Dr Ajaz Anwar talks of the iconic art collection at Alhamra’s art museum cum gallery
n my previous dispatch I had discussed the formation of Alhamra, as named by Chughtai, and its logo, which was also designed by the great artist who took keen interest in its activities.
Through his efforts, a number of art exhibitions were periodically held at the venue. Every time a painting was acquired by the Arts Council. In the process, a large collection of paintings from the formative years of Pakistan was built. This, in fact, is the richest and most varied art collection in the country. It was acquired without much spending and also served to help the emerging artists.
The motley ensemble consists of 244 art works that include seven sculpture pieces — four by Anna Molka Ahmad and three by unknown sculptors, according to Hajra Mahmood, the director of the Alhamra Art Museum.
Any suggestion that the history of Pakistani art has not been recorded or documented is false. In fact, this gallery is a great source of history. All artists from the country and abroad need to see this collection.
This huge inventory needed a space for its proper display. In designing the building on The Mall, the stress was on providing large halls to stage plays. The galleries were so linked that no separate shelter could be carved out. The priceless collection needed only a makaan and no roti or kapra for the posterity. While they were felling the finest pine trees of Lahore to clear land for the ambitious Lahore Arts Council, they seemed to have little regard for the climate of the city. All the buildings seemed to have been designed to face west to have maximum solar heat. Moreover, many walls were made sloping with a cavity on the inside. The heated structures with trapped moisture caused the roof of Hall II to cave in on December 29, 1999. Miraculously there were no casualties because there was no performance going on at that time. Though, the building’s roofs are high, there is no ventilation and it has to be kept cool using air-conditioning.
The Lahore Arts Council, or Alhamra, later built another gallery next to the Gaddafi Stadium. This too has its hallmark defects in the form of double cavity walls. Besides, its only entrance facing the west has glass doors and is large enough to allow a lot of sun from noon till sunset. By the evening, it even peeps into the spacious hall and illuminates the aging paintings.
The outer casing of the northern double wall has fallen down exposing the poor construction. The hall has been provided an upper story accessible by curved stairs. The roof has been punctured by a canopy formed by clear glass held together by steel framework.
In the rainy season water often escapes into the upper and lower floors of the gallery adding to the menace of trapped moisture. The glass canopy also ensures that sun rays fall from various directions during its navigation in the sky. Resultantly, some change in colours and condition of paper and canvases is apparent even to casual visitors.
The gallery was inaugurated several times. Each inaugurator has been commemorated with a plaque. It was declared open as Art Gallery by Anwar Zahid, the then chief secretary of the Punjab, on October 6, 1990; and again, by Sardar Mohammad Arif Nakai, the then chief minister, on April 24, 1996.
Now its status is that of an art museum. Saman Rai, as director general of the Arts Council of the Punjab, has lent some pieces to the collection. Ironically, it is not recognised as a museum by the powers that be. Also, the tourists visiting the city are oblivious to its existence.
It boasts a historic collection of art created by eminent artists, the foremost being Chughtai, Allah Bux and Sadequain. These works have been displayed at the entrance of the hall, to greet the visitors.
There are some partitions that provide additional hanging spaces and, thus, are also used to display busts. Some rare paintings not seen elsewhere are also to be found here — for instance, Habib Burki’s cityscapes, especially his painted tower-like structures that survived the inferno of the Shah Alami Gate. Zainul Abedin from East Pakistan who had been invited by Prof Ahmad Dani is represented by a single watercolours painting. (Incidentally, I was awarded the Zainul Abedin Prize for watercolours by an association founded by Masood Hayat.)
Abedin shot to fame when he painted countless starving and dead people during the Bengal famine of 1940s. He did quick studies of the falling corpses in black ink. These were later published in the book form. I had one in my father’s collection. Later, he took to aquarelles.
The famine was caused by the World War II ration supplies to the front. Churchill had blamed it on Indians. Abedin, however, made it clear to the world.
Murtaza Bashir is represented by two of his superb, yet simple, drawings. He was another East Pakistani artist who taught the Alhamra evening classes. Once, Prof Khalid Iqbal painted Bashir’s full-figure portrait reclining on a chair; it remains Iqbal’s best portrait till date.
Bashir painted a series titled Walls, which was exhibited at the USIS, then located at Bank Square. On a visit to Lahore to participate in the Biennale in 1983, he explained to me that the series represented the wall between a father and son.
An interesting memory: when Amir Malik Khan of Kala Bagh clamped down on the red light district, Bashir offered to marry one thus rendered jobless.
Moeyne Najmi, a fine painter from the Lahore Art Circle, is also displayed. Besides, Shemza is represented by his stylised calligraphic wranglings and motif doodlings. Anna Molka Ahmed’s pastels and paintings in painting knife aren’t her best. Another nearly forgotten painter is Sufi Waqar, represented by his portraits and still lifes. He had migrated to the States, married there and has recently died. He was the son of Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum.
Aslam Kamal’s calligraphic pieces in oil are in his own style. A long lost friend of mine, Shahbaz Khan, is represented by his very big canvas depicting two bulls fighting, a black and a white one. Colin David’ s oils are very unusual, one depicting the siege of Delhi in 1857 with the two sides in full action; and another depicting a Basant scene with a torn kite.
Prof Miss Naseem Hafiz Qazi’s still life was known to me since I was her student. A portrait of a lady with highlights at right places is a lesson in portraiture. She is also an expert in painting children in normal postures. Two of her paintings in the said collection are a real treasure. She paints with thick bristle brushes (Nos 9 or 10, or even thicker), because she believes that this way brilliance of colours can be retained. She displayed here in 1960 and these paintings were acquired then. Her last exhibition was held at Alhamra in May 1985, from which no purchase was made because the tradition had been discontinued.
Very few works by Khalid Iqbal have been signed by him. His landscapes have an aura of “picking the extraordinary out of the seemingly ordinary.”
Qutub Shaikh, who migrated to Germany, has been in touch with me. His last letter was an unfinished one because he was not feeling well. The collection has him paying tribute to his motherland.
Late Tanvir Rehman’s work is a delight to see. The so-called wood-cut by Mahboob is, in fact, a hardboard cut. It’s a beautiful depiction of Zamzama, or Kipling’s gun, placed in front of the NCA.
Many important ones are missing. I looked for Aslam Minhas and found none; maybe because he never cared to exhibit solo. His first one-man show was held posthumously in the gallery named after him — Minhas Art Gallery at the GCU, courtesy of Prof Khalid Aftab.
Many paintings were purchased in 1988 to oblige the conformists and ‘yes-men.’ But that’s for another time.
(This dispatch is dedicated to Habib Burki)
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 firstname.lastname@example.org