June issue 2018

By | Heritage | Published 6 years ago

In May 2018, Shahid Sajjad’s studio/workshop was forcibly vacated to make way for a commercial project in Karachi. This loss of art legacy has left us with many questions. Should Shahid’s workshop, as it was known (a shed with a tin roof, with its one-of-a- kind furnace, smaller kiln and an entire system he designed to serve a sculptor working in bronze), be considered a part of his creative oeuvre? Shahid Sajjad was Pakistan’s greatest sculptor; art historian, Akbar Naqvi, called him South Asia’s greatest sculptor. Does the city not owe it to him to save the place where he created some of his most spectacular pieces for five decades? 

This workshop is the birthplace of the art that won him global accolades and brought honour to the country; it’s here that he perfected his unique variation of the ancient loss wax method that was used to cast the Nowshera Bronze, the biggest bronze mural in the country and probably in the region. Panel by panel, it was made here by the artist, almost singlehandedly, which was another first in Pakistan’s history.  The Bronze Series, like the Babylonian Landscape and others, emerged from here both physically and conceptually, as the artist spent most of his time in the workshop.

Shahid, who was a self- taught artist, learnt from his peers all over the world, but he considered the Japanese artist, Kato San, his mentor as Shahid turned to him when faced with metal casting conundrums. Jim Matheison, the chief designer at Madame Tussauds, London, became a life-long friend of Shahid when he came to Karachi to research for the Benazir Bhutto wax model that is installed there. 

The workshop was crucial in Shahid Sajjad’s learning process; the experiments that led to successes and failures are stories embedded in its walls.   At a glance the workshop with its unfinished works, tree trunks and planks, and all kinds of machines and tools always looked liked a living space where material was transformed. 

The artist challenged himself constantly with material and scale.  He tamed over a dozen types of wood to take on the form he visualised. His interlocking mother with a rocking child carved from a single log is a testimony to his skill and intuitive understanding of the material. He liked to naturally tint the wood by burning it and polishing it to coax it to give up its veins to the light.

The artist was visited by great thinkers like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Dr Salimuzzaman Siddiqui, Ali Imam and M.F.Hussain  in the modest shed where they held  discussions around his tools and work in progress. When Princess Wijdan came to Pakistan to build her collection for the art museum she was setting up in Jordan, she met Shahid here. This workshop is where Karachi’s art history was made.  

The studios of many great artists of the world have been saved for posterity. Constantin BrâncuÈ™i’s small studio, located in front of Place de Pompidou in Paris, is visited by thousands of visitors annually. One of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century, his finished works displayed alongside his unfinished ones and his moulds demystify his art. His tools and workbenches all introduce the visitors to BrâncuÈ™i’s art in a more interesting way than the finished work on gallery walls. Close to home,  Shakir Ali’s house in Lahore has been turned into a museum by The National Council of the Arts, where his studio and art have been conserved.  Also on display are his belongings – from awards and personal photographs to the crafts that he passionately collected. The visitor, while walking through the space, can experience the artist’s aesthetic vocabulary that extended into the living space of the great painter.       

A nation’s greatness comes not from empty claims but proactive efforts to make the wisdom of great men and women accessible to the people so they can learn to take pride in their cultural heritage. At a glance, the modest workshop of Shahid Sajjad communicates how a lot can be achieved anywhere and with very little. Handmade tools, kilns and a furnace that he designed himself were enough for him because it was the passion, the skills and  the ideas that fuelled him. To carve on over a 10 feet tall piece, Shahid Sajjad worked under a tree with a makeshiftscaffolding. He travelled to the mountains in the North to source wood and chose every single log he worked on.  When challenged with a bronze mural, he preferred to push himself with a handmade kiln rather than outsource it to technicians. Each piece that came out of his studio was perfectly finished by his own hands. The workshop holds in its womb the narrative of Shahid Sajjad’s entire art journey.   

To protect such spaces and conserve them as a cultural monument, it’s not too late to introduce legislation and expand the existing mandate of the Heritage Committee so that it is empowered to take swift and decisive action. Moreover, we need to sensitise the Provincial Ministry of Culture to look beyond the architectural heritage and conserve places with cultural memory as well.  To be fair, the Heritage Committee did start the process to save Shahid Sajjad’s workshop but in the end it proved to be too little, too late.