December Issue 2015
Book Review: Ali Imam’s biography
Books on Pakistani art and artists are not exactly plentiful. But over the years, some impressive volumes have been added to the list, replete with colourful palettes and engaging layouts. However, all these books are in English. The subject has been touched upon even less frequently in Urdu. So the recent biography of artist and gallery owner, Ali Imam, is a welcome addition. Well-known Urdu journalist, Sheen Farrukh, has taken up the task of telling the story of one the most pivotal personalities in the development of modern art and an art market in Pakistan.
The book is titled, Madaar, which translates as Orbit. And the writer has used this as a metaphor for the subject of the book, whose iconic Indus Gallery was indeed the centre of the art world around which artists, audiences and buyers orbited. The book is a biography of Ali Imam but is also described as a novel and this is how it is written. The writer may have employed this technique to make her work more accessible to readers but it poses a problem. How much of it is simple fact and how much is fiction? Writers like Irving Stone have taken this approach before, writing semi-fictional accounts about the lives of celebrated artists but in this more recent context, it seems unusual. By billing it as novel, the writer also rules out the option of sharing photographs, which would have been of great interest.
If we accept the story presented as fact, we learn about Ali Imam’s childhood spent in a small town in Madhya Pradesh, India. His father was a forest officer and the family lived modestly but comfortably enough. He later followed his brother Reza to Bombay to study at the JJ School of Arts. Although Imam’s father wanted him to pursue the sciences, when he learnt of his son’s wish to follow another path he did not stand in his way.
Away from the comforts of home and without any contacts in the big city, life in Bombay was a struggle. Later, Ali Imam moved to Rawalpindi and graduated from Gordon College. In those days, like all the other thinking, feeling young men of his generation, Ali Imam was drawn to Marxism. After graduation, he got a job teaching art at a local school.
However, England soon beckoned and Imam left for foreign shores. London’s grey skies and his lack of resources didn’t manage to discourage him. He worked in the day as a lift operator to pay for his art classes at night, much as he had done in Bombay. The National Gallery and other galleries of London with their trove of classical paintings became his favourite haunts, where he would return again and again to immerse his senses. He also got married here but that marriage didn’t last. Initially, he shared room and board with the extremely bohemian Ahmed Pervaiz who was already living there. One wishes the writer had some anecdotes to share about the time the two artists spent together.
After a 10-year stay, Imam returned to Pakistan, making Karachi his base. The art scene in Karachi was bleak at the time. But Imam found some kindred spirits at the Karachi Arts Council, where he worked and taught. He later rose to become principal of the art school there. During this time he also met his wife, Shehnaz, who remained a supportive presence throughout his journey.
However, it was as proprietor of the Indus Gallery that Ali Imam really earned respect and carved an invaluable niche for himself in Pakistani society. The gallery became the centre of a burgeoning art movement. It was an age of idealism and intellectual pursuit when poets and writers were sought out, even if they were impoverished. Painters were slowly coming into their own, but the art market had not developed.
This should have been the most informative and essential part of the narrative but one feels that it has not been explored exhaustively. Even as Imam cultivated and convinced young industrialists and the moneyed classes to start buying art, the growth of art writing and art criticism lent value and prestige to the work being produced at the time. As quoted in the novel, Ali Imam wanted to promote “art culture” in Pakistan and this was possible only if audiences were educated about the subject through regular columns and discussions. However, this aspect is given a complete miss in the story.
The book shares some interesting anecdotes and information about several artists and describes the works of others in some detail. This will hopefully serve to make a wider audience familiar with these personalities and renew interest in their work.
Like that of most artists, ultimately, Ali Imam’s story is one of struggle and the book is testimony to his determination to stay steadfast to his mission. While the book is not necessarily an in-depth look at the development of modern art in Pakistan, it is good information for readers who want to know about Ali Imam.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s December 2015 issue.
Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.