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December 24, 2006
REVIEWS: Art of living
Reviewed by Marjorie Husain
The expansion of art in the hectic six decades of Pakistan’s artists and their activities includes the genius and contribution of artists who achieved recognition for a short span of time and then for various reasons moved out of the limelight and were largely forgotten. Who now knows of Jamil Ahmed, a self-taught artist who made headlines in the ’60s, or Mohammad Ali and Bashir Kosar who were considered artists of promise but who went abroad and were forgotten. Ask any art student if they know of Sumbal Nazir who was the first woman artist to exhibit her genre work in watercolour, using the nude as subject, and there were others who for a brief time made their presence felt.
One such artist is well-researched and described in a book titled: Travels Mundane and Surreal: The Art of Esther Rahim. It comprises a fascinating account of the life and art of a little known artist, a beautiful and vibrant person who was of the era of Zubeida Agha, Amrita Sher-Gil and Jamini Roy, all of whom were her friends. During the 1950s-60s she lived in Karachi and made a significant input to art and culture in the country.
Beautifully illustrated, the book contains family photographs, drawings and an assemblage of colourful paintings complementing three extensively researched essays by Sikander Rahim, Esther’s son; professor Salima Hashmi, an authority on women artists of Pakistan, and the artist, educationist, Naazish Ata-Ullah. The book describes in detail the temperament of the artist, her art development and the era she lived in.
Esther Joesten (1904-1963), took the name of Esmet when she married J.A. Rahim in 1929. They had met as students at the Munich University, where he was studying chemistry, and was destined to become a diplomat, politician and founding member of the Pakistan People’s Party. Esther, after initial art training in Düsseldorf, studied sculpture with Bourdelle in Paris, before joining the university to read psychology and for her PhD wrote on Eidetic Disposition and Pictorial Creation, vision and memory.
The young couple moved to India in 1930, and began a life that took them to many parts of the world, including Karachi, where Esther along with Zubeida Agha, was a positive force in establishing the Karachi Arts Council. She was also instrumental in the revival of interest in block-printed textiles in the ’50s, and initiated the enterprise that later became known as Zarina Fabrics.
The publication was initially intended as a companion volume to an exhibition of Esther’s art work at the Mohatta Palace, and though the exhibition did not materialise, the book is a very moving and illuminating introduction to the artist, well-illustrated and an insight into a particular period of history. Sikander Rahim explains his parent’s life and relationship in candid detail, beginning with Esther’s early life in Munich, which in the decade before the First World War, was one of Germany’s dynamic cultural centres. Sikander paints an absorbing picture of his mother’s early life and the emergence of a highly strung, talented and free-spirited young woman.
Esther’s marriage led her to India where she made her homes in Madras, Calcutta, Delhi, with periods spent in Simla. There was the addition of two children to the family, and although there is no record of her work in the early days, she underwent a reawakening of her interest in painting in Simla, where she painted her first landscape and sold her first painting. It was there that she met Amrita Sher-Gil who shared her interest in ordinary people as subjects of art. Though Amrita was ten years younger than Esther, the two became friends as Esther, completely non-judgmental, understood the younger artist’s vision and complexities.
There were problems in the marriage and for a while Esther and Rahim parted. In this time Esther started an art gallery and an interior décor business in Alexandria, where her children were in boarding school. The strong affinity between Esther and Rahim seemingly never faded, and in 1952 they remarried and settled in their house in Kutchery Road, Karachi. Esmet’s years in Karachi appear to be full and satisfying. She painted, and was extremely active in promoting art in the country. When J.A. Rahim was appointed Pakistan’s Ambassador to Germany, Esther found herself in great demand as a portraitist, but it was not until the last few years of her life that she found her true métier as an artist.
Naazish Ata-Ullah elaborates on Esther’s sojourn in three South Asian cities and the interaction with Jamini Roy in Calcutta, Amrita Sher-Gil in Simla and Zubeida Agha in Karachi. Esther was in Simla when Amrita Sher-Gil died in Lahore at the age of 28. In an article written for a Lahore publication, Usha, in 1942, Esther wrote movingly of her deeply mourned friend, describing the artist and her work. This article was particularly interesting as it had appeared that Amrita had been distanced from art activities in Lahore in the early ’40s. At various times I had spoken to artists who were in Lahore when Amrita Sher-Gil’s posthumous exhibition took place at Faletti’s hotel, and discovered that not one had visited that exhibition. So Esther’s firsthand account of her friend is very important documentation.
‘In Search of Esmet Rahim’ is the title of a treatise by Salima Hashmi, who describes how she first encountered Esmet/Esther Rahim’s work when documenting Pakistani women artist’s work decades ago. Some years on Salima chanced upon the artist’s work in a friend’s apartment in Washington DC, but it was not until 1990 that an opportunity arose to see an extensive collection of Esmet’s work carefully preserved by Sikander Rahim.
Salima’s documentation includes addressing Esmet’s intriguing path as an artist and tracing her aesthetic phenomenon through the teeming years of travel. “Attempting to assess Esther Rahim’s artistic output of a lifetime, one is struck by the deep divide between her work done in the years where her primary purpose was to fulfil her social obligations, and the work accomplished during her last few years in which she set those aside and gave herself to her art. The paintings executed during the last two years of her life are resolute in their commitment to an inner state of being.” This entrancing book is rich with information on art of a certain period and its diverse influences. It is a must for all libraries, art-related institutions and art enthusiasts both here and abroad.
Travels Mundane and Surreal: The Art of Esther Rahim By Sikander Rahim, Salima Hashmi and Naazish Ata-Ullah Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in collaboration with Sang-e-Meel Publications, 25 Shahrah-i-Pakistan, Lahore Tel: 042-7220100 firstname.lastname@example.org ISBN 969-35-1900-0 112pp. Rs2,000