April issue 2015
The Life and Times of Ajmal Husain
Throughout his eventful life Ajmal Husain kept a diary of his activities, his art exhibitions in countries throughout the world, and the celebrities he met along the way.
He enjoyed showing his scrapbooks to friends and would discuss the biography he planned to write one day. Ajmal eventually fulfilled his plans by documenting his life, his times, his art and numerous exhibitions in a book titled, The Life and Art of Ajmal Husain -—The Painter of the East, and dedicated the book to the memory of his late son Adman.
Reliving his life through the biography, Ajmal was in his late eighties when he began to work on the book in earnest, yet his memory of times past included details of not only places and people, but also of his feelings and his emotional life.
He was born in Dhaka in 1926, and he and his two brothers attended St Gregory’s, a school run by Jesuit missionaries. Ajmal remembered with fondness his art teacher, Brother Bernard, who would encourage him to draw on the blackboard with coloured chalk. He would sit outdoors and paint the natural world: butterflies, colourful birds and trees. Ajmal attended college in Calcutta, and went on holiday with his family to Darjeeling once where his passion for art really came to fruition. An artist named Kalidas Kumar had his studio in Darjeeling, and from Kumar, Ajmal learnt the technique of oil painting.
In Calcutta Ajmal sought out the artist Zainul Abedin who had impressed him greatly with the Bengal Famine series. Though he was a senior student, a decade older than Ajmal, the two became lifelong friends. In later life, Ajmal reminisced about the pleasure he derived from quietly watching Zainul Abedin at work.
After completing his education in 1946, Ajmal planned to join the film industry, inspired by his visits to the New Theatre Film Studios in Calcutta, where a college friend’s father was a leading film director. He went on to enter an all-India competitive examination organised by the Information Ministry of India, and was one of the fortunate eight candidates selected as apprentices to work on documentary films to benefit the people of rural India.
But Ajmal’s film career was cut short when he received a message from Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan asking him to join him for a meeting in Delhi. Ajmal complied with haste, and on meeting Pakistan’s future first prime minister he was asked to join the Dawn (the newspaper where his father was editor) as a cartoonist. Joining his parents at home, Ajmal took several weeks training in the composition and perspective of cartooning, before starting work for Dawn, first in India, then in Pakistan. His job was to make five cartoons each week — and thus began Ajmal Husain’s life in art.
In his biography Ajmal records the historic and hectic times that ensued, leading up to Partition and the family’s arrival in Karachi.
In Karachi he met several newly arrived artists from different parts of what had been India, as well as Pakistan, and his involvement in art blossomed. Together, the artists formed the Karachi Fine Arts Society, which was the driving force behind the eventual emergence of the Karachi Arts Council.
In 1949, Ajmal went on to the US where he began his studies at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School of New York. Ajmal remembers this as an exciting period in his life. Visits to art museums and artists’ studios were assignments and for the first time he drew and painted from life.
When a newly acquired Consulate for Pakistan was opened, Ajmal was asked by the ambassador to decorate the walls of the Consulate with murals and paintings. Ajmal called upon several of his artist friends to work with him on the project that had to be finished within weeks. The artists were attending their classes during the daytime, so began work at 10 pm and worked through the night. In New York, Ajmal saw for the first time the original work of great painters which delighted and inspired him in the years to come.
After two years, Ajmal set off for Karachi, stopping in London on the way. There he made a courtesy visit to the Pakistan High Commission where the High Commissioner, who was aware of Ajmal’s work, asked him to paint a large artwork on the wall of the conference room, which he immediately started. From London Ajmal went on to Paris, a city that he came to adore and in the years ahead made a studio in.
Eventually Ajmal returned home to find art activities were gathering a new momentum. Artists would get together to paint and discuss art, and he would join them on outdoor painting expeditions.
Ajmal’s work in the Pakistan embassies had attracted attention and admiration and in October 1952, he was invited by the Foreign Office to exhibit his work at the Pakistan Embassy in London. That same year, his work was exhibited in Germany, Paris and Madrid and the vibrant colours of his artwork delighted art enthusiasts. Ajmal went on to mount an exhibition in Geneva, and returning to Paris, it was at a gala dinner given by the Ambassador, that Ajmal met his future wife, a beautiful French girl.
Reviews of his work were included in Die Neue Zeitung, a German newspaper which said: “His paintings reveal a modern temperament. His colouring is sometimes developed up to brilliance.”
The New York Art Digest wrote: “He handles both oil and water colours with an air of discovery, spontaneity…”
His exhibitions were met with favourable reviews in every country he visited. Ajmal regarded art as the most exciting adventure; he experimented with style and media, often with brilliant results. At one time Ajmal had studios in London, Paris and Karachi. His was the second exhibition to be held at the newly opened Indus Gallery in 1971, and Ali Imam spoke of the artist’s abstract paintings as jewels. Though they were much admired, and the collection shown abroad to interest, this proved to be Ajmal’s only venture into abstraction.
Ajmal spent months in Karachi every year, but in 2005, he made it his permanent base. Then in 2007, his son Adman, who was a photographer in Paris, was diagnosed with malignant cancer. Ajmal travelled to be near him when he fell critically ill and had to undergo major surgery. It was after six months that he returned to Karachi, while his son continued his treatment. In his biography Ajmal recounts his happiness when in 2008, his daughter Samira with his son Adman, who was in remission, came to visit him in Karachi. With optimism Ajmal began to work on a new and major series, using over eight types of media including the metallic colours of gold and copper, luminescent oil pastel, gouache and acrylic. He fused the media to create a new art genre, which was shown at the Goethe Institut in 2010, 49 years after his debut exhibition in Germany.
Ajmal had plans to exhibit his new collection in Paris, but he received the news that his son was desperately ill, and left immediately to be with his boy. Adman’s death drove Ajmal into seclusion on his return to Karachi, rallying to remember his son’s wish that he should publish a book on — what Adman referred to — his adventurous life. Ajmal began to seriously compile his work in a book that was published in 2013.
In 2012, he had been the only artist from Asia to participate in the Triennial d’Art Contemporain of Paris, at the Cite Internationale des Arts. A full-page tribute to Ajmal was given in the official catalogue where a large digital abstract painting was shown.
It was written: “He is a great Pakistani modern painter. He continues to paint at the age of 87 without stopping to overcome his sadness to see the troubles that prevail in his country.”
Plans for the book launch were underway when Ajmal became seriously ill and passed away. His biography finishes with his own words: “I have tried to paint throughout my life, beautiful and happy paintings. Whatever the style or subjects of the work, it was meant to please and seduce my viewers at an aesthetic level.”