Portraits by Guljee

Amin Ismail Gulgee – The World is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.
GEO TV Report on You Tube: GulGee: A Legend in Calligraphy, Painting, Sculptures
Gulgee: the last of the Mohicans – Dawn Pakistan
An artist of the soil gone forever – The News International Pakistan
Celebs mourn Gulgee’s murder – Daily Times

Media across the world are reporting murder of renowned Pakistani artist Guljee and his wife.

May their soul rest in peace.

We have earlier highlighted a story of Guljee at Ismaili Mail Blog. Here, we would like to extract some critical parts of his interview with Humayun Gauhar from Blue Chip Blog taken in April/May 2007. This whole interview is worth a read. Highly recommend.

His mosaics are done with thousands of pieces of lapis lazuli put together with no glaze or colour used. He points to a portrait of Prince Karim Aga Khan done in mosaic which took a year to complete. “It is like the work of Rembrandt but a thousand times more difficult to do,” says Gulgee. “Italians have done mosaics in stone but they are so incompetently done.”

“My biggest wish was that in my country, a time would come when people start having respect for artists. That hasn’t happened. Artists are so vulnerable. Their profession is so difficult. Zindagi, rozi kamane ke liye kitna mushkil hae [Life, it’s tough to earn a living]. How much they sacrifice to be an artist. Except for respect, there is nothing else they can get.”


Like the Sufi mystic poet Rahman Baba of the Khalil-Mohmand tribe, the great warrior poet Khushal Khan Khattak, chief of the Khattak tribe and the famous contemporary Urdu poet Ahmad Faraz, Gulgee is a Pathan. Ismail Gulgee was born in Peshawar on October 25, 1926. His father and grandfather had moved there from Attock, while his mother was from Hazara.

Another surprise is that Gulgee belongs to the Ismaili community, followers of His Highness the Aga Khan. You normally don’t associate this sub-sect of the Shia with Pathans. Peshawar, though, had a vibrant Ismaili community. Gulgee’s father studied at the Muslim College Peshawar. He was an engineer employed with the government and Gulgee traveled with him a lot. His grandfather was a Sunday painter. Gulgee first studied at Peshawar Convent School and then went to finish high school studies in Lawrence College situated in the Himalaya Mountains in a place called Ghora Galli near the British hill station called Murree.

I had gone to Karachi to meet and talk to Gulgee. I do my best to avoid travel, having done more than a normal person would in two lifetimes, but a call from the last of our great masters galvanized me into action. In any case, Gulgee had known my late father Mr. Altaf Gauhar, who had been a patron of the arts. He was the one who founded the Arts Council in Karachi and the Gallery for Contemporary Art in Rawalpindi.

Here I was writing about Gulgee but there I have gone telling you stories about Pathans, rivers and other artists. So back to Gulgee.

“I wanted to be a painter and my parents were planning to send me to Paris to study art. Like all children I used to draw. I was a painter right from the day I was born. It is said that I was painting even in my mother’s womb. Like a person who is madly in love with a woman and could do anything for her, I was madly in love with painting. But things got bad and my parents could not afford to send me anywhere.”


Gulgee’s father suggested that he take up such subjects for studies that would give him a chance to win a scholarship. “So I opted for mathematics and engineering and won the scholarship.” Gulgee earned a scholarship for Aligarh University and then won the scholarship for postgraduate studies at Columbia University. He studied engineering and later taught at Colombia. When asked whether he had ever taught painting, he said, “No. You can either paint or teach.”

Gulgee continues: “I was teaching mathematics to graduate students of engineering at the Aligarh University when I was 20 years old. All my students were older than me without exception. I would go in my slippers and talk to them. We were good friends and they liked me. We remained friends afterwards.”

When I asked whether he couldn’t have got a scholarship in art, he got animated: “Art mein koi miltey hai? Shukar karo maar naheen daitay.” [Does one ever get a scholarship in art? Thank God one is not killed.]

But he stressed that he did not feel the need to study painting. “I never had a problem there. My training had all been in mathematics. It doesn’t sound very modest but I have been very good at whatever I attempted, whether it was mathematics, art or engineering. In engineering, I got a first class and came first in Aligarh University. I got an average of 86.6 percent. And the person who came second with a 200 marks difference became a famous engineer who later joined the United Nations.”

Has his background in mathematics helped him in painting? “I think so,” said Gulgee, his brow furrowed. “Apparently the two [painting and mathematics] are very different but they are very much the same. My field was mechanics.” He explains what mechanics is about: “You are standing here, 20 feet to that side and 10 feet down, what is the effect of my standing here at that time?” I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.

After the teaching stint at Aligarh, Gulgee went to study at Columbia. “Uss waqt mil bhee jatay thay scholarship” [In those days one could get a scholarship]. When I went for the interview for the scholarship, I told them of my project which I had dedicated to Aga Khan Sultan Mahomed Shah. One of the persons there said, ‘But the Aga Khan is not an engineer.’ I said, no, I was doing it in my personal capacity, out of respect. I got the scholarship without knowing anybody. And that was a big thing, three years of fully paid scholarship. It included not only fees but lodging and other expenses too.

“I was looking to do a PhD from Harvard but the government took me off to look at the design of Warsak Dam” — for which Gulgee worked with a company in Sweden. “I participated in the actual design of the dam and spent a year-and-a-half with HG Acres and Company, which was assigned the designing work of Warsak.” In the early Fifties Gulgee held his first exhibition in Stockholm where his paintings were sold before the exhibition opened. Back in Pakistan Gulgee joined government service but wanted to resign after only a few months. Prince Karim Aga Khan’s grandfather, Sultan Mahomed Shah, persuaded him to keep the job. “He said to me, ‘What your country needs at the moment is engineers and there are not that many people with the kind of background that you have. Why don’t you work for five years and then you can still do your paintings?’ ”

Gulgee worked with the Central Engineering Authority and apart from the Warsak Dam, he also worked on some dams in East Pakistan. “I worked on every aspect of designing and wrote a series of reports which was very useful information because all the engineers were there. [The report covered] all the designs they did, the assumptions they used and the kind of tests and investigations they had to do to arrive at the kind of assumptions.”

But not all his work hours were spent in mechanical calculations. He was often officially asked to do portraits. The last five years at work “I was mostly painting…doing portraits. Kabhee kisi ko khush karna hae [having to please a person at times]. And I was very happy. Mazedar zamana tha [Those were enjoyable times]. Engineering to karnee par rahee thee [I had to do engineering, of course]. I also had the chance to do what I liked doing.” It is like the wazeefa in the Mughal period.

Gulgee continues, “Then the government sent me to Afghanistan to do a portrait of King Zahir Shah. They desperately wanted to make good relations with Afghanistan. I was asked to do a very flattering portrait of the King that would please him. I told them that I would try to make a flattering portrait but when I do a portrait I have no control over it. I react to the person. So if you want to make sure it is a flattering portrait you have to go to some other painter who only makes flattering portraits. Luckily, Zahir Shah was also an artist. He used to paint. He invited me to Kabul and I stayed there for three years. I made portraits of the King, his granddaughter, Wali Khan, his uncle and of Sir Mahmood Khan Ghazi.”

“Was that the time when Aslam Khattak was the ambassador?” I ask.

“Exactly,” Gulgee replies. “I stayed at the Kabul Hotel and Aslam Khattak walked in and told his men to carry all my luggage and follow him. What a lovely gesture!”

In Afghanistan, he did sketches as well as portraits in oil and had an exhibition in Kabul of nearly 100 drawings. “It was a wonderful experience,” he says. “They are lovely people. The land as well as the people are beautiful.”

But were there any cultural activities at that time? “Here and there.”

“But not much?” I press.

“Idher kon see much hotee hain [How many do you get to see here],” replies Gulgee.

After continuing for 10 years he left the job to pursue art. At that, he says, his parents felt that, “bechare kee kismet kharab hae [Poor thing, he is ill-fated].”

He met Zaro, who later became his wife, for the first time in Dhaka. “I was doing a portrait of Karim Aga Khan and was traveling with him to Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, Chitagong and then to Paris.” They got married in Paris. The magnificent portrait of her that hangs in his sitting room was done a couple of years after their marriage.

Abstract expressionism was the rage in America when Gulgee went to study there. He visited galleries and “anyone could do that”, was his impression of the abstract expressionism. “They were not all great painters. The desperate need of the people for heroes in art made them into painters of substance, whether there was any depth or not. Talent was there. But they can make their little talent go a long way in making it a big happening.” He wasn’t that fascinated by it but “liked the free and easy way of working.” In his own work, he says that not only the hand moves with freedom, but there is content too. “Art critic Eric Gibson came to my exhibition in Washington [in 1993]. He came only because it was in a museum. He said, ‘Mr Gulgee you don’t need to come with me, I like to see the paintings on my own. Matlab dafaa ho jayo teri zaroorat naheen hae [Meaning, get lost, you are not needed]. I said, I would like to ask you one favour: spend a little time with at least one of my paintings. He came running back and said, ‘Gulgee what have you done. Our artists have been doing the same work. But you have got something in your work which they don’t get.’ Then I took him along and said in these works you need a connection beyond…call it nature, God…us ke bagher naheen hota.” Gibson wrote in The Washington Post: “Mr Gulgee began as a portraitist, moving into his colour abstractions only in the past 20 years. These paintings are by far his most interesting. In them, the artist is attempting to fuse two traditions: Islamic calligraphy, in which writing both carries a religious text and decorates a page, and the Western style of Abstract Expressionism, with its movemented brushstrokes. These paintings combine the two traditions with grace and elegance, and at the same time manage to transcend them. The paintings stand as more than the sum of their sources.”

Quranic words “mein jadoo hota hae [have magic]”, he says. The way the words move along dovetailing each other, “us mein maza aata hei [gives a great sense of pleasure]. Mine is a new direction in calligraphy.” The previous work was not spiritually different from what had gone before, he says. “You have to merge yourself in the husn [beauty] of that writing and in that kefiyat [state] you write.”

His mosaics are done with thousands of pieces of lapis lazuli put together with no glaze or colour used. He points to a portrait of Prince Karim Aga Khan done in mosaic which took a year to complete. “It is like the work of Rembrandt but a thousand times more difficult to do,” says Gulgee. “Italians have done mosaics in stone but they are so incompetently done.”

His son, Amin Gulgee, has already established himself as one of Pakistan’s leading artists. “I am very proud of him. I have not taught him anything. We don’t discuss paintings or sculptures. We do our own work. He has learned from me in the sense that he saw me work. I neither discouraged nor encouraged him. He is one of the most talented artists living today.”

Paksitan’s greatest living artist, Gulgee has witnessed the fall of the British and Soviet empires, the creation of a country and its painful division in 1971. Does he look back at our history in sadness or does he still retain that original spirit of hope?

“My biggest wish was that in my country, a time would come when people start having respect for artists. That hasn’t happened. Artists are so vulnerable. Their profession is so difficult. Zindagi, rozi kamane ke liye kitna mushkil hae [Life, it’s tough to earn a living]. How much they sacrifice to be an artist. Except for respect, there is nothing else they can get.”


Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

19 thoughts

  1. Gulgee, tragically, has returned to his original abode accompanied by his beloved wife and their maid. What a sad end to a remarkable life..a brilliant engineer in his youndg days, an acclaimed artist at the end of his life.

    About his experience of ascribing Allah in his calligraphy, the world renowned artist of whom all of us as Ismailis and Muslims can be proud of, Gulgee had this to say when he spoke at the Aga Khan University on March 19, 2003:

    “…when I wrote Allah, I felt Allah in my blood, in my bones, and in my soul, and I wrote it, abandoning oneself, without a thought of what it is going to look like”.

    The ultimate outcome was always left in the hands of God.

    True submission, indeed.

    May Allah rest his soul and the souls who departed with him in eternal peace. May his family and friends and all whose hearts he touched and captivated through his inspiring works find strength during these difficult days. Amen


  2. A link to a portrait of the late Imam by Gulgee posted at the IIS web site –

    I recall seeing a portrait (mosaic in lapiz lazulli?, I wonder) of Mawlana Hazar Imam at the Ismaili Centre in London as you climb the stairs to the Jamat Khana . Is that by Gulgee?

    The social hall contained a number of calligraphies, and I wondered whether they were also done by Gulgee.

    Someone from the UK with an answer?


  3. That’s a big loss to the Ismaili community as well! Guljee’s work is displayed and used as inpiration in many Ismaili Centers and Jamat Khanas including The Ismaili Center, London and Houston Permanent Center in Sugar Land, TX.


  4. The shocking news numbed my mind, sunk my heart, Guljee was a true Muslim, a genius with God-given extremely rare talent, ironic that his illustrious and noble life should end in such a tragic manner. I hope the perpetrator/s are caught and brought to exemplary justice. Having said that we should celebrate his life and bring out his creative and fabulous art to the world to recognize his genius even more so after his untimely death. Truly appreciate the links sent, to see and enjoy the astonishing creations of Guljee and may Allah bless his son with even more talent.


  5. The great loss of Pakistan’s art icon is deeply disheartening. An anguish to lose, yet one another radiant master of art. Ismail Guljee was an incredible conversationist, immaculate colourist and a skilled abstract painter. Also he had some talent in the culinary arts, as he was known to make the best ‘murghi ka achar’, and loved the company of visitors. Most of his paintings were only accessible to some…. and not to all.

    These senseless three deaths are very saddening. May Allah give jannah to the departed souls.


  6. The Daily Times of December 21st, reports as follows:

    The funeral prayers of Gulgee and his wife, Zareen, were offered in Kharadar Jamatkhana on Thursday afternoon and they were buried in Mewashah Graveyard. Amin Gulgee, close friends of the family, and celebrities attended.

    Also, see link to book about “Gulgee” , published in 2000


  7. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Gulgee in London in 1978 during Hazar Imam’s visit. I was introduced to him by Ms Hoodbhoy -though ashamed to say that I was unaware of this famous artist at the timel We sat together to eat lunch and spend almost half a day together. However, it wasn’t long before his name cropped up in various magazines and news papers that I realised how famous this man was. I have come to know lots of famous people through my work of 30 years in the media, but whenever I hear Mr Gulgee’s name or see an article about him I feel elated.


  8. I met Guljee as 10 year old on a shoe store.I and my sister were awestruck to see him and were afraid if we should approach him and say hello.He was accompanied by his wife and they talked to us in such tones and in such down to earth manner, telling us that he and zarro had come to shop for shoes for zarro.
    It so sad that such a soft spoken and down to earth people were so brutally murdered.


  9. Guljee was already not very well when we heard about the sad news of his murder. When I saw the photograph of Guljee in Dawn, in a flash of second my heart sank as I assumed he was no more. How he died was all the more saddening and shocking. And still more because in Muslim socities and countries like Pakistan talent and widom are already have no regard. A county where instead of making institutions, existing ones are weakened and destroyed, person like Guljee, Hakeem Mohammad Saeed are killed is height of cruelty and degeneration. A country where Justice is subdued and Chief Justice along with 60 other judges are dismissed by just a stroke of pen and are house arrested, where political leasders are hanged, killed and banished, where Atomic Scientist is disgraced and house arrested one can only put ash in one’s head!! And what to speak of common men, they are at the mercy of killers and so-called terrorists at their will.

    Once I found Guljee browsing a two volume book on the speeches and work of Sir Sultan Mohammad Shah Aga Khan III published from London he was mumbling as I was standing beside him. When I showed my interest as to what he was saying he complained that publisher had printed the coloured photograph of his mosaic work done on Sir Aga Khan without a courtesy. In a mood of amusement he was asking the book seller “do you know who had made it” to which latter was unaware. I do not know what inside he may be thinking about our lack of knowledge about our icons.

    In one of my brief chitchats with him when I asked him if he had the photgraph in which he was making the portrait of Prince Karim Aga Khan. He said “No”. And he was pleased to know when I told him I had and he was jubilant and delighted when I assured him that I would send you the copy, which I did. But since then I have been thinking it was never possible that he did not have that photograph on his record, probably he wished to please me.

    Guljee and persons of his standing were institutions in themselves and deserved to be respected and rewarded for their contribution. After what has happened one can only pray for sanity to pervail.


  10. Gulgee is an irreparable loss to Muslim World,Pakistan and to Ismaili Community. As an art icon he would always be remembered who took an unbeaten path and lead the way to new horizons in art and culture. May his sould rest in peace


  11. no doubt he was a grate artist of Pakistan….
    After centuries these type of artist take birth.
    we are proud of him. may his soul rest in peace


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