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Saatchi Gallery hosts majestic Saiful Malook exhibition

June 16, 2019

LONDON: A British Pakistani artist has described his artistic journey to Pakistan after 25 years as a “majestic and sublime” experience.

Speaking to The News at the Saatchi Gallery, Nasser Azam said he visited Pakistan for spiritual reasons to reconnect with his roots and to get inspiration for his creativity. His work of abstract and large-scale paintings at the Saatchi Gallery remained on display for 10 days, attracting large crowds to the hall displaying wall size paintings.

The exhibition ‘Nasser Azam: Saiful Malook’ followed the artist’s pilgrimage to lake Saiful Malook, a secluded mountainous paradise in the Mansehra district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Lake Saiful Malook was made famous by the Sufi saint and poet

Mian Muhammad Bakhsh (1830-1907) in his poem of the same name, and is located in Pakistan about 5.6 miles north of Naran in the northern part of Kaghan Valley.

The poem was popularised in the 90s in the Qawwalis — a genre of music based on the devotional poetry of Sufism — of musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who translated it into a song and introduced it to the West. It tells the story of a Persian prince who starts a restless journey to the lake in search of a fairy princess he saw in a dream. Inspired by the poem, Azam visited Saiful Malook in August 2018, with British Indian composer Soumik Datta and British Indian photographer and filmmaker Souvid Datta. Each artist created work in situ on the banks of the lake, one of the highest in the country.

Azam’s paintings that form the exhibition in London follow the thematic journey of the poem, interweaving ideas of enlightenment, struggle and sacrifice with his own life and work as an artist.

The artist said: “My trip to Pakistan was part of my ‘Saiful Malook’ project, where I visited the lake on an artistic journey with the music composer Soumik Datta. I first came across the mesmerising music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the early 90s and I immediately fell in love with his translation of the Sufi saint Mian Mohammad Baksh’s seminal poem ‘Saiful Malook’.

“I was living in Japan for most of the 90s but upon my return to London, I researched the poem and immediately felt a strong connection; Mian Mohammad Baksh who had written the poem over 150 years ago was born in Jhelum — the same city as me. The poem is a love story, but also a story of struggle and sacrifice. I recognised many similarities with my parents’ sacrifices and journey to England for the betterment of their children, the struggles the family went through to adjust, and ultimately how persistence eventually pays off.”

Azam said his personal connections made the journey and the settings unique. “It was my first trip to Pakistan in over 25 years, so the thematic journey of the poem, interweaving ideas of enlightenment, struggle and sacrifice and going back to my roots after such a long time, made it magical, demanding, sentimental, emotional and very creative.”

Azam got his creative genes come from his family and he started painting from a very early age. He stopped painting for 20 years to embark on a career in investment banking which also helped him travel extensively and experience different cultures. Although he had stopped painting for that period, he never stopped being an artist. He returned to it in 2008.

The Saiful Malook project was more of a personal journey for him — of going back to his roots and connecting with the many themes that resonated with him and his art responding to the visit. “I feel that the poem has been misunderstood over time, as the localised Punjabi language it was written in is not easy to translate. I was hugely influenced of the thematic under-current of the poet as an artist who is searching for creative fulfilment through divine intervention, and how he is trying to get his audience to appreciate that as a social message. It is intertwined with the charm of Sufi poetry, and as relevant today as it was when first written.”

He says that through exhibition in London, he wanted to create awareness of the poem for a new generation. A new set of Nasser Azam’s large-scale paintings will be unveiled later this year.