Nurjahan Akhlaq & Sheherezade Alam
Excerpted from a dialogue originally published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 5 (2021).
Nurjahan Akhlaq: I want to ask how and when you met Baba (Zahoor ul Akhlaq), and describe the mood of the time as well.
Sheherezade Alam: I want to take you back to 1966—that is when I joined the NCA (National College of Arts, Lahore). I had trepidations because I was very closeted at Kinnaird College. The world at NCA was very different to the world I had grown up in. Everything was very new, though I had some friends.
Now, when we sat at the canteen having chai, a conversation would start up about this elusive figure call Zahoor ul Akhlaq. Though I had no idea who he was, he sounded very interesting.
In 1968 I had the opportunity to travel with my parents to London. I was carrying all sorts of messages and letters for Zahoor that I had been given by people who knew him, even though I had never met him. At the time, he was doing postgraduate studies in printmaking at the Hornsey College of Art. Even the principal, Shakir Ali, had sent a note for him. My adventure was to find this elusive character that people seemed to be so fond of. One of the things they said about him was that while talking to him or working with him, he would suddenly disappear and one wondered where he had gone. I was intrigued to say the least!
I rang up Shohaib and Salima Hashmi and said: “I believe you know Zahoor ul Akhlaq, can I meet him? I have these letters for him.” They told me to come over on such and such day for dinner. We waited and waited and even ate our food. Finally, Zahoor arrived. I handed him the letters and told him that people remembered him fondly. He sat down and said: “So what can I do for you? Why don’t we meet at the Tate [London] tomorrow?
I said, “Good idea!” and arrived at the Tate next day. Again, I waited and waited and waited and just as I was about to leave, I saw him come up the stairs and went: “Oh, finally you’re here!” He mumbled something and then he said: “Let’s go inside and I’ll show you my favourite paintings.”
That’s the first time I saw the Turners at the gallery. He described what he saw in them and how Turner captured light in his paintings. Nobody had ever shown me art like this before, although I had had a very good teacher in Khalid Iqbal in the History of Art program in my first and second year at NCA. Zahoor didn’t show me the paintings he wasn’t interested in, just the ones he thought were worth looking at.
NJ: Nothing like a walkthrough at a gallery with him…
SA: Exactly. I don’t remember if there were any Rembrandts there, but I know that he also described what he loved about Rembrandt and what an amazing artist he was. Then we had some snacks at the café. I felt guilty asking a young artist to pay, but he insisted. After the Tate, he suggested we walk along the Thames: “I’ll show you some buildings.” So, we went out and he pointed out some buildings that I hadn’t quite seen—through his eyes, of course. Along the way, I told him that the next stop for the family tour would be Paris, and he told me where to go and what to see.
I was 20 years old, an impressionable age and I was very impressed by him. As for him, he told me many years later that as we had walked along the Thames, he had wanted to kiss me—something difficult for Zahoor to express, but he did.
NJ: Let’s move to a bit later—the 80s, you’re settled in your flat, your children are growing up. My perception comes into this period. I thought it was a very unusual kind of house, people coming and going, your friends from different fields, Naheed Siddiqui, Maharaj Kathak. It may not have been a ‘planned’ vision, but the way you and Baba chose to live in that annex apartment, protected by the compound in some way but nonetheless informed by your Bohemian vision of what you and he aspired to in your outlook on life.
SA: And it grew slowly but surely. Before we moved into the main house, we lived in this huge container that the US forces had brought from Canada, a forest trailer, from near the Fortress Stadium. A platform had to be built for it, it had a room and bathroom and it became our first home (before you kids) and a lot of interesting things happened there. We had weekend craft shows (there were quite a few foreigners in Lahore in those days and they attended). Zahoor and I would travel to villages, pick up crafts and have showings—we would make a bit of money that way—this is from ’71 to ’74, when I had Jahanara.
NJ: So, I remember our flat on Bawa Park was an open house, very unusual in those days. People from all walks of life, friends, visitors from abroad, Baba’s students coming for long discussion on the verandah…
SA: Musicians, dancers and poets, all would drop in on our open house in the evenings, both elders and students. As a child you found it to be an intrusion into your life, but it’s the only way we could live. Sometimes our guests would come and stay for a month or two, and you kids would be squeezed into other rooms. I don’t think it was a bad thing and it was just the style in those days.
NJ: What about Baba’s more ‘eastern influences’? You can see him breaking away from his modernist training towards the aesthetics of eastern or ‘oriental’ painting, as he called it. You can see in his work, this very strong painterly interest in mark-making, a lot of experimentation but with a sense of rigour. If you could talk about his eastern, or even western influences? What about your travels by road?
SA: Well, in ’72 and ’73, we made these extraordinary trips to Kabul and Tehran and he explained Persian and Turkic influences on the subcontinent. I didn’t know they existed, frankly, but at these places I looked at architecture and paintings and colour schemes and designs—this influence entered both my work and his. Yet, on the other hand, there was this very modernist element in his paintings and sculpture and wall reliefs. Don’t forget we went to Greece too, and all the history of art, its evolution and understanding, came from these visits. We saw the flow, how it entered Islamic art in the subcontinent. These trips were an opening and learning experience as well as travel and adventure. I could never have learnt what I did without him.
Also, the most charming and intriguing thing about Zahoor was that he was a very unusual human being—you saw it in action, do you think he was?
NJ: Yes, absolutely. Even as a child, I felt he was different to other adults. I had an affinity with him, I could talk to him about things that I couldn’t talk to you about because you were more strict as a parent. Certainly, the way that we lived, I remember thinking as a child, was very different from my other friends and even the other people in the compound, your parents… there was a marked difference in the way we did things. Both of you were different. Traveling or moving all the time, people coming or going all the time. We never had a normal routine, as such. Among my fondest memories is when we piled into your red Volkswagen Beetle, the four of us, going for halwa puri and payas in the Old City and visiting mazaarsafterwards. We were not a conventional family.
He didn’t go to an office, he went to ‘college’. He had exhibitions and other kinds of design and architectural commissions. It seemed normal to me at the time, but I didn’t know a lot of people who had these kinds of things going on. He was very unusual, but I also remember his tremendous humility and generosity, which has so sadly gone out of style today. It’s a rare quality…
SA: And grace. He was a very graceful person.
Photos courtesy: Zahoor ul Akhlaq Estate
Nurjahan Akhlaq is a multi-disciplinary artist based in Montreal and Lahore. She is currently developing a film portrait on Zahoor ul Akhlaq. She can be found at www.nurjahanakhlaq.com
Sheherezade Alam (1948-2022) was born in Lahore and obtained a diploma in design from the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 1972 and received a British Council scholarship to the West Surrey College of Art and Design (now the Surrey Institute of Art and Design, University College). She worked at potteries in Cornwall and Wales with master potters. Sheherezade taught in Turkey and Canada and held numerous exhibitions, both at home and abroad. She rightfully earned the distinction of being a master potter herself.