Living in a digital global village now, we all know about Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe. We may even recognise Alexander Calder’s mobiles or Edvard Munch’s Scream but how well do we know our own modern art legends? Libas Now brings you art historian Samina Iqbal’s series on the Legends of Modern Pakistani Art.
Allah Bukhsh, born in 1895 in Wazirabad, Punjab, was trained as a sign painter. He earned a living by painting set designs for a theatrical company in Bombay. Later, he was associated with different courts of Hindu rajas as their official painter. Before the Indian subcontinent’s partition, Bukhsh painted popular Hindu religious paintings – especially images of Krishna – in European Academic style and because of his immaculate skill he was known as a Krishna painter.
Allah Bukhsh’s Sohni Mahiwal exemplifies the sophisticated hybridity of western stylistic aesthetics marrying the eastern subject matter
He came to Lahore in the 1940s and established himself as a respected artist. After the establishment of Pakistan, he realised the need to acclimate his painting themes to be relevant to the new nation-state. Therefore, his painting subjects included large-scale history scenes, portraits, literary romantic legends, local folklore, and rural landscapes.
Stylistically, though, Bukhsh never moved beyond the Indian colonial art of Victorian England; therefore, he was given the title of Ustaad and not recognised as a mainstream artist like Abdur Rahman Chughtai.
The mood of Allah Buksh’s Sohni Mahiwal, in accord with the legend, is romantic and beautiful
The featured painting Sohni Mahiwal refers to the local folklore of a young couple in love who could not marry due to social class differences. Sohni, the female protagonist, was married off to someone else but continued to secretly meet her beloved Mahiwal, crossing a river over a matka (terracotta vessel) every night.
Sohni’s sister-in-law, discovering her secret meetings, replaced the matka with a raw-ware that resulted in Sohni’s drowning in the river. Bukhsh’s painting captures the moment when Mahiwal is singing of his immense longing for Sohni while Sohni’s dead body floats across the river in front of him. The mood of the painting is romantic and beautiful which is harmonious with the legend.
One cannot deny the uncanny resemblance of this painting to the British Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851-52), based on Shakespeare’s character
However, one cannot deny the uncanny resemblance of this painting to the British Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais’s Ophelia (1851-52), based on the character from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Bukhsh’s painting, the male and female figures are unmistakably Indian.
One might wonder if he came across Millais’s painting through reproduction in a book, as Ophelia was a famous and oft-reproduced painting. Because of the aging and crackling of the painted surface, it is hard to see the brush strokes of the painting but the overall work looks like a very competent example of European naturalistic style. Allah Bukhsh’s Sohni Mahiwal exemplifies the sophisticated hybridity of western stylistic aesthetics marrying the eastern subject matter.