‘Art must compel viewers to contemplate life’

January 24, 2021

Born in Quetta in 1972, Sharjil Baloch is a medical graduate, an international award winning documentary filmmaker, actor and above all a visual artist. He has also been an online video producer for BBC Urdu Service. His short films Ghairat Mand, Pervez and Gurmukh Singh Ki Wasiyat were shortlisted for international film festivals. His documentary Kee Janan Maen Kaun won the first South Asian Award in Kathmandu in 2009. Baloch has also participated in national and international watercolour biennales as a painter.

The News on Sunday (TNS): You have been a physician, a visual artist and a film director. What made you switch professions?

Sharjil Baloch (SB): It has been an effort to discover my real talent. Besides, there was all kinds of advice coming my way as my family pinned their hopes on me to do well and bring honour to the family name. Initially, I was interested in art films and documentaries. I had been a doctor, a good doctor. However, I was not enjoying what I was doing. I realised finally that there was something wrong with my choice of a career. I also realised that seeing children in pain, which was part of my job as a pediatrician, was very disturbing for me. At Aga Khan Hospital, where I was serving as a medico legal officer, some friends encouraged me to look elsewhere for opportunities that suited my tastes. I explored a bit and found a good fit in film direction.

TNS: What is art for you?

SB: If an art piece does not make one contemplate life and find meaning in the image, then it’s no better than a decoration. An artist’s work is his or her way of communicating with his people. If an art piece makes no difference, it’s meaningless.

TNS: Tell us about Rang Tamasha and its team.

SB: Rang Tamasha is a life-long project for me. I was in Bahawalpur with a cousin when I saw a friend of his, Mudassir Punnu, directing his students to use colour chalks to inspire children to make art. Together, he and I painted the entire village. The socio-political results were amazing. In 2018, after I left BBC Urdu. I discussed the idea with a friend who is a school principal. I joined the children in painting the school. This transformed the school building for the children who could now own it. Arts projects allow children to feel successful and appreciated. More people from the community started visiting the school, enrolment increased and children started feeling proud of that they did. I did this again at Mehmoodabad College in Mach, which is my hometown, and at Awaran. Recently, I and some other artists painted two huge murals in Ibrahim Haidery area. I believe, more artists should come out and paint the streets. Anyone who is willing to do this wholeheartedly can be a part of this effort. They should work with children or with other artists. Most people do not own the space they occupy because they have never been given a chance to interact with it. Getting involved in such a project makes people start owning the space. It’s no longer public space or private space to them. The idea soon became popular and people started inviting me to visit their neighborhoods and transform those.

TNS: Tell us about some of your recent projects?

SB: Recently, I have painted two murals at Korangi, Karachi. This undertaking was sponsored by Karachi Neighborhood Improvement Project. The two walls cover an area spanning over 13,000 square feet. These walls start from Ibrahim Hyderi, the oldest fisher folk village of Karachi. On one of the walls, we painted marine life. It is titled People’s Aquarium. On the other wall, we painted the life of fishermen - from sea to the desert. I have not verified this but this is possibly the biggest mural in Karachi.

TNS: What changes can such projects bring?

SB: After my experiments in Karachi and Mach, headmasters of the schools where I had worked gave me their feedbacks. Enrolment had increased in some places because children loved coming to school and own the space. So I guess Rang Tamasha definitely made a difference not only in the overall look of the school but also in terms of a positive impact on the students’ personalities. Parents now look up to the schools and children have started loving their schools. Children get art classes in Grades 5 and 6 and we let them paint and play with colours. This has raised the confidence levels in them.

TNS: You took Rang Tamasha to Mach, Balochistan. What was that experience like?

SB: This is a good question. There is so great anxiety in Balochistan and a large number of children have been through post-traumatic depression due to the insurgency and sectarian strife. Projects like Rang Tamasha help them revive and think positive. One has to provide a positive way for them to take the lead but there are few such initiatives. To many the education system appears beyond repair. Rang Tamasha is non-conflictive and a ray of hope for them.

TNS: Yours portraits of lawyers were lauded by the whole country. Please describe that experience for our readers.

SB: On August 8, 2016, I was in Islamabad when tickers started running on news channel that there had been a bomb blast at Civil Hospital, Quetta. I looked at the list of casualties found the names of several friends among them. Quetta is a small place and you know almost everyone. I started calling people and most of the phones off. I went numb for a while. Later, I was shocked to see that the mourning was over and people were celebrating the Independence Day. Tears rolled down my eyes at the realisation that people had already forgotten the deaths. I decided then to collect the images of all the lawyers who had died in the blasts and paint those on red background. I completed the work in 8 months. I got them framed and paid my tribute to the martyred lawyers of Balochistan High Court by placing the picture on the floor in the court. Many of the bereaved families thanked me in person for my gesture. A wall was later devoted for the portraits at the Balochistan High Court premises.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi

‘Art must compel viewers to contemplate life’: Sharjil Baloch