For Sheherezade Alam, pottery was a calling, a skill honed over years of practice with sheer devotion to clay and colour
heherezade Alam was born in Lahore to Mahmoud Alam, a former Pakistan tennis player and Surayya, a pioneer of Montessori schools. She was not a studious child, although she did wish to become a doctor or a psychologist. She was lonely and awkward because she never fit in. Nevertheless, she completed her early education at Kinnaird College, Lahore and went on to obtain a bachelors in fine arts in design with a distinction in ceramics from the National College of Arts, then directed by Shakir Ali, one of the most prominent modernist painters in Pakistan.
Having graduated as a potter from the NCA, Sheherezade seized a scholarship in the UK. She worked at the Yale University and taught at the NCA and Bilkent University, Ankara. Her confidence with clay, right from the early 1970s, made her Pakistan’s first female studio potter. Her work enabled her to travel frequently and work alongside some of the most acclaimed Twentieth Century potters in Europe, Asia, the US and Canada.
Her marriage to artist Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq brought out the best in her. Zahoor was a pioneering and influential artist. His work ranged from painting and printmaking to sculpture, architecture and graphic design. Widely viewed as a strong modernist and perhaps the first conceptualist, he was the ‘architect’ behind the contemporary miniature movement. He sought to start a conversation with the viewer on canvas, making the latter an active participant in the work. His unrelenting experimentation and distinctive approach imbibed ‘traditional’ influences such as Islamic calligraphy, Mughal miniatures, folk art, architecture, Western art history, philosophy and literature.
After the tragic murder of Zahoor and their daughter Jahanara, Sheherezade settled in Canada to conceptualise the Zahoor Project to encapsulate his work. She returned to Pakistan in 2007 to continue her studio practice and set up the Jahan-i-Jahanara, a centre for traditional arts for children. The centre aims to give children the chance to experience the cultural heritage of Pakistan through storytelling, performing arts, calligraphy and pottery. It stimulates creativity in children, allowing them to create stories of their own using traditional devices of conflict and resolution, in order to understand the universality of enduring human values. It is established amongst historical trees and a bird sanctuary in a century-old building. Her commitment to revival of social and artistic values remained strong and kept her going.
“...the clay asks of you, the material asks of you, relentless energy. So, you have to give it. It’s not a choice; it’s not an outcome. The process is your pilgrimage. You reach a place, and that is your final destination”.
In 2013, she went to a pottery workshop in Jingdezhen, China, where she produced a body of work called Pilgrimage with Porcelain. Talking about the exhibition, she mentioned in an interview with a local publication that her soujourn to China was stressful and demanding. “The work had to be completed within a fixed time and the process was very strenuous. The clay asks of you, the material asks of you, relentless energy. So you have to give it. It’s not a choice; it’s not an outcome. The process is your pilgrimage. You reach a place, and that is your final destination,” she explained. Although a globe trotter, she remained close to her roots. Her mantra was, “I belong to Harappa and Harappa belongs to me.” This was obvious in her work which always had a connection to Harappa. Most of her work was done on the potter’s wheel.
Her dear friends such as Rumana Husain, Noorjehan Bilgrami and Baela Jamil have paid tributes to her as she was extremely close to them.
“We have known her since 1980”, recalls Rumana Hussain.
“We always met her on our visits to Lahore or when she had her shows in Karachi. She was an integral participant at Children’s Literature Festival (now Pakistan Learning Festival) whenever it was held. She loved interacting with children, teaching them about our heritage and history, art and pottery, and much more. She was extremely loving and passionate about her work. I remember that one day, at the end of the first day of the festival held at the Children’s Library Complex in Lahore, she pulled me aside and said ‘I want you to come with me to see my Jehan-i-Jehanara. That was when I visited her brainchild at the big lawn of her mother’s house. Sheherezade launched two or three of my children’s books. It was so special to have her do that,“ she says.
“She lived a life like none other, authentic and on her terms, in her space with her colours, and with those she cared for and those who cared for her. She made thousands of children come to life at our literature festivals. We are eternally thankful for all that. She gave back to the community,” reminisces Baela Raza Jamil.
“Ba Adab, Ba Naseeb. Her Jehan-i-Jahanara had this written on a sign. There were many such lovely writings and sayings all over the premises in order to encourage children to explore the arts and become immersed in adab in the true and broad meaning of the word. Being around her infectious creativity and artistic mind and soul was always a magical experience. We have been truly “ba naseeb“ thanks in a big part to her efforts and to who she was to so many of us,” Shayma Sadia Saiyid says of her time with her.
Junaid Zuberi, the National Academy of Performing Arts CEO, says, “Sheherezade was one of Pakistan’s most prominent ceramists. She was known for her love for clay that she instilled in children and many others. The deep connection she had with mitti made her humble and gave her a meaning in life and existence.”
Sheherezade was an icon of the arts. Everybody in the art community has been touched by her passing.
The writer is the publishing editor at Liberty Books