Tassaduq Sohail lives in an upscale locality near the rim of the Arabian Sea in an apartment where cats and pigeons co-exist peacefully. A faint smell of birds, paint and cats hangs in the air as he sips on his wine-coloured drink while soft strains of instrumental music waft out the window into a bright, dusty alley.
Tassaduq, now 84, is a painter of international stature, but even more enchantingly he is an exotic character out of some mythical tale. An indefatigable lover and an obsessive artist, he is free from fear and organized socio-cultural values, having lived his life a chronic bachelor. I have known him for a decade or so and not once has his company been dull or his discourse ordinary.
A distinctive feature of his Bohemian life is a daily pre-dawn ritual of feeding fresh meat to kites and eagles on his balcony, preceded by an hour or so at midnight meticulously slicing the meat into small pieces. “If I don’t slice chicken liver, it swells and gags the birds as they try to swallow”. He took to this habit in England where he would go walking through a nearby forest in the dead of the night with a bucketful of meat that he fed to the wood’s population of foxes. Annoyed by their loud shrieks, residents of the area complained against Sohail. Brought in front of the administration he pretended to be a frail old man short on hearing and was let off on the basis that he could not possibly carry such a heavy basket to the forest at 3:00 am.
He was “conceived in Amritsar”, he says, and was born on 30th October, 1930 in Jallundhar. In 1955 he was sent to Karachi where he wrote his first short story while living with his maternal uncle. Written in the guise of a letter, it ridiculed his aunt’s interference in his personal affairs. He left a few pages of the story invitingly semi-concealed under his pillow, which elicited expected rage in his uncle once discovered. Young Tassaduq produced the remaining pages of the ‘short story’ that simultaneously calmed his uncle and conveyed his message. Thus began his journey of creativity.
His earlier short stories appeared in semi-commercial magazines but later works were published in reputed literary publications. He rose to the Joint Secretaryship of Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq during the time N.M Rashid was its secretary.
In those days it was quite convenient to go to England. He applied for a passport and a visa to the UK on impulse. He wanted to see the world; flirt with life, romance with girls and pick stories like a pigeon picks grains at Trafalgar Square.
[quote]She shattered my masculine ego[/quote]
“It was difficult to develop romantic liaisons with local muslim girls. I cannot forget a harrowing encounter with a hooker in Lahore as a teenager. I had gone to her to learn fascinating lessons in love. Instead she demeaned me, jeered at me and shattered my masculine ego, rendering me practically impotent for a long time to come.”
[quote]He saw a long queue of pretty girls in front of a gothic building[/quote]
He had never thought of becoming a painter until he saw a long queue of pretty girls in front of a gothic building. This turned out to be the St. Martin’s School of Arts. The girls in the queue outnumbered the boys by far. Sohail eyed a few of the boys and thought he could outsmart them any day in pursuit of those fine ladies. So he joined the queue. Although he had never drawn before he pretended to have formal training in drawing and painting.
[quote]At the end of the test he distorted whatever he had drawn[/quote]
The real test came when he, among many other candidates, had to draw a nude. He struggled to draw an outline. At the end of the test, dismayed, he distorted whatever he had drawn. The instructor went through all the paintings handed her, clucking disapprovingly until she reached Sohail’s. He was packing his things to leave when she announced his name, directing him to see her afterwards.
“You are a real artist. You may not have discovered the natural instinct and talent to paint; yet you are a born painter. Others are mere copying machines”, she declared. Thus started Tassaduq Sohail, the painter’s career. He attended evening classes at Saint Martins’ for decades, initially as an art student and later as an established painter.
During his 40-year stay in London he had three enduring passions; painting, women and animals. He painted voraciously, loved women sincerely and fathered animals tenderly. Initially he used to paint landscapes and other forms in vogue but one of his girlfriends convinced him to find his own path and develop his own signature style. She found distorted human figures and fantastical worlds in Sohail’s paintings his real forte. He stuck to her advice and excelled in conceiving, creating and painting fantastical living forms.
It was under the guidance of an Indian friend that he excelled in the art of luring ladies. Sohail would take his easel, brush and tubes and loiter near Marble Arch, ultimately perching his instruments at a corner of Hyde Park. He would approach a tourist girl seeking permission to draw a sketch or a painting of her alluring face. She, in all her naiveté, would get excited and a window of shy introduction would open. “I really loved my women. I adored them, worshiped them and wept like a baby when they left after their brief sojourns. Experience taught me not to approach a desi girl. They would be too sharp to get into any open-ended romantic relationship. Unfortunately, European girls politely evaded Pakistani or Indian boys, so my Indian friend suggested I start telling them I’m from Fiji, of which neither I nor any of the girls knew anything”, he smiles.
Did he not find anyone suited for marriage? “Living my life with one woman is a suffocating proposition. An artist should be free like a bird. Marriage or a permanent relationship fades the colour of romance, dries the creative juices of a painter. There was one girl who devastated me with her passionate love. Though she was a student she proved to be my teacher on how to paint. But there was a considerable age difference between us and she found somebody younger eventually”, he says ruefully.
Sohail has been acknowledged as among the greatest Pakistani painters by many critics and art connoisseurs. “I let my imagination loose. I see dreams. I am not a slave to my conscious self. These paintings are born out of my subconscious. I see humans and animals in their natural form. My soul resides in primitive worlds where man was not enslaved by material possessions.”
Thus you see naked women, thick jungles, lakes, fluttering birds: lali, parrots; crows, ferocious beasts and tamed animals. I see the world just like an infant dreams. His unpolluted dreams are full of fairies, fantastical objects, silver fish, turquoise mermaids, blue and green parrots, cream colored horses and bearded men. “All men are naturally bearded, so I prefer to paint them in that state”, he says. “Many of my objects in paintings are distorted and in disarray, just as is in real life. Our conscious cannot visualize them but at a subconscious level you will discover that all forms are distorted. Some people accuse me of being obsessed with my sexual instinct, which is an absolute truth. Sex is the mother of all creativity. All living and dead are and were born out of the primitive instinct to procreate. Why should I become a slave of my times to deny a basic truth? I pity those who carry their beliefs in small cages.”
A few of his paintings depict paradise with dense green foliage dissolving into a dark blue backdrop; some others have garish monsters riding black fierce animals. “It is in this world where Paradise and Hell actually lie.” He has also experimented by dividing a canvas into square and rectangular blocks. These paintings are divided into four, sixteen or more compartments, with each telling an independent story. “These stories are interconnected at a subliminal level. Like Tilism-e-Hoshruba, these are daastaans on canvas.”
[quote]This poem is quite a divergence from Sadequain’s wholesome public persona[/quote]
Who are the artists he admires? “Picasso and van Gogh. I am impressed by Ustad Allah Buksh. He had a control on his art form. Colin David was pretty impressive. Amrita Shergill was a born artist. She painted with the convenience afforded to a genius only. Sadequain too. However, he sacrificed quality by painting too frequently. Few people know that he was a good Urdu and Persian poet. His poem “In Praise of Pubic Hair” is quite a divergence from Sadequain’s wholesome public persona today”.
He spent decades painting till he gained the attention of critics. His work was initially auctioned at Bonham Auction House London followed by auctions that fetched him millions and gained him the admiration of critics and painters alike.
Amongst his contemporaries, Quddus Mirza appreciates Sohail’s “distinctive imagination.” Leading artist Mahar Afroze has known him for the last three decades and finds in his paintings “A complete world. He paints effortlessly. His imagery is independent, strokes confident and concepts original. His animals are simultaneously from this world and from beyond. Every colour is present yet each colour is distinctive. He has no inhibitions, thus, he paints on natural impulse”. R. M. Naeem, enjoys in his paintings the “element of spontaneity, intense imagery and informal structure depicting a chaotic society.”
He has his critics too who object to his lack of a formal degree in painting “At St Martins’, I remained a student for decades. They don’t award degrees to students of evening classes. Even Ustad Allah Bux, Sadequain, etc. did not have formal degrees” he justifies. Others object to his technique of being more appealing to the eye and heart than to the mind. He laughs “Art is a matter of heart and aesthetics.
Creation is a continuous process. An artist, be a writer or a painter, should not wait for a certain time to start his landmark work. He should keep on creating. Persistence is the key to perfection. I had a friend who wanted to write a great novel. He strived to gather enough financial resources and leisure to embark upon his dream venture. Ultimately, he hired a studio apartment, accumulated sufficient food stuff and locked himself into the confines of that room. After a few weeks his dead body was found rotting. He had died of brain hemorrhage; probably due to the intense mental pressure he had placed on himself. His great novel lies buried with him in a god forsaken grave.”
I have had the pleasure of reading his audacious, unpublished autobiography which is a literary masterpiece, aptly titled after a Ghalib verse “Sekhay hein musaviri hum mah rukhoon kay liay” (I have learnt to paint for moon-faced beauties). It saddens me to think that its bold commentary and anecdotes about society and human psychology will likely never see the light of day, certainly not in Pakistan.
Talking of Pakistan he finds present day Lahoris myopic bigots. “They burnt Shakir Ali Museum, attacked the house of Colin David, ransacked Nayyer Ali Dada’s art gallery and broke Sadequain’s fingers after which he abandoned the painting of nudes. The last time I went to Anarkali, I was wearing suspenders. People jeered at me saying this old fellow seems to have spent a few days in London. Now he pretends to be a desi gora.’”
He laments that the state’s structure is broken. “Karachi used to be a neat and beautiful city. Now it has become a garbage dump of sorts. The edifices of buildings are in poor taste. Buses are broken and the city does not give the look of a civilized cosmopolitan”. “Then why did you return?” I inquire. “You have to return home in the end. Home is where you belong. There is no alternative.”
Irfan Javed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org