A labour of art and love

October 24, 2021

The Walled City scenes and themes form the bulk of Mahboob Ali’s work

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Mahboob Ali

Five Decades of Excellence

Author: Prof Dr Shaukat


Chughtai Public Library2021

Pages 208

Mahboob Ali clung to the art of xylography: the technique of making woodcuts and woodcut prints. He has produced colour woodcut prints, using a hundred colours. The implication is that he has cut hundred blocks of wood, making sketches on blocks of wood and then cut them while applying appropriate ink with fastidious registration of each block.

The labour involved in art frequently goes unnoticed for it is often assumed that the final and finished work is enough testimony to the quality of workmanship, but it is well-known that many of the art forms involving different mediums require much more labour and toil than others. This is hardly ever recognised as a virtue in itself, but Mahboob Ali’s work, created over a period of 40 years, is a demonstration of the hard work that he has put in it. It speaks of his commitment and dedication to the world of colours and lines. He should be lauded for it. The labour is obvious only to an expert. This is exactly what the author of the book has aimed at by praising the labour that has gone into the endeavour, pinpointing that it can assume a quality in the work.

Mahboob Ali was born in Nur Mohalla, near Uchhi Masjid inside Bhati Darwaza. His early apprenticeship was with Naseer Shah of Malik Theatre. While at school, he regularly went to Eros Cinema in Gowalmandi and learnt to apply the graph for drawing large boards. His thirst for learning took him to the Alhamra where Khalid Iqbal, Ustad Bashirudin, Colin David and Miss Qazi nurtured his raw talent Peter Hassan Ali, a friend of Shakir Ali, the National College of Arts principal, gave him a recommendation. This made it possible for him to enrol at the college, where he was a design student. As he progressed in the four-year programme, he could claim credit for being one of the favourite students of Prof Ahmed Khan.

It was Prof Khan who demanded woodcut prints of old Lahore in his graphic design class from him. It is important to stress the relationship between the Walled City and Mahboob Ali’s work. The architectural cuts and the angles in the streets and buildings have been his sources of inspiration. He wanted to make these permanent in the form of woodprints.

However, at times, the focus does shift away from the Walled City, its buildings and the various shades that capture its moods to topical issues that may have claimed his attention. The people have, forever, remained his main preoccupation. ‘The proper study of mankind is man,’ is what he seems to be following. The often represented Benazir Bhutto, the varied posters and slogans, the various movements, political and social, or issues that have characterised our society during the past five decades have informed his work. The dream of building an equitable order, the dignity of labour and the never fading hope have been some of his persistent topics.

One is also taken in by the pencil sketches and drawings by him of the various figures, portraits and cityscape. He is also adroit at using pastels, pen and ink and collages and producing etchings.

Other than the woodprints in the book under review, the fine quality of stretches and drawings, too, are hugely captivating and point to the absolute dedication to craftsmanship. The water colours too point to the expertise that the artist has acquired and the skill that he exercises, thus, zeroing in on the value of craft and skill.

In recent times, too much emphasis on experimentation and the diluting of the medium has shifted the focus away from the necessity of skill. The skill is the indispensable tool that makes the visualisation of a vision possible otherwise it stays limp, half-baked and too vague. The absoluteness or sheer essentialness of craft, so valued by Mahboob Ali, speaks for itself in the volume under review.

The work may also have a historical dimension in the sense of documentation of the city, which is fast disappearing under commercial and demographic compulsion. It is quite possible that in the near future the works of artists like Mahboob Ali will be a more authentic reference point to understand the spirit of the city of Lahore.

It is a finely-produced book. That is the way it should be with a published document regarding painting and visual material. The photographs from Mehboob Ali’s work are quite beautifully produced in print. Equal attention should have been given to the editing of the text which in some places is sloppy.

One does not usually equate libraries with laboratories, conducting clinical tests. However, Dr AS Chughtai has created under a generic Chughtai Public Library label, a number of public libraries to disseminate knowledge without discrimination. The library runs multifaceted activities, one of which is production of literature about the culture and history of Pakistan. Besides a large array of activities, it has ventured into publication. This happens to be the first initiative in this direction. It appears that the library is not limited to a single site.

Prof Shaukat Mahmood, the author, is no stranger to the art and intellectual circles of the country. A PhD in Islamic architecture from Edinburgh, he has been a dean of Architecture and Planning at the University of Engineering and Technology. He is the author of many books and has twice been decorated by the Government of Pakistan.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

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