NuktaArt and Rukhsana David in conversation with Colin David in Lahore
As you open the gray metallic front door and step into the home of Colin David, the environment of his paintings comes alive around you. The terraced space and the geometric patterns seem an extension of his art just as much as his signature palette of black, white and grays that dominates the interior. The artist has not been well for sometime and tires easily. Nevertheless, he not only consented to give an exclusive interview to NuktaArt but was also quite generous with his time.
Colin David’s paintings, with their distinct figurative vocabulary fused with Op-art, won him countrywide recognition during the 1960s. He is a graduate of the Punjab University, Fine Arts Department. The figure, which he has always painted with such an intense engagement, was transformed with geometrical patterns that he saw around him during his year in UK, when the Op-Art Movement was at its peak.
By the1980s, when the political climate in Pakistan was less conducive for figurative painting and even less for nudes that had begun to dominate his canvas, Colin David remained firmly faithful to his muse and his passion. The landscape was to enter his compositions as a subversive devise and the nude caught in twilight was woven into natural elements. Since then his paintings have got darker - with light present only in an occasional spark or in strategically placed colored objects that indicate the depth of field. The balance of his work always hangs from spatial tensions between the nude, natural elements and man-made objects. Details are seldom important in these paintings of subdued tones of green and gray, that the late art critic Syed Amjad Ali, in his book, Painters of Pakistan, aptly describes: ‘an art of economy, restraint dispassionate realism and delicate balance.’
NuktaArt: When did you become aware that art was important to you?
Colin David: As a boy of 14, while cycling from my house at Nicholson Road to the Mall, I spotted this signboard painter’s workshop on the corner of Montgomery Road. I would stop by often as I loved watching him paint film hoardings with the help of his apprentices. I was impressed by the ease with which he painted on such a large scale and asked him a number of times if I could be his apprentice but he refused. I think it was a system where he only accepted his next of kin as an apprentice.
Once I ran away from home because I wanted to paint and my family felt my interest in art affected my grades in school. My mother and sisters, though proud of my talent, complained about me drawing all the time. I however completed my FSc. with science subjects because like all mothers at that time, my mother too wanted me to be an engineer or do something that was science based. Back then art did have a teaching prospect, but engaging in just painting was not thought of as a full time career for men, or anybody for that matter.
Finally, seeing my persistence, they relented, and after my FSc. I joined the evening classes at the Mayo School of Arts during summer vacations. In September the same year I took admission in the Fine Arts Department at the Punjab University. My father was a journalist and sometimes I feel I must have got my creativity from him since there were no artists in my family.
NuktaArt: How was the experience as a student at the Fine Arts Department of the Punjab University? What was the influence of your mentors like?
Colin David: I was one of the three boys that belonged to the first batch allowed admission at the Punjab University, which till then only accepted girl students. We did not share the studio space with the girls but we did have our theory classes together. The three of us were very hard working students, totally immersed into working and discussions on art with Mr. Khalid Iqbal, who was one of our teachers. In those days one did not disagree with the teachers even if one had a different viewpoint. Of course there was an ongoing debate about the use of colors - mostly between teachers. Mrs. (Molka) Ahmad was of the opinion that everything in the distance should have a bluish tint to show the atmosphere and that shadows should be darker when they are nearer, and fade away as they go into the distance. Khalid Iqbal believed the opposite: shadows lighter in the front and darker in the distance. He was a tonal painter and stressed on tone upon tone for modeling, whereas Mrs. Ahmad used different and often very bright colors to build up her paintings. We as students were exposed to divergent viewpoints, which also made us think.
The University was the hub of art activity in those years, more so than the National College of Arts (NCA). Artists met everyday and discussed art. Shakir Ali was a friend of Khalid Iqbal and would drop by often at the University. At the Slade School of Art, which I attended from 1961 to 1962, I found the atmosphere very different. One marked difference was that there was no spoon-feeding and one was required to be independent.
NuktaArt: You have taught art for several decades. How was your experience as a teacher?
Colin David: A year after I enrolled at the University as a student, I started teaching art at the Cathedral School. I joined as a teacher at the Fine Arts Department, Punjab University, in 1960, right after I did my Masters. Later, in 1965, I shifted to the NCA where I taught for 25 years.
Yes, teaching was a satisfying experience too. What I have stressed upon my students is the importance of the design of a painting: utilizing the space of the canvas and how one designs it so that it interacts positively with the other elements, has been an important issue for me and something that I have tried to inculcate in my students. However it is difficult for me to declare my contributions as a teacher since it is really for the students to answer that.
NuktaArt: The female nude has been central to your art. Can you tell us why nudes? It surely has not been easy for you to get acceptability as a painter of nudes.
Colin David: I find the female figure to be the most beautiful form and do not like to distort it. I make small sketches but in the mind I already know what I will paint. Each time I start working, I paint the figure first and then I add other elements.
Since the General Zia ul Haq period, I began to add landscape and objects to distract the viewer from the nude. There were many more collectors of nudes till 1980, but now it has become difficult to find collectors for a painting of a nude.
I had my first solo show in 1974. I usually hold private shows of my work. As a painter I was obviously disappointed at the ban imposed on the exhibition of nudes in national shows. However, it did not affect me much as I do not exhibit nudes in public shows, therefore the ban did not change my paintings.
NuktaArt: We remember one very unpleasant incident when your exhibition was vandalized. Can you tell us how that happened and what was the response of the art community?
Colin David: Despite the fact that for many years I have only had private shows, my paintings were vandalized at an exhibition held at my house. The year was 1989. During my exhibition some people, armed with big lathis, started breaking the windshields of cars that were parked in front of the house and belonged to the visitors. They then barged into the house with a loud ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ and ransacked the paintings and whatever came in their way. There were more than a hundred people in the house at the time and they were all stunned at the intrusion.
The press and the art world reacted instantaneously. I do not remember who the Deputy Commissioner of Lahore was at the time but he made a visit to the house after the NCA students and faculty took out a protest march. The press too continued to give coverage to the incident for over a month by printing protest articles by various people in all the English dailies. The Herald carried a three or four page article on the incident in its art section under the title ‘Art Attack’. The incident was unanimously cited as a breach of privacy and a violation of the sanctity of the house, which is strictly prohibited by the law of the land and its religious tenets.
NuktaArt: We also recall your work from early 2000, with Christ on the Crucifix. What draws you to this religious theme?
Colin David: While I was at a boarding school in Palampor, India, I remember watching an older student who was asked by the Principal to make religious drawings to put up on the school walls. Working in the Principal’s office he reproduced drawings in charcoal and pen and ink from pictures of Christ and the Crucifix. I was only ten at the time but I do remember his skill at drawing. I have painted the Crucifixion a number of times but I can’t say if that episode has exclusively influenced me to do so.
NuktaArt: If you had not become an artist, what vocation would you have chosen? Is there anything you would like to redo if given another chance?
Colin David: My career in art has been a very satisfying experience. As I have always been inclined towards it - right from my childhood - and am doing what I like best.
I cannot imagine what I would have been if I had not become a painter. I have never really thought of another career.
As I look back on my life as a painter I have no regrets at all and there is nothing that I would change if I had the chance to do so. My talent, together with my persistence in art perhaps convinced my family that I should not be discouraged to pursue an art education and I think that decision directed all that followed.
The most satisfying part of my career has of course been the actual act of painting and the sheer joy of being creative.