is not the job to speculate. One hopes that those whose job it is to do so will find and apprehend the culprits of this horrendous crime.
A part of me, however, fears that people (including here on ATP) will get so engrossed in solving the ‘mystery’ of his death that they will fail to properly celebrate the wonderment that was his life. I sincerely hope that does not happen because it is was a full and vibrant life, a life worth remembering and a life worth celebrating.
Until just a few days ago Gulgee was undoubtedly the most prominent and celebrated living artist in Pakistan. He is no more with us but his body of work is no less prominent and his life as worthy of celebration as ever.
I had the pleasure of meeting Gulgee and his wife a few times, once with his son Amin Guljee when all three were guests on a talk-show I used to do long long ago (called Mehman-i-Khasoosi). He was a captivating conversationist and always brimming with interesting stories. This is evident in a detailed profile of Guljee by Humayun Gauhar. At one point in this interview, Humayun Gauhar asks Gulgee why he could not get a scholarship in Art. Gulgee responds: â€œArt mein koi miltey hai? Shukar karo maar naheen daitay.â€ [Does one ever get a scholarship in art? Thank God one is not killed.] Poignant words, given his death!
Like the Sufi mystic poet Rahman Baba of the Khalil-Mohmand tribe, the great warrior poet Khushal Khan Khattak, chief of the Khattak tribe and the famous contemporary Urdu poet Ahmad Faraz, Gulgee is a Pathan. Ismail Gulgee was born in Peshawar on October 25, 1926. His father and grandfather had moved there from Attock, while his mother was from Hazara… Gulgeeâ€™s father studied at the Muslim College Peshawar. He was an engineer employed with the government and Gulgee traveled with him a lot. His grandfather was a Sunday painter. Gulgee first studied at Peshawar Convent School and then went to finish high school studies in Lawrence College situated in the Himalaya Mountains in a place called Ghora Galli near the British hill station called Murree.
â€œI wanted to be a painter and my parents were planning to send me to Paris to study art. Like all children I used to draw. I was a painter right from the day I was born. It is said that I was painting even in my motherâ€™s womb. Like a person who is madly in love with a woman and could do anything for her, I was madly in love with painting. But things got bad and my parents could not afford to send me anywhere.â€ Gulgeeâ€™s father suggested that he take up such subjects for studies that would give him a chance to win a scholarship. â€œSo I opted for mathematics and engineering and won the scholarship.â€ Gulgee earned a scholarship for Aligarh University and then won the scholarship for postgraduate studies at Columbia University. He studied engineering and later taught at Colombia. When asked whether he had ever taught painting, he said, â€œNo. You can either paint or teach…â€ Gulgee continues: â€œI was teaching mathematics to graduate students of engineering at the Aligarh University when I was 20 years old. All my students were older than me without exception. I would go in my slippers and talk to them. We were good friends and they liked me. We remained friends afterwardsâ€ …
â€œI was looking to do a PhD from Harvard but the government took me off to look at the design of Warsak Damâ€ â€” for which Gulgee worked with a company in Sweden. â€œI participated in the actual design of the dam and spent a year-and-a-half with HG Acres and Company, which was assigned the designing work of Warsak.â€ In the early Fifties Gulgee held his first exhibition in Stockholm where his paintings were sold before the exhibition opened. Back in Pakistan Gulgee joined government service but wanted to resign after only a few months. Prince Karim Aga Khanâ€™s grandfather, Sultan Mahomed Shah, persuaded him to keep the job. â€œHe said to me, â€˜What your country needs at the moment is engineers and there are not that many people with the kind of background that you have. Why donâ€™t you work for five years and then you can still do your paintings?â€™â€ …
But not all his work hours were spent in mechanical calculations. He was often officially asked to do portraits. The last five years at work â€œI was mostly paintingâ€¦doing portraits. Kabhee kisi ko khush karna hae [having to please a person at times]. And I was very happy. Mazedar zamana tha [Those were enjoyable times]. Engineering to karnee par rahee thee [I had to do engineering, of course]. I also had the chance to do what I liked doing.â€ It is like the wazeefa in the Mughal period.
Gulgee continues, â€œThen the government sent me to Afghanistan to do a portrait of King Zahir Shah. They desperately wanted to make good relations with Afghanistan. I was asked to do a very flattering portrait of the King that would please him. I told them that I would try to make a flattering portrait but when I do a portrait I have no control over it. I react to the person. So if you want to make sure it is a flattering portrait you have to go to some other painter who only makes flattering portraits. Luckily, Zahir Shah was also an artist. He used to paint. He invited me to Kabul and I stayed there for three years. I made portraits of the King, his granddaughter, Wali Khan, his uncle and of Sir Mahmood Khan Ghaziâ€ …
After continuing for 10 years he left the job to pursue art. At that, he says, his parents felt that, â€œbechare kee kismet kharab hae [Poor thing, he is ill-fated]â€ …
Gulgee has done portraits of King Khalid, King Faisal, King Fahd, Ayub Khan and Bhutto. â€œAyub Khan was a very charming and affectionate person. Bhutto was a good friend of mine. He once wanted his portrait done wearing the Mao cap. He was very impulsive but very brilliant. Bhutto in every kind of relationship wanted to establish the fact that he was superior. Of course, he was superior in lots of ways but not in everything and even that little thing would trouble him. Basically he was a nice person.â€ He has also done a portrait of Benazir. â€œShe has a father who is very famous. That makes it difficultâ€ …
Gulgee remembers the time when he had a disagreement with Bhutto. â€œThe first time he was annoyed with meâ€¦a photograph was published in Time magazine [showing] Bhutto standing before the Quaidâ€™s mausoleum making a fist. Bhutto asked me to make a painting of it. But for me to paint that was very awkward. I was not going to base my painting on some photograph, so I didnâ€™t make it. A long long time after that [Gulgee met Bhutto]. I didnâ€™t want to meet him but had to. You know, Bhutto to chorhta naheen thaâ€¦[never let go],â€ says Gulgee. â€œAt least Bhutto respected me because he knew how far he could go. He called me when he came into power and we talked. He was annoyed and said, â€˜you know what I could have done for youâ€™. He was a bit annoyed because Yahya Khan gave me the Pride of Performance. Before that he was annoyed with me keh mein khatir karta tha Ayub Khan se [because I used to be hospitable to Ayub Khan]. [When Ayub Khan was out of power,] I said, â€˜Bhutto saab, he [Ayub Khan] treated me kindly so I have a loyalty to himâ€™. In fact, when he resigned and came by train, Rafi Munir I and were the only two people who met him at the station. But I cried when he was hangedâ€ …
He was asked by General Zia to do a portrait of Bush senior. He did a mosaic in lapis lazuli, which was presented to Bush by General Zia and Gulgee in Washington. When Bush told Gulgee that he liked the portrait, Gulgee replied that the portrait was done using photographs and he could not find a good photograph of him and it would have been better if he had done it in person. Bush didnâ€™t like the reply, says Gulgee. â€œAnd there was a complete blackout of news about the work. The kind of thing they wanted was, â€˜Sir I canâ€™t imagine how lucky I am that I am standing next to the President of the United States. They like that you have a worshipping attitude.â€™â€ But Gulgee says that he enjoyed himself and danced freely at the parties thrown there while other people stood in reverence of the President. About General Zia he says that, â€œHe was very nice as far as I was concernedâ€…
Earlier Gulgee was more interested in portraits. Doing portraits becomes easier if you like the person, he says. These days he â€œdoesnâ€™t do that many sketches.â€ On switching from portraits to calligraphy, he says that he uses the same colours. â€œI paint the whole day, from 11 am till around 8 pm. My brush moves like a quill. My earlier calligraphy was classical. In calligraphy you have to go back to your roots. I can write in any of the styles of the old masters. But I have given it a new direction. In Islam soch mein to agae gae [we progressed in thought].â€ But not in calligraphy, he says. Whatever our painters did it was still spiritually classical calligraphy. â€œIt is not something that goes in another direction.â€
He believes that there is a great deal of artistic talent in Pakistan. â€œPeople think that an artist should be natakee [performer]. They like that kind of thing. People are more impressed with their personality, their image. Many artists are like that and tend to do nothing. There should be genuine involvement in the work.â€ He himself, he said, was a â€œseedha saadhaâ€ [simple and straight] person.
Abstract expressionism was the rage in America when Gulgee went to study there. He visited galleries and â€œanyone could do thatâ€, was his impression of the abstract expressionism. â€œThey were not all great painters. The desperate need of the people for heroes in art made them into painters of substance, whether there was any depth or not. Talent was there. But they can make their little talent go a long way in making it a big happening.â€ He wasnâ€™t that fascinated by it but â€œliked the free and easy way of working.â€ In his own work, he says that not only the hand moves with freedom, but there is content too.
â€œArt critic Eric Gibson came to my exhibition in Washington [in 1993]. He came only because it was in a museum. He said, â€˜Mr Gulgee you donâ€™t need to come with me, I like to see the paintings on my own. Matlab dafaa ho jayo teri zaroorat naheen hae [Meaning, get lost, you are not needed]. I said, I would like to ask you one favour: spend a little time with at least one of my paintings. He came running back and said, â€˜Gulgee what have you done. Our artists have been doing the same work. But you have got something in your work which they donâ€™t get.â€™ Then I took him along and said in these works you need a connection beyondâ€¦call it nature, Godâ€¦us ke bagher naheen hota.â€ Gibson wrote in The Washington Post: â€œMr Gulgee began as a portraitist, moving into his colour abstractions only in the past 20 years. These paintings are by far his most interesting. In them, the artist is attempting to fuse two traditions: Islamic calligraphy, in which writing both carries a religious text and decorates a page, and the Western style of Abstract Expressionism, with its movemented brushstrokes. These paintings combine the two traditions with grace and elegance, and at the same time manage to transcend them. The paintings stand as more than the sum of their sources.â€
Quranic words â€œmein jadoo hota hae [have magic]â€, he says. The way the words move along dovetailing each other, â€œus mein maza aata hei [gives a great sense of pleasure]. Mine is a new direction in calligraphy.â€ The previous work was not spiritually different from what had gone before, he says. â€œYou have to merge yourself in the husn [beauty] of that writing and in that kefiyat [state] you writeâ€ …
â€œMy biggest wish was that in my country, a time would come when people start having respect for artists. That hasnâ€™t happened. Artists are so vulnerable. Their profession is so difficult. Zindagi, rozi kamane ke liye kitna mushkil hae [Life, itâ€™s tough to earn a living]. How much they sacrifice to be an artist. Except for respect, there is nothing else they can get.â€
Those final words are something that, maybe, we all should think about as we think about Ismail Gulgee, the man, the artist, the phenomenon. May his soul rest in peace.