Pride of the East, watercolour on card, signed in Urdu left centre, framed, 56.4 x 46.7cm (22 3/16 x 18 3/8in).
Provenance: Private collection, France; acquired by the owner from the collection of Walter Scheel the former President of West Germany. In 1964 and at the behest of the German President Heinrich Lubehke, Walter Scheel visited Chughtai's home to present him with an award. They developed a good relationship and as a gesture of friendship this work was presented to Mr. Scheel at a State Reception in Bonn in 1976 by the artist's son Arif Rahman Chughtai.
Pride of the East portrays the head and torso of a servant girl with distinctly Persian facial features offering a twisted-glass wine decanter to an invisible guest seated below, just beyond the picture plane. A sheer headscarf sets off her chestnut hair, jewellery adorns her ears, neck and fingers. Her body is overly proportioned in relationship to the head, its solid frame and globular breasts are clad in luminous hues of orange and pink. Both are common conventions in many of A.R. Chughtai's later paintings, confirming the dating of the work by the Chughtai Museum, Lahore, to 1968-1970. Much of the background is taken up with a wooden throne embellished with a delicate floral motif. Seven sections of diminishing arabesques narrow to the central flower or flame. Its pink colour resonates with that of the decanter.
The iconography of this piece suggests that we are in the presence of Saqi (literally 'wine-server'), an allegorical tool frequently employed in Persian and Urdu mystic poetry. Saqi, the 'Server' who pours intoxicating libation into the empty cup of the self-less seeker, is the symbol for the presence of the Beloved or Divine. The Throne (al'arsh) of God the All-Merciful (al-Rahman) which encompasses the whole universe rises behind her. Note the relationship between the wine container and the heart of the motif, ultimately demonstrating that tavern, wine and Saqi are but One.
Favoured as a literary device by Islamic poets from Hafiz to Ghalib for allowing dual allusions to both God and earthly love, Saqi is often given the trappings of a beautiful seductress, sometimes quite explicitly sexual. Though Chughtai has treated this subject before, it is of interest to note that whilst his Saqi figures are indeed attractive, sometimes ethereal, they remain chaste, emanating archetypal beauty within the parameters of tradition. In other words, she exists simultaneously in the present and a poetically romanticised past, she is both saqi and servant. In My Paintings in My Own Eyes he wrote that:
'At every step and at every turn I have highlighted our values and the tradition of our civilization and culture, so that they provide proof of their being Eastern, so that we develop everlasting love and attachment with them. After all, it is none other than our past which can strengthen our present and future.' (Akbar Naqvi, Image and Identity, Fifty years of Painting and Sculpture in Pakistan, Karachi, 1998, p.99)
This fierce pride lies at the very core of Chughtai's art. From the beginning of his career he perceived his practice as developing a viable parallel to western modernism by assimilating the long art history of the Sub-continent and Persia whilst advocating the quintessential hybridity of Mughal art as the bedrock for the evolution of an indigenous artistic identity.
I would like to thank Arif Chughtai for confirming the dating for this work.