The passing away of Shahid Jalal was a personal loss for me. He was my mentor in my arts studies, father of my childhood friend and a close family friend. One of the most distinguished landscape painters of Pakistan and an active promoter and fundraiser for charities, Shahid was a quiet, self-effacing person. Unlike many painters, he did not seek public praise and loathed self-promotion. He entered the world of arts quite late in life and briefly attended the National College of Arts (NCA) as a mature student, in his mid-30s and went back to his profession as a chartered accountant. But his passion for painting won when he left his well-paid accountancy job and devoted himself fully to his painting.
I remember going to the Jalals’ house, very close to ours in Lahore Cantt, to meet my friend Asim and secretly watch his father at work in his first floor painting room or the roof. I was fascinated at the sight of not only the work he created but his own enchanting personality. But as a child I was more interested in mischief-making, such as climbing over the closed gate. Shahid did not like what we were doing, but was never annoyed or lost his temper. That was how he was: quiet, gentle and even naughty at times. He handled complaints from the neighbours with a mischievous smile and grace. I sometimes thought he secretly admired our shenanigans. Like his wife, the best-known of the Manto daughters, he was quiet and soft-spoken. I have never seen a more hushed household, which withstood all the noise that Asim and I could make.
Shahid Uncle and Nuchie Khala were very loyal friends of Ajoka. They hardly-ever missed an Ajoka play. And he never hesitated to express his views on the performance, positive or negative. In fact, I met their son Asim at one of the Ajoka performances. I found his appreciation for my acting very valuable. As the years and decades passed by, I came to admire Shahid Uncle as a man and as an artist. How could someone leave a highly-paid CA job and devote himself to his art? He was married and had children, but he risked it all, for he had the courage to follow his dreams. Not the cliché dream of money and luxuries, but of following your soul’s true purpose. Later, when I learned about Shahid Jalal’s father-in-law Saadat Hassan Manto’s life, who had also shunned worldly comfort to devote himself to his writings, I could see some parallels between the two. For Nuchie Khala it was a kind of déjà vu, but this time things were not that bad. Shahid Uncle could earn a lot from his paintings, which were always in great demand in Pakistan and abroad.
I was doing my A-levels and chose Shahid Jalal’s work for my arts thesis. Now I did not have to peep through the window to see him at work. I could enter his studio.
As a child I was always curious as to where he went every Sunday, packing his canvas and paint material in his car. Now I could accompany him to the villages, shrines and flower gardens – the subjects of his landscapes. I watched for hours as he meticulously painted in his studio, applying each brushstroke with a calm stillness. His process itself was a testament to the patience and serenity in his personality. He would paint in layers – each layer taking days, and then more to let them dry. Sneakily I would try to observe the process, trying my best to capture his magic, trying to emulate his thick brushstrokes and vibrant colours. I had long talks with him on what he wanted to convey through his art, what he felt and what art meant to him. That was my thesis. I copied his paintings and some of them still adorn our drawing room. I believe that these paintings in Shahid Jalal’s style had a lasting impression on my wife-to-be when she visited our house along with her parents.
I found out that he was a man who was not painting for commercial purposes. He did not take it as a career or a ‘race’. He was content. He saw beauty, wonder and awe, and tried to capture that moment in time. He painted for himself and for the world, so that he might share a sliver of that eternal bliss with his fellow travelers.
When my father wrote a play on Manto, later adapted as a movie, I found out more about an interesting story around Shahid Uncle, which has been a part of Manto, the movie. Five-year-old Shahid Jalal, whose family shared the Laxmi Mansion residence of Manto, was a great fan of the great Nur Jahan, not yet adorned as Madam and Melody Queen. She was equally admired for her acting and young Shahid became obsessed with her. He always had Nur Jahan’s photograph close to his chest, kissing it at will. Madam was friends with Manto. He says in one of his articles, “Nur Jahan, there is another ashiq of yours in my family, would you like to meet him?” How could the goddess of Romance refuse such an offer? She came to Laxmi Mansion on Shahid’s birthday and sang for him, and the shy lover got the rare opportunity to kiss the real Nur Jahan! The scene is there in the film but the story does not end there. According to Shahid Uncle, many years later, he met Madam at a party. She was told that he was the same child ashiq. Madam’s eyes lit up, pressing his hand, she cheekily remarked “So, now (that you have grown up), what’s the plan?”
I will miss the delicious dinners he would cook. Not many people know that he was a great cook and approached that art with equal passion. At Asim’s wedding a year ago, he was the master chef and master of ceremonies. I will miss his beaming smile and calm demeanor. I know when I visit the Jalal residence now, there wouldn’t be any clamour in his studio, nor the smell of fresh paint on canvas. I won’t be able to gaze in awe at his unfinished art work, nor hear his hearty laughter coming from the living room. But I am grateful for the time I was able to spend in his company. He will remain an inspiration, and I hope to follow his example in following my dreams, hopes and passions. His memory will live on in his son, my friend. I will be reminded of him every time we meet.