Ghani Khan: The Renaissance Man
An interview with Ghani Khan
The man in the poet
Dr. Fazal-ur-Rahim Marwat
In his famous book, A brief History of Time, Dr. Stephen Hawking examines the nature of the universe, and explains that modern laws of time and space no longer distinguish between the past and the future. He goes on to discuss “the psychological arrow of time” which enables us to see the past, but not the future and rejects the possibility of memory being reversed if the universe started to shrink instead of expanding as it is now.
But in the aura of space and time, and cycle of change only few people would survive- those who are close to nature and beauty. The reflection of nature in their works in whatever form it may be would give them an unending life and immortality.
Ghani Khan, a son of the legendary prophet of peace and non-violence, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan holds a high place in pashtu literature because of his humorous and satirical verses. His first poem appeared in December, 1928 issue of the Pukhtoon, the first Pashtu journal and mouthpiece of the Anjuman-Islahul-Afghana. Ghani’s poetry includes love songs, epics, anthems, elegies, epigrams, verse, litters and satires etc.. According to Dr. Sher Zaman Taizai “affection and contempt, love and hatred, idealism and realism and epic, sarcasm and satire and above all frankness, fluency and spontaneity are the main characteristics of the poetry of Ghani”. His poetry is about the mysteries of life, death, God, love, nature and religious beliefs and concepts of his people in his won distinct way. Very little os known to many about Ghani’s other facets: music, art, painting and sculpture.
If his father chose the path of devotion to Almighty Allah to serve his nation by launching a reformative movement, his son Ghani Khan chose the way by presenting various Sifats or attributes of Almighty Allah by presenting his poor people in poetry, prose, paintings and sculptures.
Ghani Khan was bold and beautiful when he was young and perhaps continued to be so and criticize openly avaricious Mullahs. He walked with nature and embraced it. He visualized an ideal state a state for the Pukhtoons, of the Pukhtoons and by the Pukhtoons. But nature was against him, and rulers too. he saw several times his father behind the bars and himself spent six years in jail and detention without trial or an FIR and his land and property were confiscated. His first anthology of poems Da-Panjery-Chighar (songs in a Cage) was written in Haripur Jail. He sketched a lot, did a number of self portraits. They portray the horror and agony that he went through.
Ghani Khan was neither an iconoclast nor iconolater and “he sees himself neither as a painter, a sculptor, nor as a poet but perhaps only as a plagiarist who very humbly glorifies”, in his words, the work of another artist, the real creator, who he calls Al-Jameel (The beautiful) and Al-Musavvir (The Artist).
Leon Battista Alberti (1904-72) also known as the man of Renaissance in the west says: “A man can do all things if he wills”. It was Ghani Khan who proved it with his deeds and his works in all fields poetry, prose, politics, philosophy, paintings, sculpture and music. Art includes all human creative activities like literature, painting, sculptures, music, calligraphy and architecture. All these branches of fine arts have their own respective mediums. The writer works in words, the musician in line and colour, the sculptor in stone and the musician in sounds. They are different aims to achieve end i.e., the expression of one’semotions.
This is the recurring thesis of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism: “the lines between art and politics do not really exist; the culture and imperialism, far from being separate of activity, depend upon and reinforce each other”.
Ghani Khan though born in an era of the British Imperialism, was quite familiar with the cultural heritage and social values of his own people-the Pukhtoons and this is apparent in all his works. But it was Ghani’s fine lines and masterly control over his brush that lends common everyday happenings a genuine and enigma.
His love for nature and the local habitat of the simple Pukhtoon people is visible in his prose. “Pathan is not merely a race” says Ghaani “but, in fact, a state of mind; there is a Pathan lying in side every man, who at times wakes up and overpowers him”.
The Pathans have no written history but they have thousands of ruins where the carved stones tell their story to anyone who would care to listen. “The Pathan”, Ghani asserts, “are rain sown wheat-they all came up on the same day they are all the same!.... But the chief reason why I love him is because he will wash his face and oil his beard and perfume his locks and put on his best pair of clothes when he goes out to fought and die”.His poetry is about humanism, and the search for truth. It is about self realization. “I want to see my people educated and enlightened. A people with a vision and a strong sense of justice who can carve out a future for themselves, in harmony with nature”.
Abdul Ghani Khan a gifted son of Pukhtoonkhwa was born in 1914 in Utmanzai Charrsadda Pushkalavati (means full of lotuses), the ancient capital of Gandhara. The lotus flower dominated the mind of the people of Pushkalavati so much that they created in popular imagination a goddess of the city named in the coins as Pushkalavati nagar devada meaning “the city of the goddess of Pushkalavati”.
The history of Charsadda goes back to the 6th century BC. It remained the capital of Gandhara from 6th century BC to 2nd century AD. Many nations like the persians, the Greeks, the Mauryans, the Kushans, the Bactrians and the Parthians, the Huns, and the Hindus have ruled over this region at different times of history. Alexander the Great himself laid siege to the city in the third century BC.
After the Hindu era, the area witnessed the glorious Empire of the great Sultanates of Delhi and the great Mughal Empire. Then came the Sikhs in 1818, and after the fall of the Sikhs, the British annexed the area in 1849, holding it until it became part of Pakistan.
Situated on the north east border of the Indian Sub continent it was a cross road for the invaders and area was involved in constant wars. On the one hand it was in close contact with Afghanistan, China, Central Asia and with the West through the caravan routes, and on the other hand it was connected with the Sub-continent’s plains.
Charsadda was for long a time known as Ashnagar or the modern Hushtnagar, which means “Eight Towns”. Which are situated in this region. These are Charsadda Town, Sherpao, Utmanzai, Umarzai, Turangzai, Tangi Town, Prang and Rajar. The name of Ashnagar may be misconceived to mean the “City of Ashtakas”. the peoples who lived in this area at the time of Alexander the great’s invasion, were ruled by a king called Astes or Ashtaka Raja.
Born during the great war (First World War) the distinguished son of the modern Pukhtoonkhwa and of the ancient Gandhara lost his mother in the epidemic in 1918. He started his early education with the Mullah in the village mosque. It was due to his religious education that Ghani Khan was very fluent in Arabic and Persian. Ghani Khan recollected his memories by saying: “My childhood was miserable, my mother died during the influenza epidemic when I was six and Wali was about four. Baba had found a new love-his people. He opened “Azad Schools” all over the Frontier Province, in his first attempt to change the condition of his people”. The literacy rate among the Pukhtoons can be imagined from the fact that the number of matriculates in the British India NWFP was only 15 in 1891 and 71 in 1903.
During World War-l, the British government closed Azad school. All teacher and volunteers were sent to jails. During the war the All India National Congress and the League supported the British Raj but after the War the Muslims were disappointed by the attitude adopted by the Allied powers towards the Ottoman Empire.
Ghani was a devoted soldier of freedom movement. He had participated in the meetings and agitations of the Anjuman-Islahul-Afghana and Khilafat Movement since school days.
Ghani mixed mystical, mysterious mode of Malang with the Occidental philosophical verbosity with the oriental aesthetic romantic mysticism. Sufi literature was a part of his education, but he did not believe in negation and self abnegation. “I think by embracing life you can be closer to God” commented Ghani,“Allah created light and colour, poetry in nature and taught so that we can appreciate them and creator AlMusavvir”.
Ghani spent nine years in religious institutions and then he was enrolled in the Jamia Millia University. In the Jamia he got acquainted with scholarly personalities like Dr. Ansari, Hakim Ajmal Khan, Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad etc.. Dr. Zakir Hussain was the principal. But after spending one year\, Ghani was again recalled by his father to Peshawar in 1928. There was a civil war in Afghanistan and doctors were needed, so he was given first aid training, but due to political circumstances the mission was not allowed by the British. A committee know as “as the Afghan Red Crescent Society” was formed to collect donations and medicine for Afghan government.
There insurgency against Amanullah by certain Mullahs under the pay of Raj created hatred in the minds of all nationalist progressive forces on both sides of the Durand Line. In 1929, Ghazi Amanullah Khan left his homeland and Habibullah Kalakani alias Bach Saqao became the ruler of Afghanistan. The fall of Amanullah was not a major set back to Afghanistan only but to the entire Pukhtoonkhwa. Amanullah-became the symbol of nationalism, modernism and liberalism for all nationalist progressive forces of the region.
This tragic incident changed the political axis of the Pukhtoons from Central Asia or rather from Kabul to Delhi and from radical adventurism to evolutionary change and non-violence.
Dr. Khan Sahib, Ghani’s uncle, decided to send him to England. On July 23,1929 Ghani left for England. “Baba wanted me to stay with a noble English family to study their ways of life and know the causes of their national ascendancy” said Ghani, “If this was his (Baba’s) wish he should have sent me to either the University of Oxford or Cambridge which had played a great role in raising the English nation to great heights of power and supremacy”.
In England he studied Old and New Testaments in a priest’s family. In 1931, Ghani went to US from England with the help of Sardar Shah Wali Khan, the Afghan ambassador to UK, and joined South Louisiana University to study chemical engineering.
In Europe and US, Ghani saw a new world totally different from his own so he was naturally impressed by its standard and ways of life. He was particularly impressed by the development of these nations in the field of science and technology.
The study of great oriental religions. Islam, Judaism and Christianity and western philosophy moulded his thoughts and perceptions about man and movements in his motherland. In the passage of knowledge from Orientalism, religiosity to the Western modernism and US experience of scientific knowledge changed his world outlook but not his mind, which was continuously in search of an ideal-perfect and universal in nature.
When Ghani Khan came back to his native village his father was behind the bars. In 1934, Jawahar Lal Nehru made arrangements to send Ghani Khan and Indira Gandhi to the Shanti Niketan, a university on the border of Biher and Bengal. Shanti Niketan was founded by Rabindra Nath Tagore in 1901. He wanted a revival and renaissance of Indian culture and civilization and wanted to create a love among the students irrespective of their religion, colour, creed and race. It was for this reason that the institution developed itself in the Vishwa bharati University in December 1921. In this institution there were no chairs and no benches. The used to sit on the Chabutra of mud with the students sitting around them, in semi circles on the ground.
Ghani Khan joined the department of journalism and his tutors were Nandlal Bose and Krishna Kirpalani, his subject was literature. Ram Kinkar taught sculpture. Rabindra Nath Tagore was too old but active. One day Ghani went with Bose to the Art school. The students were busy in making different things from clay. Ghani Khan also took some clay and made a frog and thin something else. His tutor saw in him the hidden man and appreciated his work and encouraged him to go to the school regularly. From that day Ghani Khan used to come regularly to the school for painting and sculpture. Nanelal Bose said: Ghani had a natural talent for sculpture.
In Ghani’s own words “shanti Niketan was a whole new experience for me. from Hashtnagar I had gone to Europe. In Shanti Niketan, I got the opportunity to assimilate Asian philosophy, literature and appreciated the performing and visual arts”. Lata Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, in three letters to her father Jawahirlal Nehru mentioned Ghani Khan and his activities in the Shanti Niketan. These letters are edited by Sonia Gandhi, the wife of Rajiv Gandhi in a book “freedom’s Daughter, letters between Indira Gandhi and Jawahirlal Nehru (1922-39) 1989.
After spending one year in Shanti Niketan, Ghani was recalled by his father. When Nandlal Bose came to know that Ghani would not return, he dashed to Wardha. He met Gandhi and told him about Ghani’s artistic talents. He predicted that, if Ghani was left in the Shanti Niketan, he would become such a great artist that India would be proud of him. Nandlal requested Ghani to persuade Bacha Khan to change his decision. But Bacha Khan did not change his decision. He asked Gandhi what would happen to the world if Ghani applied red and green colour to it. So Ghani Khan left once again his education incomplete after short stay at the Shanti Niketan. “I am great admirer of Bacha Khan” says Ghani, “was one of the finest Pukhtoons that I have known. But we differed on some things. I strongly uphold the view that you can live without art, but you cannot progress without it”.
Ghani was of the view that beauty is the essence of civilization and culture which includes almost all human creative activities like paintings, sculptures, songs and music etc.. “Without the search for beauty in though, word and deed we cannot have any kind of civilization”.
According to ‘Ghani Khan human life has very lofty ideals. In a letter to Abdur Rauf Benawa, an eminent Afghan writer and poet, he writers: “Man is essentially an animal. He wants food, sex and comfort and nothing else. It is the duty of us poets to turn his face to those higher centres of his being where he might see the reflection of his own perfection and the face of his own eternal beloved beauty. I think a poet must worship beauty ... in thought, word and deed force man to turn his face from the rubbish heap of his appetites to his garden of Eden “.
Ghani’s stay in the Shanti Niketan had lasting impact on his mind. He himself recollects his experience in the said University by saying: “My stay in the West left many imprints on my psyche. I was deeply impressed by their society, culture and politics. When I came back, I had an inferiority complex about the backwardness of my country and people. It was in the Shanti Niketan that I discovered myself and the past greatness of my own culture and civilization, which has produced several man of versatile genius, who have been appreciated by the historians and scholars of the West”.
Ghani was inspired by the impressionists, Monet, Manet and Van Gogh. He said: “Gaugin’s colours are brilliant. Michael Angelo’s David is superb, so is Rodin’s Cupid and Psyche”. According to Ghani “I have nurtured my senses and my perception in search for the truth. And I glorify the truth with whatever is at my disposal. Beauty is the truth harmony, proportion, equilibrium. It embodies symmetry and rhythm. I believe that beauty is from God and He is the most beautiful-Al-Jameel”.
Even in his “childhood Ghani Khan drew very clear and vivid pictures of his friend and fellows” said one of his relatives. He had vast knowledge of art history and its various modes, techniques and branches. His paintings are alive with expressions. He painted only human faces as, according to him, face is the most venerable and significant part of human body because it reflects all kinds of human sentiments. A person’s thoughts, ambitions, his character, are reflected on it. Ghani’s method of working was quite erratic. “He gets an idea and then gets charcoal from the kitchen or children’s pencils or dry pastels and sketches it there and then”. He was of the view that the most difficult task in the art of painting is the exposition of feeling through a human face. He argued that Iand scapes, mountains and tress can be painted by any ordinary artist.
Ghani had practiced different techniques in his work. He had used ole colour, pastels and acrylic but prefers pastels through which he can transfer his “brief but intensive inspiration” in a short time on paper. He was an abstract impressionist. An impressionist presents nature according to his own vision and not as it appears to other people.
Like paintings ‘Ghani’s sculptures also consist of only faces, which are like living pictures of human sentiments. “Ghani has put tongue into the mouth of stones through his art” writes Raza Hamdani. His sculptures seem to be replicas of the famous Gandhara art. The museum at his residence Darulaman in Charsadda is valuable treasure house of the masterpieces of his paintings and sculptures. Most of his sculptures are in wood, and quite a few of them are at the Shanti Niketan.
It is true that the portraits on view have less to do with aesthetic value and are more of a psychological exploration of character. Thus the fascination with the expressions on the face, particlarly the eyes. True to the humanistic tradition, the portrait here is not interested in passing judgment, not in formal abstraction, but in capturing something of the fleeting soulfulness of a character.
Ghani did not remember the titles of many of his paintings nor when he completed work on a particular canvas. He was unusual, vibrant, interesting because he did not conform to the stereotypes of the artist built of media hype. For him art was neither spectacle nor commodity. In art as commodity or spectacle, all traces of process, human Iabour, community, tradition are erased. The simulation that then generally pass for art seduce us because they seem alien, exclusive and place us the passive position of the dreamer, the spectator the consumer.
In 1934, Ghani joined the Gola Gokarnath Sugar Mill in UP as Labour officer. But due to his extraordinary talents he was promoted Chief Chemist in a short time. It was the love of a Parsi girl Roshan that the fire of love once again ignited in the temple of Zoroastra of Balkh (the first Pukhtoon prophet of the ancient Bakhtria) in the heart of Ghani. Roshan was a daughter of Rustam Ji Parsi of Hyderabad Deccan and he married her in December 1939.
When the Takht Bhai Sugar Mill was set up in 1940, Ghani joined it as technical Manager. But he resigned from service in 1943 due to government’s hostel attitude and the behaviour of Mill’s administration. He was elected as a member of the Central Legislature of Official delegation to represent India in a Conference of FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization). In 1947, he presided over the all India Youth Conference held at Cownpur. He organized Zalmay Pukhtoon on April 26, 1947. “The Zalmay Pukhtoon follows Sher Shah Suri and Ahmad Shah Baba. The Zalmay Pukhtoon only listen to the Pukhtoon… The Zalmay Pukhtoon is not a political intrigue. But it is an attempt to awaken the Pukhtoons. It was not a violent group but it was formed for the defence of unarmed people. Late Sardar Daud Khan, the Prime Minister of Afghanistan wanted Ghani Khan to come to Afghanistan and represent their country in the UN. But Ghani Khan refused with thanks.
Ghani’s work is as much an expression of his life and times as it is of art. He was mast Young, he was master of all crafts. He was musr he was Malang (hermit) when he was old. His personality reflects a cultural bridge and bound between Central Asia and south Asia, a blend of Occidental and oriental, a milieu of and rural and urban and Muslim and non Muslim. And lastly, in the words of n artist “art is traumatic discovery. What that discovery is may be beyond the hyper-reality of art and closer to the supernaturalism of Ghani Khan when he speaks of the artist behind his art Al Jameel and Al Musavvir”.
Abdul Ghani Khan died in the age of 82 on Friday night (15th March, 1996) after a protracted illness at Lady Reading Hospital Peshawar.
© 2005 Afghanan Dot Net