A red faced Cuckoo

November 24, 2019

Painter and conservationist Dr Ajaz Anwar has dedicated this dispatch “to Moyene Najmi, a fine painter”

Cuckoo, as Iqbal Hussain was nicknamed by his near and dear ones, was standing by his choicest paintings that he had painted passionately over the years to exhibit at Alhamra. He was red in the face for his work was on display not in the gallery but along the footpath.

The then director, Shahnaz Arshad had objected to the female figures depicted without dopattas or head scarves, which was mandatory at PTV of the Zia days. She had objected even to a cityscape depicting the Badshahi Masjid in Shahi Mohalla.

Many invitees had been wondering if they had come a day earlier. Some even suspected that the opening date had been misprinted. Or, the hangman had been lazy in hanging the displays. It transpired that the painter had earlier been handed over a letter thus, “if you are not willing to exclude the objectionable paintings, your show cannot be held…” While the hard negotiations were being held with no side yielding, it was expected that the artist from the teaching faculty of the National College of Arts (NCA) might take away his work in protest or despair.

When he displayed his work along the footpaths and stairs of the newly built Arts Council building, a big crowd gathered. They were starved of any entertaining event those days. Iqbal Hussain had provided them one. They were all ogling at the depicted beauties which, like Manto’s characters, were not promiscuous. The crowd swelled; far lesser number of people would have sardined had the show been held inside the hall. There must have been a substantial saving on the electricity bill too.

As the crowd continued to swell, the authorities sent for armed police and then reinforcements. I, being a late comer, sensing trouble, applied all the brakes to my 70cc motorbike, and was bewildered to see what I could not have expected in the wildest of my dreams. I had attended art exhibitions in the streets of Rome, but this one was in Lahore! I had difficulty in focusing on Iqbal’s reddened face, in high resolution. As soon as I did, I congratulated him saying, “Iqbal, you have hit the jackpot; you shall achieve fame!” In other parts of the civilised world, promoters charge high fees for creating such scandals. Here Iqbal was in, for free.

A project had opened up for the artists to survive or die. They aimed for success of the exhibition. The community gathered at Moyene Najmi’s gallery, at 6 Golf Road. It is pertinent to mention that the newly formed Punjab Arts Council was housed in the usurped Freemasons Hall, nicked Jadoo Ghar, and rechristened as PUCAR Hall. Najmi offered to hold the aborted exhibition in his gallery. Professor Emeritus Anna Molka came over and appreciated Iqbal Hussain’s work. I resisted the generous offer and opined that the exhibition should be held in the same venue or the issue would fizzle away. What followed was a year of intensive press campaign. In the meantime, Iqbal, too, worked hard. On his 170cc motorbike was written “Not a day without a line,” and he painted every day. The press too complied.

Iqbal collected all press clippings in a thick file. NANNA, too, was depicted painting a heavily shrouded woman in a “shuttle-cock burqa.” He got more publicity than even what Sadequain got on the issue of the “Bossa” series held in the PUCAR Hall, which ended with firecrackers. Professor Emeritus Khalid Iqbal had been Iqbal Hussain’s mentor. I, too, contributed an article about the issue, but he, by then being elevated to a very high pedestal, did not find my write-up aggressive enough.

Finally, after a concerted campaign, the aborted exhibition was finally held at the very premises i.e. Alhamra, attended by a group far larger than that had gathered on the footpath on that fateful day. It was Salon des Refusés (French for “exhibition of rejects”). Mrs Shahnaz Arshad also had the grace to attend; more so because she had been by then replaced by the anti-art Chaudhry Nazir.

Among the first sales was a brilliant portrait of a damsel that needed no dopatta. It was acquired by Shahid Jalal, the most prized item in his collection. On the college front, Iqbal was not liked, but since his drawing was second only to Colin David, he was indispensible. He was denied promotions. Even the chairman of the Board of Governors summoned him in person and gave him a piece of their mind. By now he was above petty politics. Collectors sought his work. At one time Shehla Saigal of Lahore Art Galleries acquired all his work. He was very good at full-figure painting. He had ample supply of models for he belonged to the red district: a subject extensively researched by Dr Fauzia Saeed in her book, Taboo. Iqbal, however, does not form part of her canvas.

Iqbal never shied away form his background (and pedigree). He was shunned by his competitors. He got so much publicity in the press that he even appeared on the title page of Time magazine. Not content with monetary achievements, he turned his house on the Fort Road, the front of which offered a picturesque view of Badshahi Masjid into a restaurant — Cooco’s Den & Café. The success of it prompted many others to become part of the Food Street, but his remains the leading eatery. He had sufficient aesthetic sense and gave his restaurant an ambience that other eateries lacked. He purchased adjoining properties and added more floors to his “Den,” and was able to offer the visitors’ world famous mosque vistas in the cool breeze of summer late evenings. Retired long ago, he is still revered by his students, past and present. He leads a secluded life. Cuckoo is still red in the face, but, this time because of pride.

Note: this last Wednesday of the month falls on November 27th, which is also occasion of annual weeklong celebrations at houseofnannas.com. Members of Lahore Conservations Society are also expected to join in.

To be continued

The writer is a founding member of the Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at ajazart@brain.net.pk

Lahore and arts: A red faced Cuckoo