The Delicate Beauty of the Ordinary: Sughra Rababi’s Paintings

We live at a frenetic pace consuming vast amounts of the world every day. This ‘too-muchness’ of our life has left little space for slowing down and waiting for the world to unravel its gifts one by one. We want everything and we want it now.

Therefore, we are surprised to learn about the old practices of teachers who didn’t give away knowledge as if everyone were entitled to it without earning it. In the late 1930s, a young girl, Sughra Rababi, was sent to Man Mohan Roy Chowdery, the principal of the Saranagati Art School in Karachi, Pakistan, to learn art.

For the first couple of years, she had to practice drawing without being allowed to touch paints. Only in her third year, when her teachers deemed her ready was she given the gift of paints and brushes. The same girl was awarded a scholarship to complete her post-graduate studies at Rabindranath Tagore’s Vishwabharati University at Shantineketan in Bengal, India. Here, she had the good fortune to learn under master artists such as Nandalal Bose and Abanindranath Tagore whose art, though rooted in indigenous traditions, also borrowed from contemporary international movements. Rababi imbibed all of these to develop a unique amalgamation of a traditional yet modern style.


Mehandi, 1981, Sughra Rababi’s Facebook page managed by her daughter, Dr Zeba Vanek

After graduation, in the early 1940s, Rababi submitted two of her paintings, Anarkali and The Slave Girl, to the All India Painting Competition. Stalwarts like Tagore and A. R. Chughtai had also participated in the competition. But to everyone’s surprise, Rababi’s Anarkali won the first prize. This unexpected win marked the beginning of a five decade long career.

Sughra Rababi is now celebrated as one of the most prominent post-independence modern painters of Pakistan. Inspired by both Mughal Art and western aesthetics, she infused everyday objects and scenes with delicate beauty in all her artworks. Her early training perhaps trained her to pay attention to small, quotidian details.


Mehandi, 1981, Sughra Rababi’s Facebook page managed by her daughter, Dr Zeba Vanek

She was equally moved by human sorrow and suffering and turned towards philanthropy early on. She dedicated entire exhibitions to raise funds for Palestinian students, Somalian famine victims and Bosnian war victims. In recognition of her artistic and humanitarian contributions, UNICEF created a Sughra Rababi Fund. The Mayor of San Francisco also declared 19th January 1994, as ‘Sughra Rababi Day’ in San Francisco, where she had held a charitable exhibition.


The Dancers, Sughra Rababi’s Facebook page managed by her daughter, Dr Zeba Vanek

Just three days later, Rababi met a shocking and heartbreaking death as she was stabbed in her studio while working on a benefit for Bosnian war victims. While Rababi’s life may have ended abruptly, her spirit lives on in the artworks she has left behind, which continue to benefit countless people around the world.

Images: Sughra Rababi’s Facebook page managed by her daughter, Dr Zeba Vanek

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