Gentle rainbow

Published : Dec 04, 2009 00:00 IST

In most assessments, Rabia Zuberi`s contribution as a teacher and organiser tends to overshadow her achievements as a sculptor and painter.-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

In most assessments, Rabia Zuberi`s contribution as a teacher and organiser tends to overshadow her achievements as a sculptor and painter.-PHOTOGRAPHS: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

RABIA ZUBERI is a pioneering figure in the world of the plastic arts in Pakistan. She has done more to have art accepted as a worthy activity of self-expression in her country than any other individual. Art in Pakistan was centred around the activities of three artists, Sadequain, Gulgee and Iqbal Geoffrey. Of the three, only Geoffrey (Jaffrey, really) enjoyed the luxury of complete artistic freedom, having lived and worked in England all his adult life. In a country constantly fighting off the stranglehold of mullahs, depiction of the human form has been an act fraught with peril.

Rabia Zuberis arrival in Karachi, Sindh, in 1964 as an impressionable 24-year-old from India was fortuitous. The city was bereft of a real artistic tradition. Whatever art was left in the country after the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 survived in far-off Lahore. She came like welcome rain in a desert.

Rabia, the daughter of an upright police officer and a lover of Urdu poetry from the industrial city of Kanpur, had shown a marked talent for drawing, painting and clay-modelling by the time she was 10. After graduating from Aligarh Muslim University, she went to the Lucknow School of Art where her sister Hajra, another well-known Pakistani artist, also went to study. From 1960 to 1963 Rabia took the top prizes at the annual All-India Youth Art Exhibitions in Delhi. She even won a national award for a sculpture of a young orphan whose visage haunted her.

Her family had migrated to Pakistan in 1961, leaving Rabia and Hajra behind to complete their studies in Fine Arts in Lucknow. Upon graduation, Rabia was offered a lectureship in her alma mater, but her family in Karachi thought that she and her sister were too young to be left behind in India. In any case, both Rabia and Hajra had made the leap psychologically and decided to make the best of the altered situation in their lives.

In late middle age Rabia remembered the concern of her well-wishers in Lucknow when they learned of her impending departure. My dear friends and teachers in Lucknow were very concerned for me as they envisaged no scope for art in Pakistan. With all the confidence and optimism of youth, I told them that if there was no art environment then I would create one. Easier said than done, but I made a beginning with the Karachi School of Art.

The beginning was tough. To satisfy her own artistic urges and that of her sister, Rabia, with the enthusiastic support of a few well-wishers, started the Mina Art Education Society. Board members paid Rs.250 each to get the school going. Lubna Agha, who became famous in later years, enrolled as the first student; very soon she was joined by four others. The first crop comprised five students, three girls and two boys. Lubna was under age (she attended school in the morning and came to art classes after that). The well-known artist Nahid Raza nostalgically remembers the school. She experienced her first artistic stirrings when she saw, every morning on her way to school, students of the Mina Art Education Society sketching and painting outdoors.

Karachi 44 years ago was a commercial port city largely indifferent to art. The young artists were interested only in the new trends in art and therefore ignored a really fine old-timer like Fyzee Rahamin of the old classical school, who always made it a point to visit every exhibition in the city. He was invited to Pakistan by Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah himself. Unfortunately, Jinnah died shortly afterwards, in early 1949. Rahamins career went into a decline but his love of art never flagged.

Around that time Rabia and Hajra watched Mansur Rahi teach at the Arts Council and were impressed. He was taught at the Dacca (Dhaka) School of Art by stalwarts such as Zainul Abedin and Kibiria. When the Karachi School of Art was set up shortly afterwards, Rahi was brought on the faculty. The plot for the school had been bought with Rs.4,000 (Rs.2,000 of Rabias own and the rest borrowed) in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal locality. It took seven years to build and became a famous institution. Rahi married Hajra, and a painter-teacher of considerable promise was lost to the school.

If the well-heeled citizens of Karachi were not too keen in their response to art, there were others who kept the morale of the artists up. Bashir Mirza, a trained artist from the National Art College, Lahore, opened the first commercial art gallery in Karachi. Journalists such as Sultan Ahmed saw to it that art exhibitions were seriously reviewed. The artistic environment in Karachi underwent a sea change over a period of time. Students from the Karachi School of Art contributed handsomely towards raising the bar in artistic achievement. Anjum Ayaz, Rehma Iqbal, Abdul Hafeez Khan, Lubna Agha, and Shahid Sajjad were the ones, inspired by their teacher Rabia, who impressed the most.

In most assessments, Rabias contribution as a teacher and organiser tends to overshadow her very real and substantial achievements as a sculptor and painter, though more of the former. She did draw inspiration, like every other subcontinental artist, from Western masters; in her case it was Henry Moore, mainly. Her vision of life was, it may be posited, informed by two set of events first the consequences of Partition and then the repression under military rule and an increasingly meddlesome clergy.

Her sculptures in particular often have a poignancy that cannot be credited exclusively to her mastery of craft. It may be said that her sculptures are equally a product of both meditation and mediation. If the use of the latter word appears to be a tactical intervention, it is only partially true. In Rabias life, and probably in the lives of other serious Pakistani artists, a balance had always to be struck between what needed to be done and the means required to achieve that end. It was possible only through negotiation personal, social and, most important of all, political.

The 1980s, under the rule of General Zia-ul-Haq and the Army, was particularly difficult for creative people in Pakistan. The clergy wielded a strong influence upon the general. A literal interpretation of Islam that negated image-making of any kind was imposed on artists. Rabia got around the problem by using the veil as a motif and did a series of sculptures titled, A New Concept of Drapery. Professor Salima Hashmi found Rabias work from this period to be passive and felt that she was marking time. One can only disagree with her interpretation. Rabia was not using subterfuge for the sake of it, nor was she diminished by the exercise. If one were to look at the sculptures from the period, it would be clear that the tactile energy inherent in her work was very much there. She had realised, like Bertold Brecht, her illustrious predecessor from another medium, that it was important to live to fight another day without compromising integrity.

Rabias art, her sculpture and painting, has evolved over a long period. Her natural tendency is to work in the figurative idiom, but the drastically changed political circumstances in Pakistan forced her to adapt. Celebrated artists such as Sadequain and Gulgee always found a way out of the most trying situations. Sadequain silenced the most contentious of mullahs with his elegant calligraphic paintings and Gulgees soaring romanticism found expression in his whirling brushwork. Rabia too found a way out of the artistic impasse by resorting to interpreting sculpturally the folds of the dupatta in a way that all the feminine longings, particularly those relating to motherhood, came through quite naturally.

Her sculpture evolved gradually over time. It was not that she wished to be au fait with Western artistic trends for the sake of it. Much as she admired the British master Henry Moore and his reduction of the human form to the essentials, in addition to her awareness of Brancusis and Giocomettis greatness, she has always been acutely conscious of her subcontinental, indeed, Eastern roots. It was what she absorbed not only from Mohenjodaro but also from Egyptian bass reliefs. Much earlier as an art student in India, a visit to the National Gallery of Modern Art had acquainted her with the role of art in a changing world.

Rabia, even as a young girl, realised that the artist in contemporary society had to be as much a participant in evolving events as an observer. That did not, however, mean that he/she had to subscribe to a particular political ideology or belong to a political party.

There is no doubt that she has been in intimate touch with how over the last four and a half decades Pakistani society, in particular the middle-class intelligentsia, has evolved. The attempts at modernity and a not-so-easy coexistence with modernity have often been fraught for the educated Pakistani.

When Rabia arrived in Karachi, old master artists such as Allah Baksh and Abdur Rehman Chughtai had been forgotten by a society in flux: both were to be lionised posthumously, unlike Fyzee Rahamin. She had the Herculean task of building bridges between the past and the present in the Karachi of the 1960s. She probably also had to convince the guardians of potentially fine students to let them pursue art as a profession. It must have been as hard in Karachi then as in any other Indian city to convince parents of talented youngsters to let them take up art full time. There is no doubt that she played a pivotal role in creating a healthy artistic climate in her city.

It is difficult to tell why Rabias painting evolved the way it did. As a young girl she responded to natures beauty spontaneously. Although she had revealed a clear talent for clay-modelling, she must have painted landscapes enthusiastically. Later in Karachi, when she and her sister taught their first batch of students, it was left to Hajra to encourage promising students to paint outdoors.

Rabias paintings may be an outcome of an inner turmoil as in the case of many of her fellow artists. She, to be sure, is an urban artist. A running theme in her paintings is the struggle for a dignified existence in an inequitable world. The figures seldom are well delineated, they are on the verge of being abstractions. But the artists intentions come through with power and clarity.

Rabias drawings by themselves, and as a crucial element in her painting and even her sculpture, have a quiet, understated authority. Her innate sensitivity to line and its myriad qualities logically lead to a sophisticated understanding of form. This comprehension of structures is not limited to her art.

As a Mohajir, she has had to understand with tact and delicacy the inner workings of a traditional, religious society trying to come to grips with its own aspirations, and especially those of the young; it was doubly difficult for her as a woman.

It is significant that a seminal figure in Pakistani art is a woman and a migrant. The first state may not have been easy for her to have been in but the second afforded the distance so necessary to create something enduring in a society suspicious of innovation in the social sphere. Rabia never married; her own art and the pleasure of seeing her students grow were compensations enough.

Rabias signal contribution to the evolution of modern art in Pakistan at a critical time in its history must be duly acknowledged. At the same time her solid abilities as an artist must also be appreciated. It would only be natural to celebrate her as a distinguished teacher and practitioner of art in her country.

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