Chughtai lives on

November 6, 2022

Dr Ajaz Anwar recalls visiting an exhibition of Chughtai’s timeless works

Chughtai lives on


was visiting Pakistan when I heard the shocking news of the passing of two of our leading artists — Abdur Rahman Chughtai and Shakir Ali. Content-wise and stylistically, both were poles apart.

Chughtai passed away on January 17, 1975. He was buried in the vast open space in the museum on Ferozepur Road. With his passing, a glorious chapter of art in Pakistan would have been closed had he not left behind a labyrinth of material, both written and drawn/painted, for future generations and enthusiasts to study and work on. He was indeed a visual artist diverse facets of whose genius are being discovered to this day.

Every year on his death anniversary, his son, Arif Chughtai, invites the artist’s admirers and art critics to review an exhibition which has a different theme each time. It leaves one wondering about the genius of the artist and his timeless creations.


After Independence, postage stamps began to be used with Pakistan printed over them. Soon Chughtai designed the first stamp with intricate arabesque motifs on it in single colour. It was acclaimed worldwide and declared the best postage stamp. The stamp is a prized item for philatelists. (I have not been able to get one for my record.)

Arif is a custodian of his father’s art. At his disposal is a vast storehouse of artistic creations. He has never repeated any exhibition. I remember one such exhibition which had an array of title pages Chughtai had designed for so many books and magazines including the prestigious periodical Humayun. It also had logos for so many prestigious organisations. I had the singular honour of having visited the Alhamra Art Gallery situated at Gaddafi Stadium to explain its history.

It may be recounted that the name Al-Hamra for the Pakistan Arts Council was proposed by Chughtai. He also designed its logo which comprised a multi-foil arch and a cypress plant. He had drawn inspiration from the old building, an evacuee property which had been given to the Arts Council. It had a wide porch that was approached by a runway with a circular garden that boasted the tallest pine trees of Lahore. The wooden gate was always ajar. The porch had pointed trefoil shape which Chughtai must have likened to the Alhambra at Granada. On its west wing there was a double-room suite which served as the office of the secretary — that is, Faiz Ahmad Faiz. The eastern side accommodated the typists and accountants. A large drawing room of the former owners now served as a hall where plays were frequently staged and only some were able to pay Rs 3; the rest were only honorary spectators.


Shoaib Hashmi, who later became the Arts Council’s deputy secretary, was a regular playwright and actor along with Abdul Qayyum aka Jojo.

Rafi Peerzada was a frequent visitor, though he was always booked for Jashn-i-Tamseel (audio plays) which he reportedly wrote while standing in front of the microphone.

Kamal Ahmad Rizvi, Ali Ejaz and Jameel Bismil were among his patient visitors. This was before the advent of television. Sadly, very few of them made it to the silver screen.

A staircase led to the first floor that housed an art gallery with ample daylight but no fans. Yet, one enjoyed the works of emerging artists such as Imtiaz Qadir. On the other side stood a large hall from where live instrumentals and vocal music could be heard.

Westwards, in the open space, art classes were started in a hall that had a thatched roof. The classes were conducted by Anna Molka Ahmad, Khalid Iqbal, Colin David and Miss Qazi; Aslam Minhas handled the group of children on Sundays.

A cafeteria served hot tea and tasty potato cutlets to the cash-strapped students and stray visitors. Seats carved out of thick logs from felled trees were the only furniture for those having tea and gossiping. That was a time when the Arts Council’s coffers held little but the place was known to be a generous host. Exhibitions were solicited from budding as well as established artists. No rental or fee was charged.

Invitations and leaflets (brochures) were printed by the Arts Council and tea/ refreshments would be served. All that an artist had to bear was the cost of framing. The Council even purchased a painting from each exhibition. This appeared to help the painter, but in fact this way the Arts Council was also able to build a rich collection over time at very little cost.


The collection I mentioned earlier in this column, had now been shifted to the Gaddafi Stadium Art Gallery, said to be Pakistan’s richest. Of course, Chughtai was behind all such efforts. He remained its patron till he breathed his last.

Chughtai did everything he could for the younger generation of artists who ought to be ever so grateful to him.

Then came the payback time. Chughtai was requested to exhibit his paintings and etchings. Ayub Khan was the obvious choice to inaugurate the exhibit. The president graciously consented to do the honours.

The gathering at the inauguration was huge. I was a teenager at the time, and was only able to listen to its Radio Pakistan broadcast. The president announced for Chughtai a cash award worth Rs 200,000 amid thunderous applause. In his speech, Khan said that money could not pay for Chughtai’s services to the country and its art.

Chughtai, reportedly, spent the money on his publications. This required more money which he provided himself.


When Pakistan Television was started in 1964, at Lahore, Agha Bashir Ahmed was its director general. Ahmed invited Chughtai to design PTV’s logo which is still in use.

An excellent sculpture teacher who taught me as well as Saeed Akhtar resigned from the National College of Arts and joined PTV as its set designer. The centre in those days was devoid of any audio/ video tape recording. PTV had begun its broadcasts from a shanty little room that was covered by corrugated iron sheets and had no air-conditioned halls. It was located at the back of the spacious Radio Pakistan building, off Empress Road. Its first director was Aslam Azhar.


Back to the visit to the gallery housing this priceless collection acquired for a pittance from budding artists. The old building had been demolished and all the pine trees felled. Though Hanif Ramay had initially sanctioned Rs 900,000 for its upkeep, and more funds were to follow, his grand plans weren’t exactly followed.

The tradition of acquiring art work too was abandoned because the new administration was rich but frugal. Work was acquired from handpicked ‘favourites’. The once wide open gate was replaced by what looked more like a prison gate which only the so-called VIPs were allowed to pass. They even left Prof Naseem Hafiz Qazi’s car waiting in the summer afternoon heat.

The founding of the Punjab Artists Association (PAA) should have proved beneficial, but it did not. Come to think of it, they haven’t held elections in the last 38 years, and yet they have their presidents and other office-bearers.

The same is true of the Lahore Conservation Society (LSC). When the civil society do not adopt democratic modes, they lose credibility. In such a situation, it is people like Chughtai the younger generation can draw inspiration from.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Abdur Rahman Chughtai’s daughter, Musarrat)

The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at

Chughtai lives on