Of skull and bones

October 24, 2021

Dr Ajaz Anwar talks of teaching human anatomy at arts schools, and how the human models were replaced by plastic ones

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At the time of Partition, very few students were left in the two art institutions of Lahore — the Mayo School of Arts (the present-day NCA) and the Department of Fine Arts at the University of the Punjab. This was because few Muslim families could afford education, and for religious reasons still fewer would allow their children to study fine arts.

Yet, these once flourishing places of learning had some of the finest plaster cast pieces of ‘hands,’ facial details like the nose, the mouth, and even the ears for the students to draw from and improve their knowledge of human anatomical contours. Our matric school lab too had plaster cast models of ‘inner and outer ear’ with the cochlea showing through.

Even the life-size portraits of French philosophers such as Voltaire, with all the innocence reflected in their calm composure, were there to draw from. Where the human models needed regular rest and even moved a bit while posing, the plaster casts were frozen in time. A life-size female nude bust of some Greek beauty was a perfect model to draw from. For the record, I must say that there were female nude classes, albeit for female students, at the PU, in a secluded or heavily curtained studio — a practice discontinued later. A similar facility was available at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul where I was a visiting scholar from 1972 to ’78.

These classes didn’t spread any aphrodisiac aroma; these were normal classes, just like the drawing or painting sessions. Besides, these did not need any single national curriculum (SNC).

At some point these artistic pieces began to disappear, rather mysteriously. Smashed, or simply stolen away, or no longer supplied in the wake of an iconoclasm of the Crusades mentality. Now not one is to be found in any of the premier art institutions, not even in the Government College University (GCU), whose fine arts teacher, Aslam Minhas, would provide us the frozen models.

Moreover, since the plaster casts were in neutral off-whites, it was easier to draw from these in pencil on paper. Master Ghulam Nabi, who had been rendered redundant after the upgradation of Mayo School into the National College of Arts, was brilliant at duplicating these pieces and had many single and piece moulds protected by shellac.

The art schools also had human skeletons to draw from. At the NCA, the founding principal, Professor Sponenberg, himself taught anatomical drawing from a human skeleton. Of course, these were not skeletons from some sci- fi movie walking around. With their tendons and cartilages gone long ago, the bones had been strewn together with some wires and threads. Anatomical details in your work couldn’t go wrong if you studied the bone contours from these.

Additionally, you could learn the names of the various bones and their functions. Over the years, some of the floating ribs and fingertips had gone missing from the skeleton at the PU. Professor Emeritus Mrs Anna Molka Ahmad asked Dr HH Mirza, a noted surgeon at the Mayo Hospital, to supply another. However, he only agreed to restore the missing bones from the morgue. The ceremonious way the studio attendant Gulistan Khan carried this skeleton in his lap all the way to the hospital must be part of the macabre memories of many a passerby. Today, this ‘restored’ skeleton has disappeared altogether, maybe it has been buried somewhere without being given the last rites. It was assembled out of many corpses, male and females, who knows.

Human skull used to be a standard item at the art studios. Of course, it was without the lower jaw, the only moveable bone in the human skull (this bone is the strongest in the human body). For the uninitiated, all animals can move only their lower jaws, except for the parrots that can move their upper jaws too while eating.

Devoid of any nose and ear cartilages, this however allowed the students to study the occipital and frontal bones bound together by the sutures, and the eye sockets, more accurately. As soon as somebody died, their near and dear ones would secure the lower jaw with some cloth for it to become stiff, so that it wouldn’t open again. In the battlefields, a metal chip was slipped between the jaws of the fallen for later identification.

The Arts Council had got a skull of a horse too, so that you could draw the details of the equestrian animal from it.

Though hundreds of thousands of human skulls must be lying buried under or near the large necropolis of Miani Sahib, no one could seek them for study purposes for fear of being labelled a sorcerer. (Skulls are often used to invoke spirits by the “Bengali Babas,” I am sure. The Freemasons used to include a skeleton in their oath-taking rituals, and one could be seen in the upper story on the Mall, in the Hope and Perseverance Lodge No 782, which was earlier located on Lodge Road and had been damaged in the worst earthquake of April 4, 1905.

The old, damaged lodge was converted into Lady McLagan’s school in 1920. The new Freemason Lodge was built in 1917 at Charing Cross. The skull, however, disappeared from this new location without a trace.

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Bones can reveal some of the secrets of the human body even long after a person’s death. They can even tell you about the poison it died of, writes a former AIG of police.

After a person’s death, the first thing to do is to get rid of the body tissues which are eaten up by countless bugs that suddenly come into action. The medics can tell you how old the corpse is simply from the state of the bugs. I was horrified to lift my pet rabbit from its shallow grave wherefrom countless worms poured out. This is true of all living beings including the humans. A predator always lives within and around. Just imagine finding your favourite woolen achkan, which you had hung in the cabinet throughout the summer, suddenly inhabited by those tiny moths stealthily residing in the cotton lining. Had you cared to get it dry-cleaned in petrol or, lately, the turpentine oil, before hanging it for the long summers, the bugs wouldn’t have dared attack.

Back to the 206 bones that hold the human skeletal stature together. Those were certainly facilitated by the countless sutures and cartilages which were replaced with those contrived at places even with hairline margins.

A walk in the back of Anarkali reveals that anatomical models, big and small, now made with plastic for medical educational purposes, are available for students. Though these aren’t as inspiring as the art models, they have at least a semblance of art pieces that have disappeared. And, being in plastic, these skeleton replicas will not be buried away secretly.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Senior Surgeon, HH Mirza)


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



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