Artistic Odyssey: The Inspiring Story of Sughra Rababi
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Artistic Odyssey: The Inspiring Story of Sughra Rababi

Sughra Rababi entered the world in 1922 as the eldest daughter of Asma Lotia, a Rawalpindi-based mother, and Ghulam Ali Mandviwalla, a prosperous Karachi-based businessman. With five siblings in tow, she led the pack, living with her parents, three sisters and two brothers in their ancestral home on Karachi’s Preedy Street. The girls attended St. Joseph’s Convent, where stern nuns, commonly termed as ‘sisters’, sculpted young minds. It was here that Sughra, known as ‘Ruby Mandviwalla,’ found herself embroiled in a clash of beliefs that would shape her destiny.

Dr. Zeba Vanek, a distinguished neurologist and daughter of the revered artist, resides in California with her husband and son. For eighteen years, she taught at UCLA, Los Angeles, and presently, she continues her practice and teaches in the Bay Area in San Francisco. She recounted a distressing incident where young Sughra, amidst a diverse classroom setting, found herself ignited with a fiery defiance during a contentious history lesson. She was studying in Junior Cambridge then, and was unwilling to abide by the misrepresentation of her religion by the history teacher, and therefore she courageously stood tall against the tide of prejudice. However, her principled stance led only to humiliation and expulsion, announced by Sister Superior during the morning assembly, witnessed by all students and teachers alike.

“My mother was shocked, but she reluctantly collected her stuff and walked home from the school. Her two younger sisters, Anis and Bano, were also expelled, as they were seen as potential trouble-makers. Some days later my grandfather went over to speak to Sister Superior, who agreed to reinstate my aunts, but refused to take back my mother,” says Dr. Vanek.

Anis, later known as Anis Mirza, a trailblazing journalist, etched her name in the annals of history with her pen. She was associated with Dawn newspaper for more than three decades, until her retirement in the 1990s.  She is known as the first woman to write a regular diary based on the proceedings of the National Assembly under the caption “From the Press Gallery,” while Bano, who was aspiring to become a doctor, and was studying at King Edward Medical College in Lahore had to give up her studies to get married and leave for Colombo, Sri Lanka, where her husband lived. The youngest, Salma Noorani was a passionate tennis player. Long after her graceful serves and powerful smashes echoed through the courts, her legacy endures, immortalized in the annual Salma Noorani Tennis Championship, inspiring tennis players to reach for the stars with every swing of the racket.

Sughra’s journey transcended the boundaries of traditional education, weaving through unexpected twists and turns that led her to a momentous revelation. Recounted by her daughter, the tale unfolds with the arrival of a letter from St. Joseph’s Convent, bearing news that Sughra’s painting had clinched victory in the prestigious All Sindh Bombay Interschool Painting Competition, with an invitation to the grand red-carpet ceremony, where the British Governor was to grace the occasion, Sughra’s anticipation soared. As we know, during the 1840s, Karachi was added, along with the rest of Sindh, to the Bombay Presidency.

She treaded familiar ground, her footsteps echoing with memories both bitter and sweet. Amidst the thunderous applause, she ascended the stage to claim her prize. Yet, amid the jubilation, she wondered which painting of hers had won.

‘Self Portrait’ Oil on board, 61 x 51 cm, 1957, Karachi. Zeba Vanek Collection, San Francisco, USA

As she sauntered into the exhibition hall, Sughra’s gaze fixated upon a solitary masterpiece, proudly crowned with her name and title of first prize. A wave of confusion washed over her as she stood face to face with the work of art, one that bore no resemblance to her own creations. Uncertainty gnawed at her, threatening to overshadow her moment of triumph. Clutching her award, she sought solace in her Jewish art teacher, Ms. Baccaro, telling her about a huge misunderstanding about the creator of the painting. Behind closed doors of her office, Ms. Baccaro laid the bare truth, revealing that she had made the painting herself! “Now take your prize, and without uttering a word to anyone, go home,” she urged. It was not only her way of rectifying the indignant manner in which her pupil was treated by the school; she therefore wanted to restore Sughra’s reputation, but she also took this extraordinary step because she had confidence that her pupil could become a great artist, even though Sughra wanted to become a lawyer. But in that fleeting moment of understanding, Sughra found redemption, not in the glare of the spotlight, but in the quiet resolve of her mentor. It was a testament to the power of integrity and the enduring bond between teacher and pupil, as Sughra’s tarnished reputation was tenderly restored, brushstroke by brushstroke.

Sughra went to study art at the Saranagati School of Art in Karachi under the tutelage of its principal Mani Mohan Roy Chowdhury. It was during the late 1930s. The Saranagati School of Art was housed on the second floor of the Saranagati Building, constructed sometime in the 1930s. It is an impressive red sandstone structure standing on Pakistan Chowk. In the early 1960’s, the building was donated to the British Council, which established a library on the first floor. The ground floor had a printing press and publishing house from where Ismat (Urdu), and Saraswati (Hindi) were published in Sindhi language.

Saranagati School of Art was one of the few undergrad art schools affiliated with the famous experimental school, Visva-Bharati, which means ‘the communion of the world with India,’ at Shantiniketan – a rural sanctuary in Bengal; set up in 1901 by Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), driven by his roles as an educator and activist1.

Tagore’s aim was to amalgamate Eastern and Western educational philosophies, seeking a more organic approach to learning for young minds that would nurture their imagination and instincts. While Tagore dedicated much of his life to writing, teaching, and activism, he gained recognition as a painter in his sixties, exhibiting his works successfully across Europe. His most notable work of poetry is Gitanjali: Song Offerings (Mcmillan, 1912), for which he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. He was the first non-European to win the prize.

Sughra was awarded a scholarship to pursue her graduate studies in Fine Arts at Shantiniketan. It was a remarkable achievement for a young woman hailing from Karachi, Sindh, who traversed the vast expanse of the subcontinent to Bengal. It showcases her parents’ progressive mindset at a time when education opportunities for Indian women were not as commonplace as today. She was fortunate to cross paths with the legend, Tagore, and equally fortunate to receive instruction from the esteemed Nandalal Bose (1882–1966).

It is worth noting that Sughra Rababi lived during the era of other pioneering Bengali artists like Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), the distinguished nephew of Rabindranath. He served as the principal artist and driving force behind the “Indian Society of Oriental Art,” advocating fervently for Swadeshi2 values in Indian artistic expression. Abanindranath’s commitment to promoting handicrafts, crafts, and fine arts was evident in his creation of “kattam-kuttum,” small dolls meticulously crafted from natural materials. His iconic paintings, including “The Passing of Shah Jahan,” “Bharat Mata,” “Radha Krishna,” and “Omar Khayyam,” achieved legendary status, captivating both international audiences and fostering a deeper appreciation for India’s cultural heritage among its people. Additionally, figures like Jamini Roy (1887-1972), Abanindranath’s renowned student, blended traditional folk art with modern sensibilities.

Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose and Abanindranath Tagore

While Rabindrath Tagore provided the framework for Shantiniketan, it was Nandalal Bose who shaped its educational philosophy, diverging from the narrow curriculum of colonial art schools with a more inclusive and forward-thinking approach. “Although it began with anti-colonial and pan-Asian interests, the school’s stress on freedom, and the individual pursuit of elective affinities and eclectic assimilations, meant that it became more cosmopolitan and modernist over the years. Bound by shared concerns rather than a common style, the school represents the most fruitful modernist movement in pre-independence India. Defined more loosely, the Shantiniketan School represents a larger circle of artists trained there, encompassing a wider geographical and temporal boundary, and thus includes Satyajit Ray (1921–1992) and K. G. Subramanyan (1924- 2016) among its later luminaries.” 3

At Shantiniketan, Sughra was exposed to a rich array of artistic disciplines, including painting, sculpture, music, dance, theatre and design. Observing classes and immersing herself in this vibrant environment, she found profound inspiration. “My mother used to say that the atmosphere of Shantiniketan was ethereal, where students from diverse backgrounds from all over India converged, and everyone wore white clothes. The teachers exuded a saintly aura.  There were small cottages on campus where everyone lived. Rising before dawn, they would all gather to pray or worship in their own manner, witnessing the enchanting spectacle of sunrise accompanied by the melodious chirping of birds,” Dr. Zeba Vanek vividly recounts.

In addition to her prowess in painting, she shares her mother’s other multifaceted talents. Evidently, she excelled as a fervent embroiderer, dedicating herself to training artisans in various stitches from the 1960s to the early 1990s.

One of Sughra Rababi's many embroidery designs. Courtesy Dr. Zeba Vanek

Furthermore, she showcased her creativity as a jewellery designer, and was an aficionado of dance and music, adept at both the piano and violin. Not stopping there, she ensured her daughter received singing lessons from classical musician Mohammad Ashraf of Radio Pakistan. At the tender age of five, Zeba showcased her burgeoning talent with her maiden public performance of Raag Bhopali, marking the beginning of what promised to be a remarkable musical journey. She regaled an enchanting tale of her mother’s yesteryears at Shantiniketan. Sughra used to enjoy watching the grace, vibrancy and dynamism of the dance classes there, and was friends with a dance student from Sri Lanka, called Chitrasena.  All classes took place amidst the verdant embrace of nature, for at Shantiniketan, wisdom was imparted under the canopy of trees, in communion with the earth itself.

Years later, Zeba, in the company of her mother, went to Colombo to visit her aunt, and the plan was to go to Kandy, a bastion of culture nestled amidst hills, and where Chitrasena lived with his family. Sughra Rababi created a painting of the Buddha at her sister’s place to take as a gift for her Buddhist friend.

‘Buddha,’ Oil on canvas, 1982, Colombo

When the mother and daughter reached Chitrasena’s house, they were met warmly by him and his beautiful wife Vajira.  But before inviting them indoors, they were requested to sit in an amphitheatre-like alcove. What unfolded next was nothing short of magic, a tableau of artistic splendour as Chitrasena and Vajira emerged, bedecked in resplendent costumes, accompanied by their progeny and a symphony of musicians. In an exclusive performance, they wove a tapestry of movement and rhythm, a dance of welcome that etched itself into the annals of memory.

Chitrasena and Vajira
‘The Dancers.’ Oil, 1950s. Whereabouts unknown

Chitrasena, the maestro credited with birthing the Kandyan Dance style, and his muse Vajira, ignited a cultural renaissance in later years, their dance school and company becoming veritable beacons of Sri Lankan artistry. “A theme, which has constantly fascinated Sughra Rababi, is the dance; in all her paintings relating to this subject she has caught the lyrical flowing lines of the Pakistani dancers – the graceful turn of the hands, the swirling fold of their robes, the lissome curve of the body.” – Dr. Vito Salierno,1962. 4

Back in the 1940s, Sughra’s father made the pivotal decision to relocate from Karachi to Lahore for a decade, aiming to establish his business there and provide his children, especially his three daughters, with quality education. Anis (Mirza) pursued her studies at Forman Christian College Lahore, earning a BA in English Literature, and later at Punjab University, where she attained an MA in English. Her journalism career commenced at the BBC, broadcasting from a makeshift tent in war-torn London in 1946. Meanwhile, Bano was enrolled at King Edward Medical College Lahore. Upon graduating from Shantiniketan, Sughra Rababi joined her family in Lahore. Her father forged a friendship with the legendary artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1897–1975) 5, who hailed from a lineage of craftsmen, architects, and decorators. It is evident that while living in Lahore, Rababi crossed paths with Chughtai and found inspiration in his work. Artist and art critic Salwat Ali notes that she considered him to be the greatest painter of the region.

Upon graduating in the early 1940s, Rababi submitted two of her paintings, “Anarkali” and “The Slave Girl,” to the esteemed All India Painting Competition. Paintings of luminaries such as Tagore, Bose and Chughtai were also entered in the competition. Much to everyone’s amazement, “Anarkali” clinched the top prize, making her the first woman to win the Award. This unexpected triumph marked the beginning of her five-decade-long journey in art!

Following an invitation from Bahadur Hasan Yar Jang, from Hyderabad, Deccan in India, Rababi embarked on a journey to exhibit her paintings inspired by Allama Mohammad Iqbal’s poetry. With unwavering enthusiasm, she produced ninety tempera artworks, boarded a train, and transported her creations to Hyderabad. To her astonishment, upon arrival, she was greeted with a lively “band baja” reception at the railway station, accompanied by a school holiday declared in her honour. Welcomed by Nawab of Chattari, Rahat Saeed Khan, the exhibition garnered an overwhelming response, with all the artworks swiftly finding buyers. By the 1950s and ‘60s, Rababi had integrated into Pakistan’s mainstream art scene. She was married to artist Ozzir Zuby, who she had met in Lahore after her return from Bengal.

Though well-versed in contemporary art trends, Rababi selectively incorporated elements that harmonized with her country’s rich traditional background. A fusion of Moghul art and western aesthetics, her creations exude a captivating charm, imbuing mundane objects and everyday scenes with ethereal beauty. Rooted, perhaps, in her early training, in her oeuvre her keen eye for detail elevates the ordinary to the extraordinary. In 1956, she established in Karachi a School of Fine Arts for teaching drawing, painting and sculpture.

Sughra Rababi, photographed by David Douglas Duncan

This photo is taken from the book “The World of Allah,” 1954, Courtesy David Douglas Duncan and Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin, USA. Duncan was a renowned photographer who also photographed Picasso. He took a series of photos of Sughra Rababi when he visited her art studio in Karachi in the 1950s. Dr. Vanek spoke to him before his passing in France to get copyright permission to use the photo in her book. She says it was a memorable conversation.

‘Woman on Machi’ – Karachi, 1970s. Pastel and oil on board, 92 x 61 cm. Zeba Vanek Collection, San Francisco, USA

Her compositions skillfully blend poetic imagery with elongated figures and intricate decorative motifs inspired from cultural heritage.  Her subjects, drawn from everyday life, include vibrant young girls, wise old women, lively children reminiscent of gazelles, dancers caught in fluid motion, and weary labourers.  Dr. Vito Salierno aptly describes Sughra Rababi’s paintings in these words: “What is interesting about this talented artist is the joy of life; she succeeds in infusing into her themes. Not everyone can see the joy of life, in an old woman or in a tired laborer. She spends on the clever use of colors to infuse this spirit into her paintings. Faithful to the Eastern taste, Rababi prefers clean colors – the yellows of the sun, the blues of the sky, the browns of the earth and people, the greens of the valleys, and the reds of sunset.”

Rababi’s solo exhibitions were held in Karachi and Lahore, and also internationally. The award-winning “Anarkali” was sent to an exhibition abroad, and later termed “lost.” Similarly, her painting, “The Bride” was selected by the government and sent for an exhibition at the New York World Fair in 1965. Regrettably, the artwork was stolen in New York and has never been recovered.
What made this piece exceptional was not only its captivating artwork but also its unusually large size, especially considering the laborious tempera technique used in its creation.

In true tempera, the binder consists of egg yolk mixed with water, resulting in a smooth, quickly drying paint ideal for intricate details, while maintaining a vibrant, enduring surface. Much like “The Bride,” the majority of Rababi’s tempera pieces evoke a glossy enamel or stained glass-like appearance, rarely incorporating blended effects and typically remaining flat in their presentation.

‘Women at Leisure’ – Karachi, 1970s. Oil on canvas, 89 x 74 cm. Zeba Vanek Collection, San Francisco, USA
‘Girls with Dolls.’ Oil on board, 110 x 61 cm, 1969. Zeba Vanek Collection, San Francisco, USA

Rababi’s art was original and her style versatile, and essentially her own. She was a prolific artist and created landscapes, figurative and calligraphic paintings and used tempera, oil and acrylic as her mediums.Her remarkable painting “Mehndi” stands as a pinnacle within the distinguished genre she cultivated. With doe-eyed figures adorned in opulent attire set against traditional household settings, this painting authentically embodies the essence of our culture. The depiction of the Mehndi ceremony, accompanied by melodious friends, lively children, and a cozy domestic atmosphere, eloquently portrays the importance of family ties and cherished traditions.

‘Mehndi.’ Tempera on paper, 71 X 122 cm, 1986. Zeba Vanek Collection

Girls with Dolls” and others stand as illustrative works. Unlike Moghal paintings, where dramatization of the scene takes precedence, Rababi achieves evocation through meticulous management of the overall pictorial composition. This includes stylized depictions of flora, decorative textile motifs, and contextual architectural settings in consideration of space, volume, line and colour, resulting in a harmonious interplay across the painted surface.

‘Karachi by Night.’ Oil, 1957, Karachi. Whereabouts unknown
‘Bohra Bazaar.’ Oil on Board, 1960s, Karachi

The bustling life of the bazaar also held a special place among her preferred themes. In her painting “Karachi by Night,” the merging hues of blue shadows and yellow lights create a scene reminiscent of Saddar, familiar to all who have ventured there. Additionally, the “Bohra Bazaar” painting captures the kaleidoscopic essence of everyday bazaar life of the subcontinent.

Under the heading, Sughra Rababi’s Art for a Cause, educationist, writer and literary critic, Professor Karrar Hussain (1911-1999) wrote, in The News: “Sughra Rababi has, through a long career, celebrated the beauty of life and world and has sought to approach and interpret the underlying meaning consonant with her deep, simple humanity,” This was published in January 1994, a few days before her passing. In the same article he mentions her work for humanitarian causes in these words:

She has watched the trials and tribulations of the Palestinians and barbarities perpetrated on the Bosnians and she has held several exhibitions of her art, in Pakistan and other countries as a religious obligation to support the cause of the oppressed, and has taken to the calligraphic painting of the Beautiful Names as an artist’s contemplation and remembrance of God – an appeal and an innovation and a sanctification of her art.”

‘Allah Shaafi.’ Oil on canvas, 122 x 122 cm, Karachi, 1984. Zeba Vanek Collection San Francisco USA

After the creation of Israel in 1948, and the near-total destruction of Palestinian society; the massacre of Palestinians in Sabira and Shatila camps in Lebanon in 1982; Serbia’s “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnian Muslims that began in 1992; the famine in Somalia in the same year, were all affecting the sensitive artist, who began holding benefit shows for various causes in the1980s and ’90s. She dedicated entire exhibitions to establish scholarship trusts for Palestinian students.

Her last solo exhibition was held in 1992 in San Francisco, California, where she went to visit her daughter. When she watched on television the hunger in Somalia, she dedicated all proceeds of her show to UNICEF.

After three days of Dr. Vanek receiving a “proclamation” from the Mayor of San Francisco, announcing January 19, 1994 as “Sughra Rababi Day” in honour of her efforts for the Somalian famine victims, her mother passed away in Karachi.

Sughra Rababi Day in San Francisco. Proclamation by the Mayor of San Francisco

This past January, I had the privilege of attending an extraordinary gathering organised by Rababi Fine Arts, in collaboration with the Pakistan Medical Association for the Sughra Rababi Art Competition, which was centered around the poignant theme of Gaza and Palestine, and brought to life by talented students from various institutions. Surrounded by the array of artworks were three distinguished individuals who were honoured with awards. The event was held at the Ahmed Pervez Gallery of the Arts Council of Pakistan Karachi.

Dr. Vanek travelled all the way from California for the event. In her opening speech, she painted a vivid picture of her mother’s legacy – a testament to an artist whose brush strokes aimed not only at creating beauty but also at amplifying the voices of the oppressed, be it in Palestine, Somalia, Bosnia, or Pakistan.

The three women recipients of the prestigious awards were introduced by three equally well-known personalities, adding an extra layer of significance to the evening. First and foremost, Prof. Salima Hashmi, hailing from Lahore, was bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement Award in Arts. Her presence was accentuated by the heartfelt introduction from her long-time friend Prof. Shehnaz Ismail, founder member and former Dean of Design at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture.

Next, the Humanitarian Award found its deserving recipient in Sadiqa Salahuddin, a prominent figure in development and the Executive Director of the Indus Resource Centre. Her impactful contributions were highlighted by senior journalist Zubeida Mustafa. Lastly, the stage was set to honour the indomitable spirit of activism with the Human Rights Award, presented to the passionate advocate and free-lance journalist Zohra Yusuf.  Ghazi Salahuddin, a senior journalist, columnist, and scholar, graced the occasion with his reflections on her remarkable endeavors. Attendees were treated to a special sight – a few original paintings by Sughra Rababi graced the display. It was a rare privilege, offering a window into the remarkable life and artistry of a woman far ahead of her time, complemented by Dr. Vanek’s illuminating talk about her mother.

Long after Dr. Vanek returned to California, I delved into an enriching exchange of notes and engaged in a lengthy phone conversation for the sake of this article. My curiosity was piqued by the artworks I had encountered years ago, prompting a deep dive into the life and legacy of her artist mother.  It was evident that many emerging Pakistani artists and art students are sadly unaware of Sughra Rababi’s existence, let alone her impressive body of work. I therefore hope this article would be widely read.

Images courtesy of Dr Zeba Vanek

Image of Rabindranath Tagore courtesy of ‘The Myriad-Minded Man’

By Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson 

All images are copyright protected and should not be reproduced. 

Endnotes

  1. “His (Rabindranath Tagore’s) legacy – vast literary output and educational institutions he founded — persists in a new conceptualization of humanity that transcended boundaries of the home and the world. An iconic figure of Indian modernity, his well-documented life conveys intersections of personal experiences with his public endeavors for the common good. The trajectory of Tagore’s life-works, common yet unique, reveals complicated notions of age and gender characteristic of the specific historical conjuncture in India.”

    Through the Ages of Life: Rabindranath Tagore – Son, Father, and Educator (1861–1941) by Swapna M. Banerjee, Open Edition Journals 27 / 2017

  2. Swadeshi was a movement aimed at achieving Indian self-sufficiency. It gained significance in India around the turn of the twentieth century.  There was a huge meeting in Calcutta’s (now Kolkata) Townhall, and the formal proclamation of the Swadeshi Movement was constructed there. The message propagated to boycott goods such as Manchester cloth and the salts of Liverpool. The movement was especially in response to the British government’s 1905 partition of Bengal in an attempt to quell growing discontent toward the British government and a desire for Indian autonomy.
  3. “The Shantiniketan School” by Kumar, Raman Siva, Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, published on 09/05/2016.
  4. Vito Salierno was Professor of History at the University of Milan, Italy. He was an authority on relations between Italy and the Islamic world, and was one of the leading authorities on Dr. Allama Muhammad Iqbal.
  5. In 1911, Chughtai joined the Mayo School of Art (later known as NCA), where Samarendranath Gupta, a pupil of Abanindranath Tagore was Vice-Principal. He eventually became the head instructor in chromo-lithography at the Mayo School. Whilst he predominantly worked with watercolors, Chughtai was also a print-maker. His early watercolours take from the revivalism of the Bengal School, but by the 1940s he had created his own style. His subject matter was drawn from the legends, folklore and history of the Indo-Islamic world, as well as Punjab, Persia and the world of the Mughals.

Rumana Husain is a writer, artist and educator. She is the author of two coffee-table books on Karachi, and has authored and illustrated over 80 children’s books. Four of her books have won awards in Pakistan, Nepal and India. She has been a contributor to various newspapers and magazines, and written hundreds of articles, travelogues, art and book reviews, and has also conducted numerous interviews in the print and electronic media.

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