Dr Ajaz Anwar on Anna Molka’s “bold style... not just in painting-knife strokes but in the way she handles the medium”
s one enters the gallery displaying a most prized collection of Pakistani art, one comes across four pieces by Anna Molka Ahmed cast in plaster of Paris. Otherwise, the space is reserved for three of the foremost painters of Pakistan, namely Chughtai, Allah Bux and Sadequain. Next to the partitioning walls, these sculptures have been displayed prominently under favourable natural light augmented by electric bulbs. Three pieces have been painted over in black and one in silver and protected with lacquer, though I find the idea of covering plaster of Paris casts with black paint debatable.
The people whose busts have been portrayed are Soofi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum, Khalid Iqbal, Moyene Najmi and Naseem Hafeez Qazi. None of them needs introduction but for the general public Mr Athar Tahir has provided brief bios for each of them. The way the individual personalities have been highlighted with definite characteristic contours is what defines the casts. Anna Molka’s bold style is clearly on display, not in painting-knife strokes but in the way she has handled the medium. She has finished the otherwise plain frontal bones of the foreheads with kneaded clay and with brush handles given those varied textures. Seen from a side, these manipulations give a distinctive light and dark effect. She understood the anatomy of the human face and treated the protruding and sunken elements with great sensitivity. The faces have deep sunken sockets through which the eyeballs and the lids protrude. The Greeks believed in perfect symmetry for the facial as well as other bodily outlines. However, the Romans reserved such perfection for the gods alone. They, thus, excelled in portraying human features with all the distortions resulting from the hardships endured during the course of a life.
These busts are in life size. Anna Molka knew well that the eyes lie in the middle of the face and that there is a distance equal to an eye length between the two eyes. The nose, she used to tell us, is like a bird’s beak. To her, neck was akin to a tree trunk. Various facial muscles in these portraits seem to be twitching. One lip, lower or upper, is protruding more than than the other. The eyes, though slanting inwards or outwards, give the illusion of a different slope. Her best portrait, not part of this collection, is without any eyes. It is the portrait of a blind man who happened to pass in front of her office at the Department of Fine Arts. When she invited him into her office, the man may have expected some alms. Instead, he was taught to pose for her. As she put on alluvial, kneaded clay over the armature, he was told to stay still and be calm. He was given some remuneration for the day and instructed to come again. The visually impaired model, who was paid handsomely, had provided the artist a masterpiece that is worth a fortune. With no eyes in the sockets, he seemed to challenge or appeal to those with eyesight: Akhian waalayo. The piece is in the collection of her daughter Tahira. It must have escaped the attention of Mr Tahir. Else, he would have acquired it for the Arts Council collection.
Professor (Emeritus) Khalid Iqbal’s bust is in his casual shirt, wrinkles encircle the neck and the head is turned to one side. His eyes are asymmetrically placed, one tilting more than the other; the lips curl in a reluctant smile; the hair have been combed rather carelessly.
Soofi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum of Tot Batot fame has posed wearing his usual local shirt. Being considerably bald with only a frill of hair around his head must have presented a considerable problem in shaping his occipital bone. The protruding nose and a friendly frown were his trade mark. When his mother died he had remarked that the lady who used to address me as Mustafa is no more. He had built himself a big bungalow in Samanabad near the Doongi Ground that could have housed his Tot Batoat series but that was not to be. Returning from Islamabad, he had boarded a taxi. The driver later said he wondered as to why the poet was not responding to his request for directions. Soofi sahib was found to have passed away. Someone from amongst the crowd that quickly came around recognised him and guided the driver to his house. The bungalow was soon sold away to disburse the shares of the various claimants.
The elongated head, a broad forehead and thick eyebrows shielding sunken eyes, a long nose ending in a conical chin represent Moyeye Najmi. He was a descendent of Ghulam Rasul Tarrar who had left vast properties in trust. Najmi was a fine painter with semi-abstract rendering. He taught at the Alhamra evening art classes and was the art master at the Aitcheson College. He had been lured into joining the Punjab Arts Council, then located in the PUCAR hall of Free Mason’s Lodge, as a deputy director. Soon, he unceremoniously dismissed from service to make way for a yes0-man. However, he continued running The Gallery located in his ancestral bungalow at 6 Golf Road.
The bust of Prof Nasim Hafeez Qazi stands on a wooden pedestal. Her long neck and protruding cheek bones and proud nose represent a confident personality. She was on the staff of Lahore College for Women from where her services were borrowed - on deputation – by the University of the Punjab. She was a very sincere teacher and an authority on Muslim art and architecture. She led a Spartan life and was extremely punctual. Her paintings of children in routine activities are unsurpassed. All her collection was donated by her brothers to the Lahore College where one can see it displayed in a gallery dedicated to her. She was elevated to the post of principal but chose to remain the head of Fine Arts Department. She was also chairperson of the Punjab Artists Association. After her two-year tenure ended forty years ago, she passed the baton to Ijazul Hassan who has kept it ever since.
Sculpture has a long tradition in this country. The Priest King and the Dancing Girl from the Indus Valley are some of the earliest creations here. In fact, the bronze casting for the figurine through lost wax technique predates the Shang period. The ease with which the little girl stands is even more interesting than the Degas’s ballerinas in pastels. The seals with intaglio relief images of Bulls and other higher order animals supplemented by as yet to be deciphered script, shall be discussed in another dispatch. Gandhara relief and free standing sculptures as seen in the Central Museum, Lahore, reflect a fresh wave of Greco Hellenistic influences. Carved in grey schist stone, the Fasting Buddha is one of its kind. Hindu rock-cut temples and the sculptures contained therein are among the best in the world.
Modern art education as initiated in JJ School of arts, Bombay, introduced sculpture in new materials and interpretation. BC Sanyal, formerly from Mayo School of Arts, was a fine sculptor. Taufiq Ijaz, a teacher in sculpture at the National College, made a very fine bust of his colleague at the PTV, Tariq Aziz. It is now lying with Huma. It should be retrieved and included in this collection.
We can conclude that Anna Molka’s sculpture pieces are fine portraits in three dimensions that bring out the character of the sitter.
(This dispatch is dedicated to Athar Tahir)
The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at ajazartbrain.net.pk