. . . . . .  

Shakir Ali was born in 1916, a hundred years ago. He was created - as we all are - from a fistful of dust. He died on 27 January 1975 and was buried the same day. Today, forty years later, he is no more than a fistful of the same dust.

Yet, here we are, recreating an image of him from that very dust.  But what we cannot, nor should we, attempt to refashion a facsimile of the man he once was. The best we can do is to piece together our separate, disparate memories of him to produce a collage, an ephemeral hologram of the man who once sat amongst us, at gatherings such as this one.

Shakir Ali sahib contribution as an artist is too well-known for me to reiterate.

The twelve years he spent from 1961 to 1973 as the Principal of the National College, again, have been too well documented for me to recount, or to describe  the strong and deep impact he had, as their Principal, on so many young artists.

I would prefer to spend my allotted time talking about aspects of the Shakir I knew and admired.

The start of his career, for example, as Principal NCA.  On the evening we buried him – the 27th January – Mr B.A. Kureishi (then Chairman of Planning & Development Department, West Pakistan, and Chairman of the Lahore Museum dropped in at my home in Ghalib Road, Gulberg.  Kureishi was in a mood to reminisce. He narrated how he had helped Shakir-sahib during the days when a Rampuri who spoke chaste Urdu but little Punjabi found his feet in Lahore:

“When I got Shakir fixed up at the NCA, there were complaints against him – that he used to frequent coffee bars, that he wore his hair long.  I taxed him with these criticisms. To which he replied that as far as coffee bars were concerned, he had to frequent them because he could not afford anything better. And his hair? Well, cutting them shorter would not improve his looks.”

Let me jump to Shakir’s later years.  For me, Shakir sahib was a paradox wrapped in a riddle.

Here was a man who had failed relationships with women, yet he adored the female form with passion.  Almost all of Shakir’s significant paintings contain women, invariably nude.  Very few have a male figure as a subject, and the one that does – Man, painted in 1968 – shows a male as naked as any of us in the shower.

Unlike Sadequain, though, Shakir sahib had no inhibitions about depicting naked males. Sadequain could not bring himself to be so explicit. He could paint female nudes with abandon, but the male figure?  Sadequain, like Mahatma Gandhi, always used a loin cloth, for modesty.

Another paradox with Shakir sahib was his obsession with flowers. Although, they germinate throughout his work, I can never remember his house having a floral display in any room, or him showing off his garden when he lived in Prinicipal’s House at Sanda Road or, after his retirement in his home in Shaukat Hayat Colony.  Yet, his paintings are a visual bouquet of flowers in every colour. He admired flowers. He never grew them.

He never rode a horse, not that I know of.  Yet, his drawings of horses are as accurate and faithful as any of Leonardo da Vinci’s studies of the Sforza monument.

Unlike Sadequain, he never wrote poetry. But he read it, listened to it, understood it, and counted poets like Faiz sahib and Soofi Tabassum among his friends.  Yet, he could be inspired enough by a translation from the German of the First Elegy by the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, to include its opening lines along the side of his Man figure:


Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic

Orders? And even if one were to suddenly

take me to its heart, I would vanish into its

stronger existence.


His possessions were utilitarian. He kept only what he needed. And when he need something, as he did when he needed to complete the bathrooms of his new house, he did not think twice before selling the paintings that he had retained for himself, to display in his last home.

So, which Shakir should we remember – the dreamer, or the pragmatist?

The paint has already begun to flake off the canvas of Shakir’s life. Gradually, as we learn more about him, we see the underlay of his ideas, his thoughts, his inspiration, the stimulus that made him the great artist he became.

Shakir never asked for appreciation nor any accolades while he was alive. He was above such ephemeral recognition. He lived his life with all the purity of a man who felt more deeply than he thought, one who painted with more conviction than he conceived.

Had he been Sadequain he would left behind more paintings than a reputation.

Had he been Gulgee, he would have left behind more examples of calligraphy than there are verses in the Holy Quran.

Had he been Chughtai, he would have left behind a son and a legacy of paintings that would defy valuation. 

Instead, Shakir sahib has left behind an unparalleled reputation, colourful incantations of calligraphy, and a precious legacy of his work that defies valuation.

Almost 2,000 years before Shakir sahib was born, a Roman poet – Marcus Valerius Martialis, known late and better as Martial wrote his Epigrams. In one of them, he scoffs at the idea of belated recognition:

You puff the poets of other days,

The living you deplore.

Spare me the accolade: your praise

is not worth dying for.[1]


Shakir sahib deserved praise, but he was not one to die for it. He has no use for it now.

But we who remain have need of his work and of the standards he set of artistic integrity, of refined sensibility and of avuncular concern for future generations.

He painted in his time, but not simply for his time. He lived in his time, but not for his time.

Today, we remember the completion of his first century. In 2116, our successors will not remember us but the man who has brought us together – Shakir Ali – the painter who painted as he spoke, with measured reticence, with deep feeling, and with a reverence for everything God has created to beautify our darkening lives.



[Paper read at the seminar organised on Shakir Ali by the Artists Association of Punjab, 27 February 2016, AlHamra Arts Council, Lahore.]     


[1] [Martial, Epigrams, VIII, 69,I,I.] 

28 February 2016
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