By Syeda Aiman Zehra and Hammad Bilal
“Aik nukta, everything starts from it and ends at it,” says curator Madam Noor Jehan Bilgraumi as we embark on a journey she started in LUMS. The nukta she speaks of is the same nukta that we see at the center of many of the art pieces she has installed around campus—from the VC’s house to his office to the faculty lounge to the walls and domes of the HSS building. It is the same nukta that she sees in the heart of the university—the Academic Block—where the campus community finds itself at least once a day, passing by, taking shortcuts, rushing to classes.
Two years ago, Madam Bilgraumi paid a visit to LUMS to see the building her dear friend, Habib Fida Ali had designed. What she saw was a bare courtyard at the center: “No one wanted to cross it, the courtyard was too hot and a sense of nurturing was lacking.”
The walls, too, spoke little to her of the cultural heritage of the inner city of Lahore that the architect had taken inspiration from. “It’s such a phenomenal building… I wanted the space inside to demand the respect of viewing,” she says.
After putting together a presentation for Syed Babar Ali, Pro Chancellor of LUMS, who appreciated her ideas and agreed to fund them, she began filling her late friend’s canvas. First, a fountain, then, four plants at its corners, like cardinal points of a compass, which will grow enough in a few years to provide shade: the center now acted as a source of nourishment for the space around it.
Madam Bilgraumi smiles and looks upward: “I always feel like Habib is watching me. I don’t want to disturb his spirit, his sensibilities.” This belief in the ability of art to complement art, not denigrate it, is visible in her avoidance of excess in an otherwise minimalist building.
The steady sound of rushing water follows us from one art installation to another—each meant to celebrate the craftsmanship of Lahore’s heritage, she points out—till we reach the site of the newly-commissioned piece on the inner wall of the Block, opposite PDC.
Here, inching its way towards permanence, in hues of red, green, blue, amidst the crowds passing by is a Mughal mural.
“Fresco, you mean,” Ustad Raffaqat Ali, the head painter of this project, corrects us. We scribble the new word in our notebook as he relates the journey he took, from learning his craft in Masjid Wazir Khan to painting the fresco in LUMS, a replica of a design that he recognized immediately from the Masjid, when presented to him by Madam Bilgraumi.
His labor mirrors the same arduousness: plaster first, hydroxide paste next, followed by a patient wait, and then the color. As the color dries, his story acts as the solvent between us and the fresco behind us: “It takes six months and a wall to earn the next payroll.”
But, beyond the six months, there lie over 30 years of learning, repeating, perfecting. “You have to start with making circles, again and again, I tell my shaagirds always,” he says.
His apprentice, Majid Ali, interjects: “Sabz rang theek hai, Ustaad jee?” The Ustad switches his attention briefly and then flows back into conversation, picking up where he left off.
“I draw the same flower differently every time,” he says and passionately draws one in our notebooks from memory.
Behind him, this flower repeats itself multiply, etched into the plaster, chained within their respective panels. But, he isn’t. When asked, he says that his reward lies in serving his roots: the fresco art of Masjid Wazir Khan, the customs and spirit of the “Islamic culture,” and the reverence of the “Ustad” in all spheres of life.
The fresco speaks of multiple journeys, ones that Madam Bilgraumi and Ustad Raffaqat took and ones that we, the public, take now.
For some, it is easy to miss the man in the skullcap painting a ‘mural’ there in the momentary excitement paint brings. “It’s good,” says Mohammad Mohtashim ‘22, “but why not paint all of it then?”
For others, the art invokes their aesthetic sensibilities and requests them to pause for more than a passing minute. Anum Siddiqui ‘22 says, “I like the murals they’re making. I like how they’re Persian in style and I like the color palette too. I think it’s very nice.”
Then there are those who are able to recognize the importance and urgency of the Ustad’s work: lending color to an art form that has grown stunted after reaching its heights. Hence, art acts as “a sentimental education. One learns to see, to look for details, to empathize with a different perspective than our own,” says Ishtiaq Ahmed ‘21.
Dr. Tehnyat Majeed [Professor of Art History at LUMS] celebrates the responses that these art projects have evoked. She stresses on the need to focus on the “public” in “public art,” more so than the makers behind it. “Art becomes Art in the ways it affects those on the viewing angle [students, faculty, administration, labor, support staff], and in the ways they are able to draw out relationships with it,” she tells The Post.
Bringing the art to the public was the first step. Now, she says, “We need mediators that enhance our intellectual horizons and aesthetic sense and help us see beyond the art.”
Behind the fresco and the other recent installations, Ustad’s fingers work fervently for months at end with the same intricacy with which he made his squirrel-hair paint brushes, and Madam Bilgraumi speaks of the dying craft with the same rarefied tone with which she speaks of her late friend, Habib. Beauty is not an hour’s brief pleasure, their works show us. It is something which has an unerring place in the present, in the sight we see daily as we cross the Academic Block.
In the words of Madam Bilgraumi: “To actually see…”