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ISMAIL GULJEE IN MEMORIAM [Speech at Lahore Arts Council, Lahore, 14 Jan 2008.] We are a special breed of carnivores; we have begun to devour the flesh of our own artists.

Anyone who knew Guljee sahib must have been revolted by the cruel manner of his death. It was not simply a violation of a person, of a human body; it was the suffocation of a creative mind.
What a person, and what a mind!
I became aware of Guljee sahib in 1966 when I noticed a large mural of his - a rural scene with a caparisoned camel – on the wall of the United bank branch in the then Intercontinental Hotel in Karachi. My next encounter was in Lahore where, in the drawing room of my cousin Abida Hussain, I attended the unveiling of the portrait of her done by Guljee sahib. It would have been difficult for anyone to have detected that it had not been done from life, but from coloured transparencies of her.
Gradually, as I saw more and more of Guljee sahib’s work, I became an admirer of his dexterity, his versatility and – I have to confess – his superb sense of showmanship. No artist could advertise himself with the same self-confident aplomb, and certainly there has never been any artist who had more talents to advertise.
By the 1970s, Guljee sahib had moved from painting into portraiture – on canvas, in line, and in stone. Perhaps his most famous such venture was his portrait of the late Aga Khan III, done in lapis lazuli. I saw it soon after Guljee had completed it. He had brought it to a friend’s house in Islamabad where I happened to be staying at the time.
Guljee sahib brought it out of his car, propped it on a sofa and then before we were allowed to see it, he swabbed its surface with a damp towel so that the marbled face of his spiritual leader could sparkle and shine. Rather irreverently, it brought to mind an image of a boxer being revived between rounds by his attendant.
Guljee sahib discovered Islam like most of us have done late in life. Shakir sahib had already begun his forays into technicolour calligraphy by then, as had Sadequain. Both had been commissioned by the then Commissioner Mr Mukhtar Masood to contribute to the Bait-ul-Quran in the renovated Punjab Public Library. Sadequain’s piece was on the ground floor, and Shakir sahib’s on the first floor. If one stood on the staircase, one could see both simultaneously and could admire at a stroke, the genius of both these formidable artists of our country.
After their death, the only artist of comparable stature was Guljee sahib. His prodigious output, his sheer virtuosity, his breadth of imagination, and his remarkable ability to convert ideas into fluid form were unique. His work is visible everywhere in Pakistan, and that is just how it should be, for he was an artist of national stature and significance.
I last met Guljee sahib here in the Lahore Arts Council where he had come to participate in the Old Masters, New Voices exhibition. Amin Guljee was also invited, except that I was not sure which who belonged to which generation. For me, Guljee sahib represented both the Old Masters and the New Voices, for he was both immeasurably old and at the same time perennially young.
Even though Guljee sahib has gone in a brutal manner that was a negation of his very life-enhancing temperament, Guljee sahib will and must always remain an integral part of artistic corpus.
He had too many friends to be forgotten, and he was too well-loved by his admirers to be relegated to history.
If Guljee sahib did have an enemy in life, it was Time. He needed but was denied time enough to do everything he wanted to.
The other enemy he had was Death.
Oscar Wilde once wrote in his Ballad of Reading Goal:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
the coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
We have seen an artist we all loved being killed, not with a kiss or a sword, but with a plastic bag and with plastic twine.
In that one untimely assassination, Guljee sahib alone did not die. Our reputation and self-respect as a tolerant, culturally mature society suffered a death-blow. It is a national trauma from which all of us who remain should endeavour to recover.
14 January 2008
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