Allah Baksh occupied the same historical moment of change as the renowned Chughtai, but carved out a different trajectory. A re-reading of his practice unveils a dynamic interface with diverse creative conversations of early twentieth century. The Ustad was born in 1895 in Wazirabad (Punjab) and grew up in Lahore. He lived through the time when anti-colonial forces were uniting under Iqbal’s freedom anthem:
saray jehan say acha Hindustan hamara
hum bulbulain hain is ki yeh hai gulistan hamara.
The freedom movement was very much a collective struggle at this stage, and the idea of a separate homeland for Muslims had yet to come up.
Ustad Allah Bakhsh, from a young age was apprenticed to a signboard painter and later learnt the craft of backdrop painting for cinema and theatre. The Walled City where he lived, gave him easy access to the grand murals at Wazir Khan Mosque and Shahi Hamam. The small stalls with their offering of popular mythological paintings were not far, neither were the paintings created under Ranjeet Singh at Sheesh Mahal. Akbar Naqvi in his book, ‘Image and Identity’, mentions yet another encounter, the one with Company School paintings that captured Allah Bakhsh ‘s imagination and the challenge to master its language and medium became a consuming ambition. While the Ustad taught himself oil painting, the exposure to Neo Classical European collections (while he served at the court of Patiala and Bansda) must have further consolidated the connection. It was in the 1920’s that an opportunity in Bombay propelled his career forward, this came when he quite by chance completed a painting of Krishna for his friend Lala Ram Lal. The work opened the door to countless commissions and the coveted highest prize of the Bombay Art Society that year. It also gave him a formal entry into the art world.
The artist seldom dated or signed his work so it’s not easy to chronologically organize his oeuvre but contextual references and stylistic changes have been of some help. Dr Naqvi mentions, how for his book, he relied mostly on the artist’s interviews with Zubeida Agha and a long essay by his friend Ahmed Khursheed. The Ustad privileged his ‘time identity’ more than the religious one; unlike Chughtai he was curious and experimental in assimilating influences around him while traveling across India. Allah Bakhsh came to be known as the “Krishna Painter” in Bombay and has left behind an evocative body of work. Despite the religious subject, he presented it in his distinctive style that led to his popularity and he was invited to serve as the court painter in Patiala (Punjab) and Bansda (Gujrat).
When he developed a fascination for watercolor wash painting, which had been popularized by artists of the New Bengal School, he coaxed oil pigments to yield soft defused surfaces and atmospheric effects that become a hallmark of his iconic landscapes. The diaphanous textiles in Raja Ravi Verma’s paintings reincarnated in Ustad‘s paintings— the meticulously painted folds of translucent saris of the Krishna Paintings, and dupattas that drape vibrantly colored costumes in scenes from rural Punjab and Punjabi folklore— can be read as an ode to the Raja. The famous Agha Hashar, with whom he worked in Calcutta at that time, was experimenting with Ram Lila traditions, and Western theatre to synthesize a form suited to the new sensibility; the artist who must have witnessed countless rehearsals and performances can be seen employing spatial knowledge in his paintings to skillfully choreograph large and small groups.
Ustad Allah Bakhsh’s almost abstract works of rock formations, done in 1947, come from the same time Modernists like Souza and Raza were exploring the new idiom. Amrita Sher Gill and Sanyal’s presence in Lahore, may also have something to do with the push to interpret a familiar form with the aesthetics of a new age. These studies of craggy surfaces and boulders are not new to his art as stony topography crops up throughout his oeuvre. It is their delinking from the context into tight compositions that heralds a new way of looking. He always studied mountainous terrain with enthusiasm and even took up a job with a fruit merchant early in his career, just to travel frequently to Kashmir to study its topography.
The ferment of ideas around the artist in the first half of the last century were centered around the Freedom Movement and a strong thrust towards religious identity as seen in the revivalist themes of the New Bengal School and the practice of Chughtai. Ustad Allah Bakhsh stands aloof from these mainstream thematic, to reveal an independent spirit who found resonance in the shared cultural memory of his people. This is echoed in Iqbal’s anthem of the resistance written in early 1900s where the poet emphasized:
‘Religion does not teach us to bear animosity among ourselves We are of Hind, our homeland is Hindustan’.
A similar message was embedded in Jawaharlal Nehru’s book ‘Discovery of India’. Allah Bakhsh understood his reality through this lens, and this gave him the freedom to explore across barriers of religion, ethnicity and time.
Title Image: ‘Sahelian’, oil on canvas, dimensions: height 28 in x Width 38 in
Image courtesy and copyright: Hundal Collection: Afzal & Shireen Ahmad, Chicago, USA.