Bashir Mirza (BM), artist extraordinaire, has already been examined through many lenses and multiple perspectives earlier, by many. It isn’t easy to add more, but bear with me as I try.
That BM was an enigma, there is little doubt. 20+ years after his death, even his closest friends and associates still grapple with his highly complex, multifaceted persona. Life and art were constantly intertwined for him. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, Bashir Mirza never stayed for long with one theme or style. A restless soul, he was always moving from subject to subject, style to style. He even reinvented and redesigned his own name – from Bashir Ahmad to Bashir Mirza and then finally to BM. There is no easy way to reinvestigate his oeuvre as one of the most respected and admired names of the Pakistani art world, a man far ahead of his time.
BM‘s main claim to fame have undoubtedly been his nudes. His artistic credibility has been established through his powerful, figurative ink drawings: his reputation secured with smooth, poster-like paintings of women-nudes and semi-nudes. BM’s style was varied: realistic, abstract and non-objective; and in making his subjects appear inconsistent, incorrect and incomplete lay his brilliance. He was much criticised, but social and ethical restrictions hardly bothered him and I recall his sentiments expressed on one occasion:
“I feel that I do not owe any ethical responsibility to anyone. I believe that an artist is not linked to the public directly. I’m not a tooth paste seller. I am a creative being. It is up to the people to enjoy my work or vice versa. Even if they don’t like it, I would still welcome their opinion. To educate the public is not my job. I’m not a teacher. I accept that my nudes have a certain sexual sensitivity, but they are not vulgar. As an individual, free expression is my fundamental right”.
Many writers have acknowledged the shock value of his paintings which stood boldly in contrast to the many non-figurative paintings seen in those days. Marjorie Husain, a noted writer on Pakistani art and artists, in BM’s biography, “The Last of the Bohemians—Bashir Mirza” has also articulated his brilliance and innovation generously. BM was outspoken and fearless even in the times of Zia. In fact, some of his most daring work emerged during Zia’s era. In 1989, after Zia’s regime crash-landed, he presented two series of paintings namely “People of Pakistan” and “Dawn of Democracy” as a tribute to those politicians, poets and artists who had dared to be vocal during Zia’s iron-fisted regime.
BM’s parents wanted him to start earning some money and, knowing of his interest in drawing, were steering him towards apprenticeship with a signboard painter. That was before he joined NCA and became a protégé of Shakir Ali, the avant-garde artist and principal of National College of Arts, Lahore. Professor Shakir Ali was able to spot quickly that BM had a talent far beyond the average Joe – a talent, irrepressible and audacious – the sheer range and versatility of his subjects that he would follow for forty plus years of his creative life.
Central to his oeuvre was the female form with a colour field for a backdrop. His Lonely Girl series was completed and exhibited in the 1970s and won him a permanent place in Pakistan’s art history. For BM, these styles were an emotional release rather than aesthetic discipline.
Many writers have acknowledged the shock value of his paintings which stood boldly in contrast to the many non-figurative paintings seen in those days
Despite limited business acumen, he was still the first Pakistani artist to open a private art gallery in Karachi in 1965, initiated the first publication dedicated solely to art and later opened an advertising agency, Atelier BM. Soon after receiving the President’s Pride of Performance Award in 1994, BM also had a brief stint as a diplomat, when he was appointed Pakistan’s cultural attaché to Australia. He returned home in 1996 to carry on from where he had left.
That BM had a strong preference for the liquid diet was no secret. From the time he opened his eyes in the morning, it was whiskey on the rocks without diluting it with water or anything else. A friend fondly recalls “BM never stopped drinking so long as he was awake. He used to visit us in Shalimar Recording and start drinking after breakfast. His drinking sessions were virtually round the clock. In Shalimar, we had a two-bedroom guesthouse where he would go off to sleep for a few hours only to resume his drinks again.”
I had the privilege of meeting him a few times in those heady days when I used to make frequent trips from Dubai (where I was working) to Karachi. My link was established through my younger brother who had started his advertising career with Atelier BM and became BM’s associate and close friend, organizing many of his art exhibitions. I discovered that BM’s advertising agency-cum-private art gallery had a certain magnetic appeal and the parties at his DHA residence in Karachi were such that one could indulge into wholesome fun and frolic easily into the wee hours of the morning. BM loved women around him and the parties, specially where drinks were free flowing. To him, the sound of the glasses was musical as well as magical.
The fact that BM lived long enough to witness the entry to the new millennium was perhaps only because of his zest for life. Anybody else may have gone earlier. His candle of life was burning from both ends – a chain smoker, alcoholic and devil-may-care approach to health, each playing their own role.
I was in Washington DC on business having dinner with a friend on a chilly winter evening of January 2000, sharing the relief after the Y2K scare. An incoming call spelt the end of our dinner. One of the most admired artists of Pakistan had eventually succumbed to his overwhelming health issues. BM’s art attack had found a new gallery.