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Speech at Seminar on Mian Ijaz ul Hassan: Seven Decades of Painting, University of the Punjab, 14 October 2022.

Mian Ijaz ul Hassan is too complicated a person to be compressed into a ten minute speech. He deserves a lifetime of recognition – as long as the 70 years that he has contributed to our society.

I have known Mian sahib since the early 1950s when we were at Aitchison College.  He was senior to me, certainly more talented. Our art teachers were Khalid Iqbal and Moyene Najmi.

Both of us went to England for higher studies during the 1960s where we met again, briefly. It was only after I returned to Pakistan in 1966 that I got to renew my acquaintance with Mian sahib more fully, and with his wonderful wife Musaarrat Hasan. .

Over the winter of 1966-7, I was cataloguing the Lahore Museum collection of miniature paintings. The Lahore Museum and the National College were not only neighbours but also siblings – at one time, the Curator of the Lahore Museum was also the Principal of the then Mayo School of Arts. There was no wall between the two institutions.

I began visiting the National College of Arts that I found myself surrounded in a circle of talent that rotated around Professor Shakir Ali – people like Khalid Iqbal, Colin David, Kamil Khan Mumtaz, Nayyar Ali Dada, Ahmad Khan, and of course, Mian sahib who was Head of Academics. 

In 1990, I witnessed the birth of his first and seminal book – Painting in Pakistan.  There had been other books on Pakistan before but never a survey as magisterial as his. Not only did Mian sahib know all of the artists personally – whether they were from East or West Pakistan (yes, once upon a time, there were two Pakistans) - he possessed the skill and the expertise to assess their work and their contribution to our artistic identity as a nation.

How many of you have read Mian sahib’s book? I would advise you to. It is still in print, even 30 years later, which is a testament to its enduring relevance.

Re-reading it, I felt the pangs of a shared pain that only authors who have tried to have their first book published have to go through. Mian sahib’s book was commissioned by the Ayub Khan’s government. By the time the manuscript was complete, Ayub Khan’s government had fallen and Mian sahib’s manuscript and precious transparencies disappeared into the bowels of some ministry.

During Mr. Bhutto’s government post 1971, the newly established National Book Foundation gave us struggling authors hope, but politics intervened. Mian sahib was asked to exclude East Pakistani artists from his survey as that wing was now Bangladesh. Similarly, I was asked to restrict my miniature paintings catalogue to the Persian and Mughal periods. The NBF did not want any paintings that depicted Hindu or Sikh subjects.

After the coup against Mr. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977, the NBF went into limbo. Mian Sahib had to wait 13 years before he could see his manuscript in book form. I was luckier. My catalogue was published in 1977, but abroad.

This absurd form of censorship reminds me of the experience I had with the Punjab government. I was told that they had many copies of a rare book The History of the Panjab Hill States, published in 1933. I went hot foot to the Secretariat.

‘’Do you have copies of The History of the Panjab Hill States’’? I asked the store keeper. “Oh, yes!” he replied cheerfully. He took me to a rack that contained rows and rows of the volumes. I opened the first: Volume I. I opened the next: Volume I, and the next, and the next. All Volume I.

“Don’t you have Volume Two?

“We did,” he replied. ‘But in 1947, when partition of the Punjab took place, we kept Volume 1 and sent Volume 2 to India.”

It is when one experiences such as these that one appreciates the martyrdom that is another name for authorship in Pakistan.

Mian sahib was not be daunted by such narrow-mindedness or prejudices. His book begins with chapters on the history of painting – from Ajanta and Ellora, Jaina manuscripts, Mughal muraqqas, to Pahari painting from the Punjab hill states, and to the Sikh period. Mian sahib did not stop there. He covered the revivalist Bengal school and the early modernists like Amrita Sher-Gil, bringing his story into the portal of 1947.

I have mentioned Mian sahib’s achievements as an art historian. In a sense, he was the equivalent of the art historian Bernard Berenson whose fame rested on his definitive studies of Italian painters of the Renaissance. Berenson though was not a painter. Mian sahib understands the craft of painting, not simply its finished product.

I see Mian sahib’s myriad talents in defined segments. He is a studio painter, experimenting with still life studies of vases, ribbons, geometric designs.

Outdoors, he paints the seasons, trees, branches, flowers, and his beloved amaltass. It is fitting that one of his major works featuring amaltass in glorious bloom should be hanging in our High Commission in New Delhi. It is a message that however long a winter of hostility may last between our two countries, there will always be hope of a spring.

He is a political commentator. Who had not been moved by his painting of Mr. Bhutto in full flow, or the horrors of Vietnam, or the grieving Kashmiri mother?

He is a poet who writes for himself and waits for his readership to be born.

He is above all a patriot. He has demonstrated his patriotism through his unswerving allegiance to the Pakistan People’s Party, to the cause of the Palestinians, the oppressed Kashmiris, and to the working classes. His brush gives their struggle a voice, his canvases provide them a platform.

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan deserves more than occasional recognition. He is what the Japanese would describe as a national living treasure.

Mian Sahib is now 82 years old. He has completed the first 70 years of his career as a painter. May he continue for as long as he can, hopefully as long as the famous Japanese master Hokusai.

Before Hokusai died at the age of 89, he wrote this revealing paragraph about himself:

From the age of five I have had a mania for sketching the forms of things. From about the age of 50, I produced a number of designs, yet of all I drew prior to the age of 70 there is truly nothing of any great note. At the age of 73, I finally apprehended something of the true quality of birds, animals, insects, fishes, and of the vital nature of grasses and trees. Therefore, at 80, I shall have made some progress; at 90, I shall have penetrated even further the deeper meaning of things; at 100, I shall have become truly marvelous; and at 110, each dot, each line shall surely possess a life of its own. I only beg that gentlemen of sufficiently long life take care to note the truth of my words.’

Like Hokusai, Mian sahib has been an author true to his words, a politician true to his beliefs, and a painter true to his vocation. Mian sahib, may you live to be at least 110, when each line of yours, each brush stroke shall possess a life of its own.                

15 October 2022
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