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Ather Jamal answers his critics
By Asif Noorani
“Every artist has his favourite medium. I feel that I can express myself with ease through watercolours even though it’s a difficult medium in more ways than one, says Ather Jamal Well known water colourist Ather Jamal, 56, and his painter-wife Mahtab Amar have set up an art gallery in Zamzama, Karachi which was their dream project for years. The debut exhibition of the Thar Gallery hosted Jamal’s recent work which sold like hot cases in no time.
Some assignments like the commission work that he gets too often, such as the adornment of the walls of the KPT underpass, have kept him busy in recent months, add to this his teaching assignment at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. Thus he is not able to paint as much as he would like to, which is in a way a happy sign for there is no fear of his getting burnt out, unlike some of his contemporaries who flood the galleries with their work, often compromising on creativity.
Why did Jamal need to open his own gallery when there are several existing galleries, who are only too pleased to exhibit his work? “This is the first step in setting up a museum of my own work, very much in line with the ones set up by Jamil Naqsh, Gulgee and Mansur Rahi. Secondly, with my own gallery in place I’ll be able to put up my works on display or sale as often as I wish. The third advantage is that I will be able to keep a record of who buys my paintings. Not all galleries where my paintings were sold offered me this advantage. I can now keep track of my works sold to collectors,” he says.
After a pause the soft-spoken artist adds, “Let me clarify that Thar Gallery has not been set up to display the paintings of only Ather Jamal and Mahtab Amar. It is open to the works of other artists too. Only two days ago we acquired three acrylics on paper by Mansoor Aye. We have plans of getting paintings of other well-known and not-so-well known artists too.”
“Your critics have often commented that you have not been able to move from Thar and the women from the region. You continue to paint them incessantly. How would you defend yourself?” I query.
“I don’t need to defend myself for comments like these are based on lack of understanding of art. For one thing, the people and the landscape of Thar are aesthetically so rich and have so much to offer that I feel I have only scratched their surface. Mind you, when I started painting there was hardly anyone who was inspired by the subject and I am now happy to see that a good number of younger artists have started to paint Thari women.
“At the risk of being immodest I would say that I have inspired many of them, some of whom have had the grace to acknowledge it. What is relevant is that over the years my approach towards the subject as also my style has changed,” is the answer.
To be fair to Jamal, one can say that he also does cityscapes and his favourite subjects are the streets of old Karachi and its colonial buildings. He does still life too. He paints everything which is a part of our culture and our environment. Of late, he has started painting landscapes of other regions of Pakistan too.
Why hasn’t he switched over from watercolours to other mediums is a question asked by those who have followed his career? “Every artist has his favourite medium. I feel that I can express myself with ease through watercolours even though it’s a difficult medium in more ways than one. However, I may add that the commission work that I have done is mostly in oils. A case in point is the large mural that I have done for the National Defence University in Islamabad. It is 6 feet by 40 feet,” replies Jamal.
Referring to his teaching assignment, he says that he finds it both a satisfying and an enriching experience. “I enjoy sharing my knowledge and experience with youngsters. It’s good to interact with them. Some of my students are very enthusiastic and remind me of my younger days. I teach them drawing, which is the basis of most visual arts, and I also teach them painting.”
“How much does training help a student? Some of the leading South Asian artists like M.F. Husain and Gulgee, for instance, have not been to art schools and yet they have achieved great success,” I ask.
“Husain and Gulgee have been exceptionally great. Let’s not talk of them. But I’d like to answer your question by quoting the late Ali Imam who said it all when he declared that a self-taught artist would take much more time to learn something that an art student would take only a few hours to pick up. It’s like a singer, who has been gifted with a pair of sweet sounding vocal chords, but is like a marble in a quarry, which needs to be polished. To put it simply, she needs to learn from a guru or an ustad to be able to negotiate the difficult sur with ease.”
Some of Ather Jamal’s work exhibited at the Thar Gallery