Complicated Respect: BM Beyond the Obvious
Complicated Respect: BM Beyond the Obvious

It was a strange co-incidence, that the day Bashir Mirza died I had called him up but got no response. He had been unwell for a few weeks and I was hoping he was better and I would get to talk to him. The next day we got the news that he had passed away. At his funeral, someone recited the Quran at his side and during his final passage through the narrow stairwell of his apartment block, the azaan filled the silence. This somehow felt right for Bashir Mirza, someone who may have journeyed away from religion (but God), the call seemed to be giving him an affirmation for his incredible generosity towards people. It was a funeral with a small number of people who loved him and could make it in time. Perhaps not something befitting for an important national figure but I felt there was a quiet dignity about this intimae gathering as everyone deeply mourned this very extraordinary person.

Bashir Mirza, or BM as he was fondly called since the 1970s, entered The Central Institute of Arts and Crafts (CIAC) with a swagger; his loud yet friendly voice and occasional fiery outbursts introduced the students to another kind of artist. An artist who lived the bohemian dream, his long unkempt hair and Elvis-esque fashion style made it an exciting encounter for the young who were used to the sedate and solemn Ali Imam. BM’s unorthodox pedagogy made even mundane classes like drawing bustle with attendance; often challenging us to explore the abstract that lay beyond the obvious. In those pre-projector days, he illustrated his talks with pages torn from the art magazines he had brought back from Germany and through the pages he transported us to the contemporary art of Munich where he had spent the last few years. Field trips became thrilling as it sometimes meant a ride on the back hood of his white Alpha Romeo which was the envy of every male student.

While BM continued to be BM with his irreverence for conventions he ruffled feathers, and with growing pressure to conform he decided to leave CIAC and start his own art space in the Sindhi Muslim Society. While discussing a name for his place, I remember suggesting Atelier BM which he settled for with enthusiasm. That’s how BM was, he could never contain his emotions; little things would make him wildly happy or trigger anger. Atelier BM grew into an alternative space, it attracted artists’ gatherings and hosted shows of his peers as well as new talent. I remember seeing Imran Mir’s experimental work there shortly after he returned from Canada.

Even after he left CIAC, we kept in touch. BM was quite fond of Farrukh and once gifted him with a small portrait he had done of him. When he learnt we had become parents, he wanted to come over to see the baby. One Sunday morning he arrived to our surprise, with a camera ready to take pictures of Cavish. Candid and fun, he handled it all with such ease. That morning he was not the prominent artist or my mentor, just someone enjoying the company of an infant. Our paths diverged for several years after that, as with two little boys I could barely manage to attend shows. BM, however did not give up a single opportunity to draw me back to art. He asked me to do a short text on his famous Lonely Girl paintings which he later reprinted in his book Acrylic Series. When he founded the Sindh Artists Association (SAA) he insisted I join the Board, later I learnt that established artists like Laila Shahzada and Nagori were the other Board Members but BM’s vision was also to engage the younger generation. For BM, SAA was a professional representative body for artists of Sindh that he hoped would serve as a bridge between artists from Karachi and the rest of the province.

BM was an enthusiastic party giver and frequently invited artists, collectors and leaders of different fields. Farrukh and I went to a few but the boisterousness would often increase as the drinks paved way to highly drunk guests. Since that wasn’t my idea of a good evening, I began to decline the invitations which BM would often tease me about. BM liked to live by his own moral standards, his disregard for social norms often alienated people. Not being a hypocrite, he did everything in plain sight and sometimes the scandals surrounding him undermined his hard-earned prominence as a leading artist.

The late 70s and 80s was a particularly difficult time for him, his hero Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB) was hanged; this hit him hard and he vouched to stop painting till democracy was re-installed. His loyalty never wavered and he defiantly displayed ZAB’s picture in his living room throughout the Zia era. It was only after Benazir was in power that BM returned to the easel in a serious way and celebrated her triumphant return from incarceration and exile. This first show was titled Dawn of Democracy with huge portraits of ZAB, Benazir, Habib Jalib, Faiz, and other persons he admired.

He became the first artist to become Pakistan’s Cultural Attache and was assigned to Sydney on his request. This was also the time of the nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean, BM protested against them with paintings which led to cutting short his mission. He returned, quite happy to be home with tales of his time in Australia. Unfortunately, the treatment for his chronic hiccups could not be completed abroad and his condition got acute.

We lost BM some twenty years ago in 2000, when he was a year short of 60 years. His life had been a rollercoaster ride of successes and failures. At the lowest point of his health he started a 50 feet long mural in 1999, titled The Last Train from Amritsar it was a visual narrative of his life since 1947. I spent some time talking to him while he painted it at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture and was shocked to see how he was aging beyond his age because of his condition. BM had opted to paint the mural at an art school so he could interact with the youth with whom he wanted to share so much, somehow that connection did not happen. Sadly, the students simply did not have the knowledge to understand his impact as an avant garde and architect of the city‘s art scene, nor his global recognition at a time when the glass ceiling for a non-Western artist was low.

All the intangible contribution of BM will never be found in art history books as people like BM, with all their incongruities, will continue to defy a narrow definition. Some People may only remember his last five years when he could barely speak because the chronic hiccups had almost robbed him of his booming, expressive voice. The moralists will want to remember him as the man who had thrown away the code book. The narrative of his burning ambition that had taken him from an impoverished childhood to the recipient of the Pride of Performance will probably get the most traction. As an artist and mentor, it was the paradoxes that made him so exceptional. Despite his self- destructive actions, he built people’s lives, with opportunity and magnanimity. The memory of painful early years could not let him turn away a person in need. As a mentor, his support knew no bounds and he did not shy away from being a constant guide. He taught his students and mentees tenacity and self- reliance, his mantra was ‘build it yourself, if it’s not there’. For four decades he helped shape art in the city, first by establishing a gallery and an art magazine in the 1960s which was followed by SAA, Atelier BM and the Shakir Ali Prize which was won by titans like Jamil Naqsh and Kohari. In the last months of his life he was trying to persuade the government to set up a BM Culture Centre for which he wanted to denote a plot of land. No other artist in Pakistan had such a clear vision of an infrastructure for art in the country, and he would put his own energy and resources to see it being realized.

To me, BM will always be the mercurial and unforgettable mentor who was always thinking ‘out of the box’. His inventive strategies and tireless spirit inspired us all to be resilient, never to be daunted by a challenge nor shaken by failure, and to continue to dream for art, Karachi and the country.

Title image : BM (second from left) with Souza and friends in the 1970s.
From BM’s personal image collection. First printed in The Last of the Bohemians – Bashir Mirza.

Niilofur Farrukh is a Karachi based art interventionist whose seminal initiatives have expanded the space for art publication, curation and public art in Pakistan. Her primary interest lies in issues of decolonization and as a writer/curator her focus has been on the excavation of lost interdisciplinary connections within the cultural matrix. She has several books to her credit and has been a columnist with Dawn and Newsline. The cornerstone of her curatorial practice underlines a more inclusive social dialogue through art in public spaces, something she is fully committed to as the CEO of the Karachi Biennale.

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  • Niilofur’s account of the mercurial BM, our teacher, and mentor, has brought back so many memories, including that sad day when a few of us – his former students – gathered around his body in his apartment. Niilofur has mentioned his mural that he started painting at the IVSAA, and I was reminded of the few of his beautiful Lonely Girls that he painted at one end of the narrow corridor outside our classrooms of the Central Institute of Art and Craft. What a treat it was to watch them take shape.

    Rumana Husain

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