What would it take to make Lahore like Paris? Certainly, a lot of hard work on sculptures and buildings, neater roads and street-side portrait makers. Painters and portrait artists all over the world sit by roadsides and draw portraits at subsidised rates. This is not as common in Pakistan, but the artist
Shahid Furqan is an exception.
Furqan has been drawing on the street side for three years now. In the morning, he supports himself by an advertising job and reserves his evenings for drawing portraits. He usually sits in liberty and aims to support art.
"Art in Pakistan needs to be promoted among the common people," says Furqan. "It is my dream, to have at least one portrait made by me, in every house of Pakistan. "
"Doesn’t your wife mind this prolonged absence from home?" I ask. He said he works from home during daytime.
Furqan usually charges Rs300 per portrait. Tragic as it is, people can spend thousands for material goods, but complain about the rate of a portrait. "They usually come up with the argument, that if this person charges this much for a ten minute sitting, he must be very rich by now," says Furqan. "But they don’t know that we spend years struggling against the odds to reach this level of expertise."
In 1994, Furqan won a national competition for young artists arranged by Ejaz Syed. Three years ago, when he planned to start this roadside project, he tried gathering his artist friends, but when no one joined him, he decided to do it alone.
All of us have certain physical shortcomings. Now imagine if some human hand is drawing the portrait. What a pleasure it would be, to just decrease a little fat there, sharpen the features and maybe even reduce the years. Many people demand such innovations. Sometimes they are disappointed to see that the portrait does not resemble them.
"One bald lawyer wanted a hairy head," says Furqan. Initially when the hair was drawn, he did not like the style and length and eventually it did not look like him. What worried him most was that his wife won’t recognise him in the painting."
Another woman refused to recognise her son after the portrait was made. "If you pay for the portrait, it will start resembling him," said Furqan. She paid, took a few steps back to look at the portrait and came back contended. "Yes, it is him," she finally declared. However, one offended father took the portrait of his son home, and called after many days saying he finally recognised his son in the portrait and was ready to pay.
Other then making people feel happy Furqan helps them too. He reduces the payment for those who cannot afford it. A few months back he even helped a police officer in drawing the portraits of his attackers.
"The funniest is when a girl comes to get a portrait made." He smiles. "People gather around in a circle, staring as if some extra-terrestrial just landed." Although Shahid is very motivated, his life as an artist is not free of troubles. He was working in Dubai as an artist, held exhibitions there and created a reputation for himself. However, the economic recession in Dubai took a toll on his life as an artist too. Back here in Pakistan, he is now enduring the brunt of the power-cut downs like all of us. He sat in the evening from six to eleven in Liberty, which now closes at eight.
Sitting in Liberty has its own problems. There is an entrance fee of Rs 20, yet some officials ask for more money. Beggars, pocket pickers etc are allowed this way. Those who refuse a payment are beaten in the central park. Of course, any artist in the vicinity would feel insecure.
Furqan, however, is idealistic. He desires to paint murals, large figures and drawings that include a lot of colour and imagination. On the other hand, when he sees that his work is not valued, and his worth as an artist is not appreciated in the society, he wants to leave the country.
Shahid thinks it is a pity that education in India is free and readily available, whereas in Pakistan it is not. He believes that lack of literacy is one of the chief causes of Pakistan’s decline and a pity that common Pakistanis are lagging far behind in art.
"Pakistan needs to make art a big industry, like IT and software engineering," he says, adding, "We need to keep pace with the times, develop printing and publishing art. Animation for children is a huge market which in untapped. Only one news channel is producing animation, the rest is imported and dubbed. Even advertising agencies seeking to sell products in Pakistan get their advertisement made abroad."
Furqan wants the government to announce exhibitions, in Pakistan and abroad. "Every artists needs space to present his work and the streets are a viable option. People can view the art free and should be able to purchase it at economic rates. Consequently, interest in art will increase. This will offer artists employment opportunities and a meagre salary too. Of course, you do not need to take the pains of an unreasonable employer, since you are your own boss on the street."
Imagine if hundreds of painters and artists are working daily in Lahore. Wouldn’t art undergo a new boom? The streets, however, need to become safer and more artists need to get involved in such pursuits, for this miracle to materialise on mass scale.