The posthumous Nishan-i-Imtiaz for Sadequain and Ahmad Faraz revived my memories of these legends, who I got to know during my two postings in Pakistan. Sadequain (1930-1987), born in Amroha, is considered one of Pakistan’s most famous painters and calligraphers. In a recent article commemorating his 90th birth anniversary, Raza Naeem wrote that Sadequain is among the four gifted names in the field of art and culture in Pakistan.
I met Sadequain, shortly after my arrival in Islamabad in 1978 on my first posting to Pakistan, at the house of a common friend, Naeem Jaan. My initial introduction to his art was through the boldly exhibited paintings of four nude nymphs depicting the seasons, on the glass panels of Naeem Jaan’s living room doors. This attracted more attention because of the strategically-placed two broad black stripes across the body of each figure. These stripes were the contribution of the lady of the house, who felt that with three growing daughters there was a need to maintain an element of decorum. Our friendship grew over the next four years of my tenure.
On one occasion he sought my help for his visit to India, where he was taking part in an exhibition. His request was three-fold: A meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the Indian government should pay for his train fare from Delhi to Amroha, and that the PWD Guest House should be reserved for him although he would not stay there. The air ticket for his international travel between Delhi and Islamabad would be taken care of by himself. Each request stemmed from his childhood memories. By being booked in the PWD Guesthouse, where as a child he was prevented from playing as he was told only important people lived there, he wanted to exhibit to the people of his birthplace, relatives and friends, his new standing. On return, he thanked me for fulfilling all his wishes but added he had a major regret. He had been invited for an early morning meeting by PM Indira Gandhi, but as no photographer was present at that hour, a photograph with the PM could not be taken.
Sadequain, a frequent visitor to our house in Islamabad, made a portrait of my wife, which has since travelled with us to all our postings. I was told by an art critic that Sadequain had made very few portraits. Sadequain was, at times, referred to as the M F Hussain of Pakistan. On a visit to Karachi, when told of this, Hussain responded he would like to be called Sadequain of India. Sadequain told me this was the best compliment paid to him.
Ahmad Faraz (1931-2008), amongst the most famous Urdu poets of Pakistan, was a fierce critic of military and authoritarian rule. He was jailed and exiled on different occasions. Mahinder Singh Bedi Sahar, the Indian Urdu poet, was a common link between us. During my first tenure in Pakistan, Bedi made several visits to attend literary events. According to Faraz, Bedi treated him like a son. During our discussions, the idea to publish a book on the selected works of Mahinder Singh Bedi emerged. After Benazir Bhutto came to power, Faraz was appointed chairman of the Government Publishing House. In my foreword to the book, it was mentioned that this book was only possible due to his determined efforts.
My last meeting with Ahmad Faraz was at my farewell reception. He remained till the end and recited some of his Urdu couplets to the delighted guests. One of these, which he composed on the spot, mentioned that I was born a decade after him, but the cities of our birth, Kohat and Peshawar, were only 50 miles apart.
Determined and strong-willed with clear cut likes and dislikes, Sadequain and Ahmad Faraz took pride in their artistic achievements. Both were in favour of increased contacts with India in the field of art and culture.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 26, 2020 under the title ‘Painter and the poet’. The writer was High Commissioner of India to Pakistan (1992-1995) and Special Envoy of the Prime Minister of India (2005-2014)