Saeed Akhtar (b.1938) is an accomplished portrait painter of Pakistan; many of his works depict and bring to life on canvas our cultural life. But his fame rests with his paintings of Quaid-e-Azam inspired by Hal Bevan Pitman. He has worked to go ahead of him. For him, creative originality is a must. Without it, art is reduced to mere imitation, which he regards as dishonesty. He talks in some detail about his art of portraiture, its traditional background, present state and its future in Pakistan.
On the development of his interest in art
It was the art collection of the Command and Staff College Quetta, which inspired me to become an artist. Though the collection comprised of portraits of senior officers of the army, war paintings and landscapes, but the painting of Quaid-e-Azam made by Hal Bevan Pitman caught my fancy.
A well-knew calligrapher YousufDehlavi was my maternal grandfather.
Thinking that he would advise me better, I went to Karachi and told him that ‘I want to become a painter’. He told me that, ‘from an Ustaad you could not learn much’. You should therefore, go to Lahore and join the Mayo School of Arts.
On his art education
In 1960, I came to Lahore and got admission in the newly structured National College of Arts. Late Ustaad Bashir, Jamila Zaidi, Abbasi Abdi, Taufeeq Ajaz and Mohammad Latif Chughtai were my teachers. All of them were creative artists and wellknown for their individual styles. Despite my instilled confidence, they encouraged me to experiment and select art forms for new creative expressions. I started to express my ideas in paintings while I was in third year of my study at NCA.
Professor Shakir Ali had seen my work of portraits. One day when I was still in third year, he called me in his office and asked ‘would you like to paint a portrait of General Musa!, who was Commander In Chief of Pakistan’s Army’. I accepted the challenge. It was my first commissioned work, which earned me, what was in those days, a princely sum of three hundred rupees.
While going through the history of art, I particularly, concentrated on the history of portraiture. I got a Diploma from NCA in 1964.
Then I sensed that commissioned works, which I was doing, had very little place in the field of art, because one could be creative only to the extent of decoration. One had to follow the camera’s eye. So I started to draw from the life. ‘Portrait of a painter by a painter for a painter’ was the title of Muhammad Asif’s portrait, which I made in twenty minutes.
Abdul Hafeez Kardar gave me a 5×7 inches photograph of Sir Adamjee for making a life size painting 4×5 feet, which had only Adamjee’s face. It was a challenge for me. I considered it another turning point in my commissioned work and arranged a model of Sir Adamjee’s physical structure and then made his figure painting.
On Quaid’s portraits
In 1970, Prof. Shakir Ali called me and asked to paint the Quaid’s portrait for newly constructed building of the National Assembly. Perhaps awed by the job, my reply was something like how could I do such an important work. Shakir Ali’s immediate response was very encouraging, as he told me that only I could paint it. He provided me a canvas of 7 x 9 feet, and I began to work on that. Day in and day out, I worked on the portrait. I wanted to make it a masterpiece, a portrait that would reflect Quaid’s personality in the best light. The picture I was provided with showed only his face but I painted him from head to toe from my imagination. I believed that the job was done satisfactorily
On the importance of portrait making
A photograph can capture only one moment, whereas a painter has to work on a portrait till the artist within him is satisfied. While working on a portrait, I talk to my model, and try to discover several aspects of his personality. The camera’s eye simply cannot capture such an important dimension of life.
A portrait is not all about the face, though it is tremendously important.
If hands are a part of my painting and they are within the frame, then they will certainly be painted with each and every detail including clothes and drapery to get the life like resemblance and expressions. Although I concentrate more on the face, I think it is the eyes, which are a true guide to anyone’s personality. They attract me because they reveal the truth. Hands are also like eyes.
With one or two basic colours, relying solely on their different tones, I have created more colourful impressions than others do by using many colours. I do not mix white in brown, but brown gives me a variety of tones, which I create by varying the oil content in the colour.
My palette is monochromatic. I do not play with many colours. With very few colours, I think, I have succeeded in making my own idiom in contemporary portrait-making. The monochromatic look is creatively original, and attractive. It’s my style.
On experimentation in his area of expertise
I have ventured to bring a change in the conventional method of composition. Rather than, starting from off the canvas, I compose figures on extreme right or left in many of my paintings. Empty space behind the model becomes meaningful when one sees the figure’s outgoing posture. There may be violations of traditional methods in my art, but I have always been in search of new aesthetic originalities, treatments and expressions.
On the history of portrait-making
Going through the centuries old history of art in the subcontinent, one finds that portrait-making has always been practiced. In search of perfection, artists, from time to time, introduced new techniques. For instance, look at the figurative works of our cave-pioneers in this form. In the second period, artists made Gods and Goddesses. Even today, while making a figure from Hindu mythology, one had to copy the works of old masters. Similarly, unknown sculptors of Gandhara Art contributed a lot to this form. Mughals were particularly fond of fine art. In their period, interest developed in the form of miniature painting. Stylization was a later phenomenon in miniature.
The British painters came here equipped with canvas and oil colours. First they approached different royal courts and got assignments for making portraits.
Then, during the Raj period, they made portraits of their VIPs and painted war scenes. Later, our artists also began to work on canvas with oil colours, but in their own way. I believe that our tradition in portrait-making is no less rich. I am proud of it.
On art education in Pakistan
Soon after completion of my study at NCA in 1964 I was taken up as lecturer, which gave me an opportunity to learn more. I was promoted as head of the Fine Art Department in 1994 and Professor in 1995. I think the education field has broadened my vision.
Being an art teacher, I do not favour the modernists’ direct method of teaching art. I attach utmost importance to basics. I know that one who is welleducated in the basics can understand it better. While he can do experiments in technique and ways of expression in a skillful manner, his art can also be modern. Unfortunately, in our art colleges, foreign-educated painter-cum-teachers dominate the scene. They focus only on modern art. In such a situation, how can we expect creative originality?
On modern art
In my view our modern art is rootless. We could have contributed original works in it if we had experience of participating in both the World Wars. Here we could have narrated the experiences of the war of 1965, but we could not do so. When our experience is not like that of Europeans, how can we express it in our art? That is why we see a number of modern artists busy in producing imitations.