September Issue 2014

By | Art | Arts & Culture | People | Published 10 years ago

Obituaries have an implicit protocol. We render in superlatives the accomplishments of the departed, edifying our assertions with rapturous vignettes of courage, honesty, even genius, to bewail the crater-size hole left behind. Amidst this ritual of myth-making, legends are born, shortly upon their death.

The spirit of sculptor Shahid Sajjad, who passed away on July 28 at 78, would stifle under the weight of such a conditioned response as he was never one for protocols. The past is only a memory, he believed, encumbered with self-limiting mental and emotional baggage. The only tense that really matters is the present because it is in the here and now that we observe, experience and learn, shaping the contours of our future.

In deference to the man and his mettle, this is not an obituary but a perspective that seeks, at best, to shed a sliver of light on a remarkable life.

I first met Shahid in 1994 at Chawkandi Art, at the opening of his show My Primitives. The gallery was packed with heavy-breathing art grandees. Deeply moved by the grace and nobility of the men and women Shahid had carved in wood as homage to the aboriginal tribes of the Chittagong hill tracts, I still failed to muster the pluck to approach the famously no-nonsense sculptor and express my views.

I stood riveted by ‘Hostage I’ − a free-standing truncated male figure that greeted visitors at the door, head askew to avoid direct eye contact and massive arms folded in dignified resignation just below the midriff — when Shahid came by to ask what I thought of it. I told him only that the hair on my arms stood on end. A valid response, he shot back, before inviting me to his place to talk some more, much to my surprise.

D-7A week later I visited him and spent hours, mostly listening to him. On seeing me off, he handed me a small wood relief of a stocky seated women. The unfinished relief was on loan to me until he found time to complete it, Shahid told me. When I gingerly asked for the price, he explained that since the sheesham plank was probably too thin to take further chiseling and scorching and could split during completion, it was best if the decision to buy it was taken later.

I asked what led him to trust me at what was, after all, our first real meeting. “I liked your response to my work as it was based on a hunch instead of received wisdom that says nothing about you or your experience of art. “Remember this,” he went on to say, “the real thing is always simple, direct and uncluttered. The tragedy is, we have smothered this basic instinct with our self-deceptions, comfort zones, culled knowledge and wordplay.” In that one sentence, I learnt later, Shahid had distilled his outlook on life.

The relief stayed put for several years before Shahid asked me to bring it back. He completed it without damaging the wood and then called me to see if I liked it enough to buy it for the same amount at which reliefs of similar size sold in 1994.

But something far more significant happened in the meantime: I was privileged to get to know Shahid well and spend considerable time exploring the highly individualistic prism through which he viewed life. I could not clutch a lot of it due to my own mental blocks. But this much I discerned clearly: I was in sage company, often in touching distance of tonic wisdom.

The one subject over the years that fuelled a lot of discussions, was the place of art in life. Despairing of the middling merchandise in the mass market-driven world of Pakistani art, I would often question the consecrated positioning of art and artists. Was art only the convergence of spectacle and skill, flogged to the highest bidder? Were artists merely savvy opportunists cashing in on the trend, doing cleverer turns after clever turns? D-6

Shahid agreed, but chose to stand far apart from the rattle and clang of the madness. “Art is a state of being, not becoming,” he conceded in a show aired on Dawn News, in which we appeared together. “For me,” he added matter-of-factly, “art is a do-or-die compulsion, just like breathing. And if I didn’t do what I do, I would die.” The way Shahid lived to work − or worked to live, rather − confirms that the contention was not rhetoric, rather an urgent, pressing reality for him.

Faced with this imperative, he was willing to surrender completely to fate, whether it meant chucking a comfortable job and income to roam the world on a motorbike,  or dismissing the hierarchies of the art establishment in no uncertain terms. “If there is one pre-condition for living, it is absolute vulnerability,” he would often say. “There is no such thing as success or failure. There is only learning. Try to empty your mind of all your preconceived fears and mock knowledge so as to give space, however circumscribed, for the breeze to blow and the light to shine.”

Shahid, for one, savoured every opportunity to learn, even when he was admitted in hospital for the last time. “What is really fulfilling is this new dimension of life unfolding nonstop,” he scribbled on a note, when I went to see him. How many of us will venture such a claim in the presence of imminent death? This had to be a state of grace, I figured.

But that was Shahid. “Most people on the face of the earth die without having ever lived. I don’t know who said it, but to me it’s a fact,” he wrote, after learning to text some six months after he lost his voice.

Shahid, you managed that rarest of things: you lived when most of us exist. That is all.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2014 issue under the headline, “State of Grace.”