Before moving to Pakistan after the Partition of India in 1947, Sadequain was a calligrapher at All India Radio, transcribing songs and texts for guest performers. In 1957, however, his clear calligraphic style was challenged when he encountered the strikingly angular cactus plants on the Balochistan coast. In his painting Cactus (1960), he merged vague letterforms in Urdu (thus also Persian and Arabic) with thorny branches and free-form trickles of paint to create an almost completely abstract composition.
Sadequain’s calligraphic modernism was celebrated when the Pakistani State acceded to religious conservatism in the 1970s and ’80s. His undated calligraphic painting Boats at Sea incorporates the text, “In the name of the memorable Qur’an. In the name of the glorious Qur’an. In the name of the pen [and anything it writes].” Not surprisingly, this work was presented by the Pakistani government— then under the Islamizing dictatorship of Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq (1924–1980) —to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1980. Sadequain’s relationship to the state and to religion, however, was never straightforward. His religiosity was that of a wandering Sufi ascetic and throughout his career his paintings and murals maintained a sense of freedom, even hallucinogenic affect. Boats at Sea, for example, combines loose washes of paint with the same fine, sharp lines as in his other paintings, such as Cactus. While the religious script itself is carefully executed, Sadequain thus surrounds it with free-form painterly gestures.
Born into a family of Islamic calligraphers, Sadequain drew on this aesthetic tradition throughout his painting career. In 1944, Sadequain moved to New Delhi and worked as a calligrapher for All India Radio. From 1946 to 1948 he studied at the University of Agra. In 1947, after the partition of the British Indian Empire, Sadequain identified as Pakistani and joined the Progressive Artists and Writers Movement. Sadequain’s work was exhibited at the residence of Pakistani Prime Minister to be Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy (1892–1963) in 1955. Subsequently, he received a number of public commissions for large-scale murals. Notable examples include Treasures of Time (1961) for the State Bank of Pakistan, Karachi; Saga of Labor (1967) for the Mangla Dam Power House, Azad Kashmir; and Evolution of Mankind (1973) in the entrance hall of the Lahore Museum. Sadequain’s art heroicized the working class and included symbols of struggle, such as cacti. In 1960, Sadequain won Pakistan’s national prize for painting and left for Paris later that year. In 1961 he won the laureate for artists under thirty-five at the Paris Biennale. He returned to Pakistan in 1967. Sadequain’s influence resulted in the use of calligraphy becoming widespread within Pakistani contemporary art.