Gulgee – The Legend lives on

By Marian Sharaf Joseph

It has been almost four years, the legendary artist Ismail Gulgee was found dead along with his wife and maid in their house in Karachi. Murdered on December 16, 2001, the bodies were found three days later gagged and lying amidst whiff of dried blood. Since then there has been no sound follow up on the murder except for recent headlines that said an anonymous man purporting to be late Gulgee’s son claims to own his property. Thus begins a new twist in the story of late Islmail Gulgee.

From the day of his murder, officials suspected that the only cause behind the murder could be his property located in Karachi with a huge percentage in the capital Islamabad and a farm in Nathiagali, Murree. It is also feared that his valuable paintings in his gallery at home were prone to theft. His paintings are one of the most valuable assets to the cultural heritage of the art world in Pakistan.

Initially a qualified engineer in the US, the self- taught calligrapher, painter and sculpturist, born in 1926, is known to have begun the Islamic Calligraphy movement in the country. Critics, however, believe that he should be credited for giving recognition to this art in Pakistan and not for initiating it. As an artist, he was initially known as portraitist. This was in before 1959. Some of his most remarkable paintings are of the entire Afghan Royal Family. Later, from 1960s onwards, he gained fame for abstract art influenced by the tradition of Islamic calligraphy and by the American “action painting” idiom. In several testimonials such as by Partha Mitter, Gulgee enjoyed lavish state support and plenty of elite commissions in this capacity.” Gulgee’s art was usually mixed media. He is known for using large canvasses and used rich materials such as mirror glass and gold or silver leaf in his oil paintings. Nothing beats the calligraphy work by him.

Gulgee’s sculptures are unique pieces of art. Mostly bronze piece of art, they are calligraphic in form and inspiration. Most of his sculptures are based on the verses from the Holy Quran. Metropolitan Museum of Art states, “Gulgee’s calligraphy paintings are abstract and gestural interpretations of Arabic and Urdu letters. His sweeping layers of paint explore the formal qualities of oil paint while they make references to Islamic design elements.”

His work is exhibited in the Saudi Royal residents and President Residency in Islamabad. However, nothing compares to his calligraphic sculpture and Islamic art in the Shah Faisal Mosque, Islamabad. Having exhibited all around the world, he has received awards from Saudi Arabia, Japan and France. Winner of multiple national awards, he has won The Pride of Performance, Hilal-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz twice by the Government of Pakistan.

When the art world seemed to die in silence during Zia’s regime, Gulgee used the opportunity to glorify Islamic art. Gulgee’s art depicts hope even though painted during the time when critics believed art would die at the mercy of dictatorship. His work is vibrant with multitude of colours pouring life into them.  Each of his art depicts intense feelings and spiritual glow. Thin lines accentuated by bold dash of colours rise and fall like an orchestra.

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