In the last decade Sheherezade Alam (1948 – 2022) was like a clay sufi, using mitti as a lens to talk about life and living. To her the clay welded the past to the present in a vast timeless embrace that no one could escape. This extraordinary potter often spoke about humility that clay had taught her, on the potter’s wheel, where the wet clay would always lead her, inspire her and take over; to be reborn as a pot. When firing, when uncertainty could only be overcome by faith, she claimed that it was only after abdicating control, that fire befriended her and the reward would be perfectly glazed pottery.
In the 1990s when I first spent time with Sheherezade, (during the research for my book Pioneering Perspectives, in which she features) the studio potter was under the spell of the philosophy of Herbert Read, the influential British potter who appropriated Japanese pottery traditions and introduced them to the West. Read’s work guided her to Zen traditions and from there, Sheherezade delved deeper and deeper into Zen traditions. Japanese pottery tradition led her to turn inward, towards her own legacy of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa and how its memory persisted in utilitarian wares of Sindh and Punjab. Muhammad Nawaz, the master potter of Harappan lineage was to become her Ustaad, someone who unveiled the secrets of the fine pottery of his ancestors to her. I remember once seeing them in conversation at the ASNA Khumbar Mela, where the internationally renowned ceramist, listened intently to Ustaad Sahib with all the humility and the reverence of a shagird.
With a collection of turquoise glaze and forms inspired by Islamic pottery, Sheherezade shared a contemporary interpretation of her legacy to audiences at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, where Zahoor was artist-in-residence, around 1987. Later in Toronto, where I met her over many summers, I could see how diligently she worked to make a place for her oeuvre in Canada. Recognition came finally with a solo at the Gardiner Museum. Not one to sit back and rest on her laurels, Sheherezade constantly sought new glazes and forms, she experimented with glossy surfaces and grainy textures; but the symmetry of the perfectly executed vessel remained a constant.
After the tragic murder of her spouse Zahoorul Akhlaq and daughter Jehanara in 1999, the special radiance in her eyes was dimmed; but it came back with a vengeance when she decided to fight back and not let the murderer win¾ by pushing them into oblivion. She lit the candle around Zahoor’s work with vigorous conservation and documentation which led to a book ‘the rest is silence, Zahoor ul Akhlaq’ by Roger Connah1. Two Takhti shows in his memory were also held and Jehanara, the talented and passionate dancer, was recognized by her peers through numerous performances organized by Sheherezade. Jehan-e-Jehan, a space for learning for school children around her studio in Lahore, came from her pledge to give every child an opportunity to explore their creativity with craft traditions; just as she had done for her two daughters Jehanara and Nurjehan.
The success of the first Takhti show by the friends of Zahoor, in Karachi, inspired Sheherezade to replicate it in Toronto. As a part of both, I saw the energy that drove her, and against odds, with little funds yet tremendous support from committed friends like Gulzar Haider, who designed the exhibit, she finally pulled it off with a grand opening at the Art Gallery of Mississauga.
Once she decided to return to Lahore, besides her practice, two trajectories emerged: the creation of Jehan-e-Jehan and a major show at the Lahore Museum, Rediscovering Harappa: Through the Five Elements (2015). With co-curator Tehnyat Majid, Sheherezade persuaded the museum to display the archaeological findings, which had been locked in storerooms, and put them on public display to inspire visitors with the continuum of clay crafts. Here she reiterated her message “We must accept and claim our linkage to Harappa and acknowledge that it’s very much a part of our history. We are ancient people; we’re 11,000 years old. But people don’t realize how big this is.”
Sheherezade returned from her Artists Residency in China, bursting with ideas and a new body of work. Her aesthetic had undergone change, she was trying out a festive glaze palette, brush strokes and patterns. Assimilating a new sensibility with unabashed joy of discovery, she spoke of the way Chinese potteries operated with skilled karigars operating as fabricators for artists; ready to create on demand. For someone who created with her instinct and physical being in sync, this was a life-changing experience.
As a friend and someone who shared her passion for pottery, I saw Sheherezade evolve over the last three decades; guided by her belief that clay was the fountainhead of wisdom and spirituality. She collected, investigated, created and shared knowledge on clay and clay crafts right till the end. This powerful energy guided and motivated her and helped her to survive pain and loss. It shaped her identity and revealed her path. I cannot imagine Sheherezade without clay because she was happiest when amongst potters. For the International ASNA Clay Triennial in Karachi, during the third iteration she held one riveting presentation and gifted the audiences of the fourth triennial, with a poignant performative piece and took her place among the national and international ceramists with joy and pride.
She was destined to ascend from a studio potter to the muquam of a kumhaar, one that is the true inheritor of tradition, skill and spiritual grace and occupies a Sufi’s space¾ where work becomes prayer. Sheherezade may have changed her astana, from earth to her heavenly abode, but the rhythm of her chak will continue, in the hands of the thousands she inspired and to whom she passed on her passion.
Title image: Sheherezade on her interpretation of a dia stand in her studio in Lahore. Year 1993.