Ismail Gulgee loved to paint so much so that he once said, “I find it difficult to speak about my paintings because the act of putting together words only explains and cannot make real the experience, which for me, is the only reality, the only value that gives meaning to my life. I live only when I paint.”
And he continued his painting journey till the end of his life. The legendary artist Ismail Gulgee met a mysterious death at the age of 81 on December 19, 2007. The tragedy resulted in a deep loss to the art world.
Born in Peshawar in 1926, Gulgee was an award-winning, globally famous Pakistani artist. He made his name in the 50s as a portrait painter. He began to paint abstract compositions in the American style called ‘Action Painting’ in the 60s.
He had nothing to do with Islamic calligraphy but it so happened that in 1969 he was commissioned to design a round copper shield of six feet diameter to adorn the stall of Pakistan’s Export Promotion Bureau in Expo ‘70 at Tokyo. Along the rim were forty round designs showing in symbolic form the various exports of Pakistan and in the centre were calligraphic inscriptions in the form of a round medallion.
In the same year he designed a huge round bronze emblem for the Muslim Foreign Ministers’ Conference that was held at Karachi.
It was in 1973 that he began using calligraphy in his paintings. In that year, he was commissioned to paint a mural for the King Faisal Hospital in Riyadh on the subject of Muslim unity. After doing this, he produced another calligraphic painting on the same subject for the Islamic Summit that was held at Lahore in 1974.
It is full of multicoloured dots and daubs of colour, in which even gold and silver have been used. Against this background has been calligraphed a famous verse of the Holy Quran exhorting the Muslims “to hold fast to the rope of God and not to disunite”. These words sweep in an arc from the bottom right to the top left corner. The style of writing was roughly in the Naskh script rather freely rendered.
There is yet another mural in the King Faisal Hospital which is largely made up of Quranic verses on the subject of healing. This calligraphy is executed in silver and gold and at the centre of the design is a picture of the holy Black Stone of the Ka’aba (Hajr-e-Aswad).
Gulgee made much more profuse use of calligraphy when he was commissioned in 1975 to build a gigantic monument at Clifton in Karachi. He created some sort of an abstract sculpture with pieces of a broken aircraft. On the metal surface he wrote Quranic verses in silver and gold.
To many of his calligraphy paintings Gulgee added gold and silver paint, reminiscent of the use of these precious materials in old manuscripts. He was also known for using materials such as mirror glass along with gold or silver leaf in his oil paintings, so that they were in fact mixed media pieces.
As mentioned above, he had been practising Action Painting since 1960. Impulsive gestures and whiplash strokes of the brush are used in this style. Gulgee hit upon the idea of rendering the Arabic words of the Quranic verses in this style and succeeded remarkably. Retaining the same freedom and force, he was able to indicate the cursive forms of the Arabic words, no doubt roughly but quite legibly. Because he laced his extra-big brushes with paint of many colours, and the calligraphy became a very colourful creation.
He never writes in a straight line in his paintings but rather spreads the words on the canvas in shooting arcs and parabolas that made an attractive layout.
He has painted many huge calligraphic paintings in which Quranic verses have been rendered in the most painterly and attractive and yet correct manner. He has acquired such command over the standard Naskh style, in which Quranic verses are commonly written, that he can write big bold words correctly and beautifully with a thick marker while blindfolded. In his paintings, he took liberties with the forms of the words without mutilating them and rendering them illegible.
Mention may be made here of another innovation he has made in the field of calligraphy by creating free standing sculpture of words from the Holy Quran. He used a broad copper strip and rolls it in such a way that the strip forms the words, on both sides. In this way he has rendered the popular chapter of the Quran – ‘Sura-e-Rahman’. The recurring refrain has been moulded by folding the copper strip according to the form of the words and then making all this into a roll which rests on the ground. The words can be read from both ends and edges of the copper strip.
Gulgee made his presence felt in the art scene of the country as well as abroad. He proved his artistry in many mediums of arts. He became popular among the dignitaries who liked to be painted by him.
Along with portrait drawing he used his creativity to carve precious stones, which was given the name ‘Lapis Lazuli’. His Lapis Lazuli’s composition showed his skill and command over the medium.
His powerful brush brought the imagination and thoughts to reality. He has produced numerous works using the different names of Allah.
Gulgee said, “My work is the externalisation of my inner journey. Through it I communicate with the pulse of life. The Calligraphic form and movement that emerge are not predetermined or cerebral; they are intuitive and articulate something deep inside me.”
“I am enchanted by Islamic calligraphy and feel close to the Sufis mystics. For me the medium of the unknown is space and the calligraphic choreography of my painting is the dance of the dervish.”
He was perhaps best known worldwide for his abstract work, which was inspired by Islamic calligraphy and was also influenced by the “action painting”, a natural enough stylistic combination, since in both Islamic calligraphy and action painting a high value is placed on the unity and energy of gestural flow.
His paintings were bright and full of colour, but the paint was put on with great sensitivity, and paintings vibrate with intense feeling with luminous, thin colour of paint with the brush swirled strong and free. The total effect used to be very free, yet considered and well thought out.
In 1970 he was awarded the ‘Pride of Performance’ by the government of Pakistan. In 1982 he was also honored by ‘Sitar-e-Imtiaz’ and he again received the same award in 1988 for Monumental sculptural work done in Shah Faisal Mosque, Islamabad. Other than these he achieved a number of other national and international awards, including Japan Foundation Award in 1979.