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1926 Born at Peshawar
1945 BSc. ( Eng) Aligarh University, India
1947 MS (Hydraulics), Columbia University, US
1948 MS (Soil Mechanics), Harvard University, US
1950 Design Engineer in Stockholm, Sweden
1953 Deputy Director in Central Engineering Authority, Government of Pakistan
1957 Painted portrait of King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan in Kabul
1958 Kabul: created first mosaic portrait
1959 Exhibition of non-figurative paintings in Kabul
1962 In Paris married Zarine Maladwala (Zaro) Painted Queen Farah Deeba of Iran
1968 Accompanied President Ayub Khan on a tour of France, Romania and Turkey. Documented the tour in sketches. Documented President Nixon's tour of Pakistan in sketches
1969 Awarded medal of Pride of Performance
1979 Made mosaic portrait of King Faisal bin Abdul Aziz in lapis lazuli
1982 Awarded Sitara-i-Imtiaz medal
1988 The Quaid-i-Azam Award at First Art Biennale of Pakistan ’87 exhibition in Karachi.
1995 Awarded Hilal-i-Imtiaz
2000 Established Gulgee Museum in Clifton, Karachi
2004 Exhibited his work at the South Asian Masters' Show, Alhamra, Lahore
2007 Found murdered in his home on Dec 19 along with wife and a maid servant
The last word
Compiled by Marjorie Husain
Gulgee will be remembered for the stunning breadth of his erudition and taste. Asim Akhter recalls a protean figure whose love of art was matched only by his joie de vivre
It is hard not to be light-hearted when remembering Ismail Gulgee. He was one of those rare people who, though deeply serious, were never ponderous or solemn. His was a quintessentially blithe spirit. Walter Benjamin once wrote of “events that affect us like an echo — awakened by a sound that seems to have issued from a past life.” News of Gulgee’s death, on the eve of December 18, came as a shock; but what has proved more difficult is the fact of his silence.
Ismail Gulgee was as prolific a talker as he was a painter. As soon as one met him, the talk began, and the intensity of word-flow easily rivalled the density of encounter he so carefully staged in his art. His interviews remain the best accounts of his work — a discursive component that amplified and complicated his projects rather than subsuming them to explanation. Gulgee’s talk was so thoroughly enmeshed with his art that it often became impossible to extricate oneself from the spell of the telling. He held a tight grip on the reading of his work. He was not a writer but his penchant for open-ended interviews worked to project a type of voice-over for his larger productions.
For Gulgee control seemed to extend well beyond the ostensible parameters of a given project. His art, he intimated over and over, had to incorporate, within the piece, the anticipation and preparation of a form, the form itself, and the interaction with the form.
His art built no distance into the viewing experience — he often said explicitly that he treated viewers as figures in his fields. He structured the encounters and territories he staked out with such manic precision, and took such personal pride in their execution, that everything was somehow connected (and potentially amusing or meaningful or useful or dangerous), but that you the spectator had a part to play. The pursuit of such encounters gave rise to a kind of process art as obsessed with internal control as with what the process catalysed, at the risk of hyperbole, might be described as a transformation of consciousness.
Gulgee systematically identified the most sacred of our cows, and he was the first artist since Sadequain who managed to tap the vestigial roots of religious belief in the investigation of contemporary obsessions. The consciousness he was working toward depended on conflations of our inherited ancestral beliefs with the fallout of a post-industrial consumer culture.
I met Gulgee in the fall of 1988, in Peshawar — an unlikely place for two Pakistanis to cross paths for the first time. He had been invited to show a series of his paintings at the Abbasin Arts Council, and I had gone there to review it. We took lunch together in the adjoining auditorium, and later on, a walk past manicured lawns and tanned joggers exhibiting their vacuous physicality. The morning smog had just lifted, and we talked quietly, getting past the formal introduction. As I got to know Gulgee’s work better, I wondered why my friends had been so hostile. Wasn’t he exactly the kind of hero they had praised, a deterritorialised thinker surfing the flows of capital?
My most immediate association with Gulgee had for a long time been his uncanny deployment of colour. He used it like a ‘painter’; he also administered it like a drug, as a kind of cathartic antidote to his own impulse to make a mess. The clear shapes and looser daubs of colour punctuated the seemingly endless web of calligraphic swirls that stretched across the vast interior.
Caustically witty but deadpan, at once blatant and highly ambivalent, he was low-key and soft-spoken; and he believed this even while he was, at heart, a loner. He was daunted by nothing. Even when his illness meant he no longer could hold a brush, he continued to break through established categories of composing and making paintings.
Gulgee was an indefatigable traveller. While staying in Karachi, he had found the heart of vacancy in up-North hamlets like Doongagalli and Nathiagalli, where he would spend every summer without fail in his wooden retreat, almost in nostalgia of his high-school days at Lawrence College in Ghoragalli.
I can’t comment on Gulgee’s personal life more than to say that the lines between life and art certainly did seem to blur, and since he took it all so personally and seriously, it is ironic that his art was challenged around questions of morality. Like his contemporaries, Gulgee thought big and probed deep. His capacity to envision, simulate, explore, and exit both perfect worlds and black holes was huge. Now he’s exited our real world and left us in the dirt. With his death mired in mystery, the artistic horizon isn’t going to clear as easily as the morning smog!
A towering personality
By Asif Noorani
It was Eid and I had gone to see Amin Gulgee to offer him my condolences. There were policemen around his house and his late father’s, which was on the same large plot of land; the cops had lived up to their reputation of reaching the site of the crime well after it was committed. Ameen’s servant told me that he was in no position to meet people.
Contrary to what was reported in the Press, I was told that a large number of people including many artists and art lovers were at Gulgee’s funeral.
The following day I was at artist and art collector Wahab Jaffer’s house, who was a close friend of Gulgee’s. I could see that he was still in a state of shock.
Answering a question, Wahab Jaffer said that he first met Gulgee in 1971 when Ali Imam, the noted artist and art educator, took him to the artist’s home in what was then Karachi’s most posh area — KDA Scheme No. 1. Jaffer was in those days merely an art collector and had not yet picked up the paint brush. “Gulgee was so unassuming and disarming that in the very first meeting I developed the feeling that I had known him for years. I bought my first Gulgee (Wahab has a number of them) in 1973. It was for Rs 3,000 but he gave it to me at half the price.
His residence was like an open house, where his friends and admirers dropped in unannounced. It was a treat watching him paint. He was like a man possessed, who would stare at blank canvas, often large — something like ten feet by four feet — with an eight inch wide brush, with different colours applied on it, and then charge like a bull. He would in no time finish the painting, leaving the finishing touches to be done later. Like a dancer he would move his hands vigorously. He worked with demonic energy said Wahab Jaffer, in whose study there are two amazing works of the departed painter. One is from his famous Nukta series.
“Gulgee’s house was one place where no one would feel unwelcome,” Wahab continued, “He often threw parties where one saw the cream of the society including diplomats. I remember one such occasion, when he had invited a large number of artists, art writers, art collectors, socialites and diplomats when he was to give final touches to a portrait, I can’t remember whether that was of a member of the royal Saudi family or someone from the Aga Khan family. But it was a grand occasion. That was sometime in the eighties.”
The Paris-based artist Ajmal Husain, told me that he knew Gulgee since 1952, when he was heavily into photography. “We lived close to each other and were more friends than neighbours. I knew he was a passionate photographer so when I became the editor of The Illustrated Weekly of Pakistan, I gave him assignments.
I distinctly remember the pictures that he took at an international tennis tournament. He gave me some unusual human interest shots, which I published happily. He was not a run-of-the mill photographer just as he was not a stereotypical painter. One day when we met after a long interval I asked him why he gave up photography; he said his younger brother was a photographer and there was just enough room for one photographer in the family. I don’t know how much of that was in jest and how much in earnest.”
Human rights activist and art lover, Zohra Yusuf comments, “Gulgee was a highly creative artist and there was a lot of diversity in his work. He brought vibrancy and movement to calligraphy. His strokes were powerful and they gave movement to the written art form.”
Two other ladies, one a brilliant artist and the other a highly knowledgeable curator, on my request emailed me their views on Gulgee. One is Boston-based Lubna Agha and the other is Sameera Raja of Canvas Gallery, Karachi.
Lubna Agha wrote: “When the Dutch master Karel Appel died at the age of 85, the Guardian obituary famously declared, ‘He absorbed a variety of intellectual and artistic influences, out of which developed a frenetic style of sweeping brushstrokes and vibrant, even lurid, colours.’ The same can be said of Gulgee, who was master of the colourful canvas and a major figure in the art scene in Pakistan. As I grew up, as an art student, I felt the presence of this pre-eminent artist everywhere. He took calligraphy to a new level, incorporating the modern with the classic in a manner never seen before in Pakistan.”
“In my memory, Gulgee will always be remembered for his great talent, and though his work was greatly sought after, he was never known to boast. I last met him at the art exhibition in Pasadena, California in 1995, where he was once again at his gracious and kindest best. It is unbelievable that such a nice person, such a major figure on the art scene should meet such a tragic end. To say that his death has created a void is to state the very obvious.”
Sameera Raja’s email read, “Gulgee was an artist who had dedicated his life to the arts. A most prolific and talented artist, Gulgee lived his life passionately and with great humility. An artist of immense stature, an icon of Pakistani art, Gulgee was a warm, gentle, humble soul. He greeted every one with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes. He loved beauty in every form and would jokingly flirt with every good looking lady.
“His work encompassed spectacular portraits of notable personalities such as the Quaid-e-Azam, the Shah of Iran, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto, Gen Ziaul Haq, President Ronald Reagan, Prince Karim Aga Khan, Air Marshal (Retd) Nur Khan and numerous dignitaries. His portraits in lapis lazuli were so well made that it seemed as if the eyes followed you around the room.
“He once told me that he started calligraphy in response to his inner voice. That his hand just flowed of its own volition and the most beautiful Quranic scripts emerged from it. The movement in these and his abstract works was mesmerising.”
Well known sculptor and the Principal of Karachi School of Art, Rabia Zuberi pointed out yet another aspect of Gulgee’s personality “He was very happy to be in the company of art students. As long as his health permitted he spent hours with them and never turned down any invitation. He didn’t criticise any work. He gave his suggestion very gently and above all he was very encouraging. One day he told me ‘I feel like studying art in your school and sitting with these students who have such a fresh approach to painting and sculpture’.”
Leading artist Nahid Raza summed up Gulgee most succinctly when she said, “Gulgee was a dervish. He was a great artist and an innocent man, who certainly didn’t deserve that kind of an end.”
Reaction from the art world
In an issue of Focus on Pakistan, published in 1973, Naz Ikramullah thus begins her article on Gulgee: “What sort of an artist is he? What sort of a man? Gulgee is so well known today that it is difficult to write an objective assessment. I know his work. I know of his work, and I know of him. Let me start then at a stage when Gulgee first seemed to me to be the most fortunate artist in town.”
Though it is still not possible to do an objective assessment of his work, but the way he was killed, Gulgee did not end up as the most fortunate artist in the city. In his life he enjoyed the respect, admiration and popularity, but his tragic death grieved many who interacted with him, liked his work and loved him, solely because he was always humble, cheerful and friendly; so much so that whoever met him left with a feeling of some strong bondage with the eminent artist.
At the news of his murder, his friends and contemporaries expressed their feelings about the man, his art and his tragic killing. The art community in Lahore expressed its grief and remembered him very fondly.
Salima Hashmi, Dean of the SVA at the Beaconhouse National University said, “I think one needs to stand back from the terrible, disturbing circumstances of his death, and look at him as the last of the ‘first generation’, as someone who was self-taught; once he had discovered his talent, he had the confidence to let it consume him.
“A keen observer, he worked tremendously hard with great energy to arrive at certain signature styles which then became ‘Gulgee’. Interesting, that he played the three strands in his work, all with vigour: the representational, the calligraphic and the abstract expressionist. I think this maybe because he was self taught and chose to ensure he was trying out all he knew.”
Naazish Ata-Ullah, Principal of National College of Arts stated: “The murder is outrageous. To be committed in the privacy of the artist’s home even more contemptible. The vulnerability and fragility of old age saddens one even further. Gulgee seemed invincible. His energy and zest for life was remarkable. His illustrious career spanned many decades and, in the context of Pakistani art, his expressionistic manner was unusual and individualistic. Ironically, his partner the indomitable Zaro, was also struck down. This tragic turn of events harshly reminds us of the unpredictable and helpless condition we find ourselves in. Fellow artist, Amin, we mourn with you. We hang our heads in shame. We pray in silence.”
Shahnawaz Zaidi, Chairman of the College of Art and Design at Punjab University commented: “Gulgee’s murder reflects the ultimate degradation and decadence of our society. It is the greatest shock after Zahoor and Hakeem Saeed. We are deprived of his creative genius which could give further happiness to so many of us”.
Rahat Naveed Masud, artist, said: “I did not know him at a personal level but he always came across as a very gentle person, a painter who could speak the language of a true artist. Its sad that his life should have come to such a violent end. He epitomised the quintessential artist persona both with his unique manner of speaking and his signature style contributing towards establishing Pakistani identity in visual arts both at home and abroad. His death is mourned as a great national loss”.
Tanya Suhail, the curator of Alhamra Art Gallery, expressed her thoughts in these words: “Gulgee had created a niche for himself in the art world and his work is in some important collections. He was a person who enjoyed talking and being with people and that was the best thing about him.”— Quddus Mirza
Life and works of a genius
Now that Gulgee and his life’s partner, Zaro, have so tragically left us, the nation is in a state of shock and the world of art is a much colder and far less colourful place. We, and the generations to come, must honour his memory by celebrating his life and his achievements, and remember him for the brilliant work accomplished, writes Marjorie Hussain
At the inauguration of Gulgee Museum in 2000, with charming deference to his illness, he lauded the efforts of Zaro and of his son Amin, who supported his father with an arm around his shoulders throughout the event. One will always remember Gulgee as he was that evening.
Abdul Mohammad Ismail, known to the world as ‘Gulgee’ was an internationally celebrated artist, one whose genius gained honour and distinction for his country. Some years ago in Turkey, an award was conferred on him as a symbol of Renaissance (re-birth) of art in the Muslim world. Gulgee’s work embodied the essence of that period in art history with stunning innovations drawn from colour and light.
Passionate in his desire to express a spiritual outpouring, Pakistan’s Gulgee shared the artistic brilliance of artists of his age. His work was exhibited in capital cities throughout the world. His art was reviewed and praised in international newspapers. In Pakistan he was honoured with the highest national awards and though he mounted comparatively few exhibitions in Pakistan, he was widely known and dearly loved.
Gulgee was born in Peshawar in 1926. His father was an engineer and Gulgee attributed his love of art and talent to his grandfather who painted “exquisite watercolours”. His grandfather was his mentor, one who initiated his enjoyment of nature and all its spectrum of colour. At an early age Gulgee’s future had been mapped out for him as an engineer. At the Alligarh University he graduated in BSc. but his interest centred on art. He went on to Columbia University, for an MS (Hydraulics) and in 1948, he took another MS (Soil Mechanics) from Harvard; yet the urge for art was never subdued. At night the engineer disappeared and the artist emerged. Canvases and colours were set in place and he painted until the early hours of the morning.
In the early 1950s, he gained experience as a design engineer in Stockholm, where he mounted his first exhibition of paintings before returning to Karachi in 1953, to take up the post of deputy director in Central Engineering Authority, Government of Pakistan. He was a consultant on the Mangla and Warsak dam projects, but his heart was set on art.
In those years in Karachi there were few art facilities, no art schools or galleries and artists showed their work at the YMCA or in private residencies. At the behest of the then prime minister, Mohammad Ali Bogra, concerned citizens began to organise fund raising events for the Arts Council, Karachi. In 1957, there was an art auction and the PM acted as auctioneer. Gulgee had contributed drawings of the Aga Khan, H.H. Sir Sultan Mohammad Shah, and these excited much attention.
King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan, who was visiting Karachi, commissioned Gulgee to paint his portrait. Gulgee related that for the first and only time in his life he dressed up for the sittings, wearing an olive green (his favorite colour), silk jacket. Charmed with his portrait, the king invited Gulgee to Afghanistan to paint the royal family.
While in Kabul, Gulgee held his first exhibition of non-figurative art, it was held at the USIS centre in 1959 presided over by the American ambassador. In 1960, an American artist, Elaine Hamilton, visited Pakistan and asked Gulgee to join her in a staged demonstration of painting, Abstract Expressionism worked to music. Ever after he was irked when it was stated that he was influenced by Elaine and he showed his illustrated Kabul brochure of 1959 as a witness of his early foray into abstraction. Yet it was to be years before he could finally devote his energy to the powerful gestural work he described as “emerging deep from within his own psyche.”
In Kabul he began to design his superlative mosaic artworks. Visiting an onyx marble plant, he noticed the floor strewn with marble chips. The sun shining off the pieces drew his eye and his thoughts turned to Islamic tradition and the decorative aspects of surfaces embedded with small pieces of stone or glass. Excited by the possibilities he created his first portrait worked in mosaics, taking the mosaic technique further than ever before.
King Zahir Shah was so pleased with his portrait that he immediately commissioned a mosaic artwork of a landscape with camels to be presented to the American president. These were the first of the artist’s internationally acclaimed series of artworks rendered in mosaic fragments of lapis, jade and marble. He created a superb portrait of H.H. The Aga Khan, Sir Sultan Mohammad Shah and was to produce exquisite portraits of such eminent figures as King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, Presidents Ronald Reagan and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, each portrait taking months of work.
Ali Imam always maintained that it was Gulgee’s work in mosaics that would ensure his place of honour in the history of world art. After relinquishing his career as an engineer, Gulgee devoted himself entirely to art, painting with inspired energy for hours at a stretch.
In 1960, Gulgee accompanied H.H. the Aga Khan to Dhaka, and there he saw for the first time a slim, vivacious girl named Zarine Maladwala, who was visiting the city with her parents. She was a chemistry major, affectionately known as Zaro, and Gulgee was smitten on the spot. In 1962, the two were married romantically in Paris, Zaro wearing a white silk sari. Years later he told me, “She was strikingly beautiful” and pointed out a tenderly executed pencil-drawn portrait he had made of her in 1964.
From the beginning Zaro recognised the importance of her husband’s work and throughout her life did everything in her power to facilitate him. Two children completed the family circle, Amin, the national award-winning sculptor, and Zarmin, their daughter who gave the Gulgees two grandchildren.
Gulgee’s work in Islamic calligraphy started in 1969, when he was commissioned to design a copper shield six feet in diameter and inscribed with calligraphy for the Expo Tokyo. Another epic work in bronze was created that year for the Muslim Foreign Ministers’ conference, but Gulgee related that it was in the 1970s, that his involvement with calligraphy began in earnest. He painted a mural on the subject of Muslim unity for the King Faisal Hospital in Riyadh, and continued this theme in a painting produced for the Islamic Summit held in Lahore in 1974. Gulgee’s work at that time strongly supported Sadequain’s movement in popularising calligraphy in art and inspiring other artists to follow their lead.
To Gulgee the creative process was spiritually inspired. He described how the experience of Umra in 1974 proved a turning point in his life. Coming face to face with al-hajar al-aswad, the sacred black stone at the Kaaba, he was moved beyond tears. Gulgee related that although he had been working in calligraphy for years, after that moment he felt a new freedom entered his work, a freshness and intimacy as though he had been admitted to a new area of expression.
“It was as though God had sensed the need of my heart and opened his arms to me.” He began a series of paintings titled Nukta. In the work that followed a predominant circular motif linked his painting to the experience of Umra.
Over the years Gulgee took fewer and fewer portrait commissions. In 1998, a lapis mosaic of the elegant princess Hussa Binte Khalid was completed. It was a two-year project which was to be the last of its kind. I asked him if he contemplated any other portrait in mosaics, and he replied the only one he would like to do was that of the Quaid-i-Azam. “I love the man,” he said, but his precious time and vigour, he explained was best devoted to the powerful calligraphic imagery, the gestural rhythms sung by sufis transcending earthly matter. Gulgee’s calligraphy had been translated into a unique painterly dimension rather than to be read in a traditional way, transporting the classic movements and rhythms into the realms of the abstract.
Examining the large canvases in Gulgee Museum, the observer sees the light reflecting on textured areas of gold, orange, green, yellow. Tiny fragments of mirror imbedded in paint sparkled in the light of unexpected angles, creating enchantment. Gulgee delighted in his work and in earlier days it was an exciting experience to view him at the canvas. Using a heavy impasto of direct, pure colour, he whirled, jumped, and traversed the length of the canvas with dancing steps, turning flexible wrists that bore the weight of heavy brushes. He worked intuitively, his entire being involved in the act of describing his feelings of mystic rapture with fitting beauty.
Exhibitions of Gulgee’s work abroad have been numerous, traversing the globe from Kabul, Stockholm, Bangladesh, Bombay, London, Washington, New York, Japan and India. I once asked him why his exhibitions in Pakistan were so few, he explained there were few venues with large enough hanging space for his paintings. One finds a superb example of his work at the Defence Authority Library, and at the Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi.
In 1988 he held an exhibition of his work at the Indus Gallery, Karachi, after a 15-year gap. On that occasion, art critic Gregory Minissale gave a wonderful summing up of the paintings exhibited: “Like the artist, they are joyous and energetic; they are a celebratory affirmation of the positive aspects of life while the complexity and mystique are reflections of a vision that springs from the churning sea of the creative subconscious.”
In 1994, there was a Retrospective exhibition of Gulgee’s work held at the National Assembly, Islamabad. In 1995, he exhibited at the Commonwealth Institute, London.
Gulgee was concerned about the dearth of art museums in the country and excited by the work of younger artists. He asked, “But will it be there to enrich museums and leave something behind for future generations to enjoy; or will it be dispersed all over the globe, transported by foreign visitors eventually to sink into oblivion?”
Like many of the country’s Masters, Gulgee was concerned for his art in times to come. In 2000 he achieved his long desired ambition to establish a Gulgee Museum to preserve a permanent collection of his work for future generations. He had been suffering from serious health problems but that night he shrugged illness aside and positively shone with happiness. With charming deference he lauded the efforts of Zaro and of his son Amin, who supported his father with an arm around his shoulders throughout the event. One will always remember Gulgee as he was that evening.
In 2004 , his work was shown at an exhibition of distinguished South Asian Artists; Old Masters — Young Voices that took place at the Alhamra, Lahore. That was his last exhibition in Pakistan outside the museum.
With Zaro ever in attendance, Gulgee continued to travel. Summers were spent in Nathiagali, where he loved to paint outdoors. There was a constant stream of visitors dropping in and he was animated by the attention, enjoying the discussions on art with friends. To the end of his life Gulgee worked with a passion, his life illuminated with the sheer joy of being an artist.
‘He lives in his art’
Seek him in his canvases. Delve into the chemistry of colour and gesture he invoked to feel and appreciate the spirit that prompted his creativity, says Salwat Ali
His aesthetics had reached an optimum but his best just kept coming and one seldom realised that the artist had stopped inventing years ago. Snug in the niche he had carved for himself Gulgee continued to paint because the passion to do so never diminished. The energy to capture that elusive, fleeting moment was still so apparent in his calligraphies.
There was ‘husn’ and ‘masti’ (‘beauty’ and ‘ecstasy’, terms of endearment he used to describe his brushwork) in his flamboyant multi-hued strokes. Swishing and sashaying across the canvas they were hallmarks of a Gulgee original.
Devoid of pictorial narrations, calligraphic paintings thrive on painterly bravado, colour, composition and the scripted word to create impact, and Gulgee had mastered these basics to immense advantage — his was a grandiose signature. Thoroughly conversant with the diversity of the sacred script (having studied it deeply for 35 years) his own improvisation of Arabic vocabulary was rendered in the American, Abstract Expressionist mannerism of action painting.
His calligraphic art began to peak in the 1970s and was spotlighted by displays and presentations at high profile venues like the Islamic Summit conferences, the Aga Khan Centre in London and corporate offices in the Middle East and the United States. Gulgee continued to grow in stature and by the ‘90s he had become one of Pakistan’s most eminent and highly acclaimed artists. But fame was not new to him he had already made a name for himself as a portraitist in the late ‘50s.
As part of the official entourage he had the opportunity to meet many heads of state when he was called upon to make impromptu sketches of leaders and delegates in conferences. He sketched President de Gaulle in pen and ink and presented his drawings to him at the Elysee Palace. Other prominent personalities whose portraits he has made include the late Shah of Iran and Queen Farah Deeba, Prince Karim Aga Khan, Zahir Shah of Afghanistan, and Prime Minister Nakasoni and his cabinet, among others.
His portraits in oil on canvas were rendered in thick opaque paint, and at least two impasto images of the Quaid and Nur Khan adorning the lobby of a local hotel are easily accessible for an up-close viewing. For his works in pen and ink and white chalk pastel on coloured pastel paper he adopted a quick sketch technique of capturing a likeness with the barest minimum of strokes. In hindsight this trajectory of rapid mark making could well be an earlier manifestation of speed and swiftness that later matured into his characteristic action painting.
In sharp contrast to this his lapis lazuli portraits were a laborious, nuanced patchwork of cut stone not entirely dissimilar to a jeweller’s technique of encrusting gems. One of his first lapis portraits, that of the late Aga Khan III, was made out of 6,000 pieces of selected, chiselled and polished stones. Others in this line included images of the Saudi Kings and Ronald Reagan. To date this innovative technique has not been emulated and stands out solely as Gulgee’s personal invention.
There were other flings with mediums as he progressed into his genre painting and calligraphy phase. Mimicking the jewel like brilliance of Sindhi ‘Shisha Embroidery’ Gulgee often pasted tiny mirror pieces and speckled beads of paint on his canvases to create an effect of sparkling scintillating light. Lavish use of gold leaf in his calligraphies references album painting and Quranic illuminations. Today when new art is to a considerable extent about new media, such early experiments deserve a re-evaluation.
Gulgee also brought new meaning to the use of the broad brush. He had become particularly adept at gauging contrasts and intensities of hues while loading his brush with multiple pigments. It was this intuitive balance that made his grand slashing strokes ripple and beam with a spectrum of exotic hues. In his later years his creative energy centred mainly on the joy of colour and the frenzy, whirl and calm he could enact with his brush.
A prolific painter, his art was everywhere and a déjà vu of sorts had set in. Now with his passage the perspective is bound to change. Currently it is still possible to access Gulgee originals in the flesh. Soon the art market will take over and his paintings will join their ilk, the Chughtais, the Shakir Alis, the Sadequains and Ahmed Parvezes, etc. locked away in collections.
A celebrity painter, Gulgee’s art was synonymous with the glitz and glamour that he had invested in his persona. Now that he is no more his oeuvre can be viewed and read independently. How will Gulgee fare on the anvil? A fervent exponent of modern calligraphy, a portraitist, an abstractionist, a genre painter and a skilled colourist, Gulgee gave his life to art. For a self-taught artist he clocked great mileage. But unlike the cerebrally challenged, innuendo riddled art of today, his paintings were ebullient, emotionally charged exercises in colour and rhythm.
“I never intellectualise about my work,” he once said. “I try to paint with my feelings — the calligraphic form and movement that emerges is not predetermined or cerebral, it is intuitive and articulates something deep inside me.”