Jimmy described his wall paintings depicting Allama Iqbal’s masterpiece Javed Namah as his most difficult work, but also one of his major artistic achievements
“I have been sent here,” said an unfamiliar man, in a dark shalwar kameez, as he stood silhouetted in the doorway of my Karachi hotel room. It was late in the evening and he had insisted on seeing me personally and alone, an unnerving demand in 1997, when the filming had just started on my film Jinnah. There was a storm of controversy and the film, its cast, and crew were being attacked in the media. We were taken to court and a case was instituted to shut down production. Although we won the case, commentators speculated whether the entire enterprise would collapse mid-way.
Op-Ed by Akbar Ahmed | Daily Times , Lahore
It is in this context that the man’s words sounded inspirational to me. “From now on,”he said, “I will be by your side and will escort you to your plane when the film is completed. You will succeed despite the opposition.”
The man was Jimmy Engineer, one of the most famous painters and social activists of Pakistan.
Jimmy, a Zoroastrian, hinted that a “transcendental power” had sent him. He presented a video cassette to me and insisted that I watch it. In the darkly-lit sequence filmed with a hand held camera, Jimmy was seen entering a cave and there was a cage containing two lions. At first, the lions were agitated, but they calmed down eventually.
“talking to people, showing my work and telling them that we are not all extremists. We are artists, lecturers, doctors and scientists. It became my mission to travel all over the world creating a positive image of Pakistan.” — Jimmy Engineer
“Your position is quite similar to what has been shown in the film. You too are facing ferocious lions in a cage. But I have been sent to be by your side, and in the end, you will accomplish your mission.”
True to his word, throughout the long and difficult shooting in Karachi and Lahore Jimmy was by my side. He even walked from Karachi to Lahore on a one-man crusade to raise funds, after the government reneged on its agreement to contribute funds for Jinnah. As he had promised, he ultimately saw me off at the Karachi airport.
Jimmy’s Parsi community immigrated to the Subcontinent from Persia in the seventh century. There are fewer than 1,800 Parsis in Pakistan today with fewer than 190,000 in the world total, he told me. The Zorastrians have a tradition where one’s profession is reflected in their name, so Jimmy’s last name was given because his father and grandfather were engineers, although he did not end up pursuing their careers.
Jimmy was born in Loralai, Balochistan, in 1954. At the age of only six, doctors told his family that his kidneys were failing and that he had only three months to live. Three months later, however, he was still alive and the doctors informed his family his kidneys appeared “brand new.” It was, his family said, a “miracle” and Jimmy believes he was given a second chance. “I’m trying to repay God through my work,” he said in 2009, “I don’t refuse anyone if they need help.”
He went on to study at St. Anthony High School and at the National College of Arts, both in Lahore, and became a professional painter in 1976. A theme running through his work has been universal compassion for all people, especially the poor and down trodden. Jimmy has produced over 3,000 paintings-which have sold for as much as 1.6 million pounds-and more than 1,500 drawings and 1,000 calligraphies. 700,000 of his prints are held in private collections in over 60 countries. His drawings and paintings encompass many genres including abstracts, human figures, animals, landscapes, calligraphies, seascapes, religious, historical, and philosophical works, and still-lifes.
“As I grew up,” Jimmy elaborated in an interview in Sri Lanka’s Daily News, “I became a student of nature. You are dealing with the perfect master then, because nature is perfect while we are imperfect….”
Jimmy described his wall paintings depicting Allama Iqbal’s masterpiece Javed Namah as his most difficult work, but also one of his major artistic achievements. Jimmy explained that he was invited to paint Javed Namah by Iqbal’s son. Iqbal had written a letter to his son,Jimmy said in 2012,”that he would like some artist to create a visual display of the philosophy in the poem. There were two or three great painters from other countries who tried their hand at the deed. They were only able to paint one scene not the whole thing. I went through his letter and discovered that he had written that the man who paints ‘Javed Nama’ will have a great name in the world”. When Iqbal’s son, came to ask Jimmy when the work would be finished, Jimmy said that”I would tell him that his father too comes to me asking that question.”
Jimmy has held over 80 art exhibitions in Pakistan and around the world. “I have traveled all over the world,” he said in 2013, “talking to people, showing my work and telling them that we are not all extremists. We are artists, lecturers, doctors and scientists. It became my mission to travel all over the world creating a positive image of Pakistan.”
He is keenly aware of this importance in the west. “Whenever I show my work in Europe or the United States,”Jimmy said in 2009 in Houston, Texas,”it changes the mind of people when they look at it. For a moment they forget that I’m from Pakistan. They feel that I’m part of the international community, and it helps change their perception and image of my country, which is often negative.” Jimmy’s father, as it turns out, is a prominent religious leader based in Houston, where there is a distinguished Zoroastrian community. Among its members is the famous Pakistani novelist Bapsi Sidhwa.
In 2017, Jimmy exhibited his artwork in China at the prestigious Zhengyangmen Museum in Beijing. The exhibit was entitled, “Art, Culture and Heritage of Pakistan” and included his striking and moving painting “The Last Burning Train of 1947,” which depicts the impact on refugees during the horrific violence that befell the Subcontinent during Partition. The painting is part of a series of paintings on canvas depicting the human tragedy of Partition.
Jimmy has additionally led more than 100 walks for social causes, arranged over 140 awareness programs for handicapped and orphaned children, and donated 700,000 prints of his work to charity.
When I asked him who inspires him, he told me, demonstrating his embrace of other religions, that he was “a close disciple of Sufi Barkat Ali of Faisalabad,” and “I accepted all religions as my personal belief.” Invoking Zarathustra of his Zoroastrian faith, Jimmy elaborated on his philosophy, “Our Prophet taught us three words. Good Words. Good Thoughts. Good Deeds.”
This philosophy comes through in his painting that he presented to me as a gift when he met me in Washington, D.C. It is a large work of calligraphy of the shahada, and I have it proudly displayed in my office. When guests come and ask about it, I point out that it is by one of Pakistan’s most famous painters who is not a Muslim, and they are invariably surprised.
Jimmy has received many awards from all over the world, including The National Endowment of the Arts Award in the United States in 1988 and the Sitara-e-Imtiaz for Art from the Government of Pakistan in 2005. Despite these numerous accolades, he says, “I call myself the servant of Pakistan. That is the only title I am proud of.”
The writer is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity