Lahore, as visualised by visual artists

November 5, 2023

Dr Ajaz Anwar is led down memory lane, as he visits an exhibition at Alhamra Art Gallery, “one of the best in the country”

Lahore, as visualised by visual artists

A visit to Alhamra to attend the opening of an art exhibition was on my itinerary, despite my hectic fact-finding visit to the ‘occupied’ Lahore Fort on Saturday last. The opening time was supposed to be 2pm, after which tea was to be served. But the schedule was changed to 6:30pm, because of security issues as the chief guest on the occasion was going to be the caretaker chief minister of the Punjab.

As I was quite exhausted from my Lahore Fort visit, I could not attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony. However, I had sent three of my depictions of Interior Lahore in water colours.

It was quite pleasing to sail through the halls in solitude the next day. The exhibition had been spread on a space of three galleries put together, and displayed a huge variety. A large flex at the entrance had names of the participating artists, many of whom are quite well known.

Mostly, there were oil canvasses. Some wood-cuts, depictions of visual subjects in ceramic medium were mounted and framed. Other pieces, illuminated with an enclosed source of light, drew attention by virtue of being experimental.

The gallery is one of the best in the country. Its geometrical façade in pleasing bricks with large windows and skylight are imposing during mild winters. However, during peak summers it has to be air-conditioned heavily, in spite of its high roofs.

The gallery, as inaugurated by Abdur Rahman Chughtai in the old building, surrounded by fine pine trees of Lahore, approached by a circular access, was located on the first floor with limited space. Later, the independent hut leaked during the inclement weather. The new building came up with the blessings of Hanif Ramay. (He was also instrumental in establishing the Shakir Ali Museum.)

A long and tumultuous history made it into a no-go area, especially during the dictatorship of Chaudhry Nazir. Only his yes-men had access behind the scenes. Even Prof Naseem Hafeez Qazi, who had been in charge of the evening art classes, wasn’t allowed to park her Fiat 600, her darling vehicle, inside Alhamra. It is another story that Chaudhry Nazir paid glowing tributes to her in a condolence reference, because her two (major general) brothers were also in attendance. (This is only for historical record.)

Hollow walls were erected to ward off the heat and cold. But the design backfired because rainwater would accumulate there. Eventually, the building materials gave in. On December 29, 1999, the Hall II roof collapsed. It could have been a scene of danse macabre. Fortunately, there was no show going on at the time.


Alhamra Art Gallery has seen some spectacular shows like the Biennial, arranged by the Pakistan National Council of the Arts, Islamabad, under the patronage of Dr Khalid Saeed Butt. The show was covered by this scribe for The Pakistan Times (November 1, 1985; titled Red tape laurels for Shemza).

Thus, the much-maligned customs officer released his art works. In those days, the print media was honest and, hence, much respected. Iqbal Hussain’s aborted exhibition has been discussed in these columns. Of course, it had become possible only after a yearlong campaign in the press.

It is expected that the gallery will again rise to prominence and play a vital role in promoting art in the country. With their latest exhibition, this promise seemed to be getting fulfilled, under the administration of Mina Haroon, and with the blessings of the freshly appointed Tariq Mahmood, who hails from the cultural city of Bahawalpur.

Though Alhamra buildings face The Mall, entrances to various halls seem to have been designed to defy all longitudes and latitudes. Tucked towards northern orientation, one can find a way to the fabled Ali Baba’s cave, with all those jewels sent by the artist fraternity.

The exhibition under discussion included some national level masterpieces contributed by more than 20 visual artists from all over Pakistan. Some of these artists are self-taught while others have background in different disciplines. For instance, Dr Arshad Maqbul is a qualified medical doctor who stopped practicing medicine and started painting full time.

In the lower hall, one was greeted by Mahboob Ali’s wood cuts (hardboard cuts). Zulfi’s tempestuous dusks illuminated the hall. Ghulam Mustafa, too, contributed his large oils.

There was a large window facing The Mall which remained obscure and hidden by a banner announcing the ongoing exhibition. As the secretary of the then Artists’ Association of Punjab, I had always insisted on removing this curtaining obstruction, so that the passersby could know that an exhibition was on display.

The stairs were convenient even for the elderly with the balustrade and railings. Muhammad Javed’s all-too-familiar oils of the buildings around the Regal Crossing were a reminder of the endangered Mall.

As one turned towards the narrow alley, linking to the large upper hall, one was struck by three mural-like canvases that resembled the lime plaster wall from the Lahore Fort scribbled with the age-old human habit. Next, there were another two that recreated the aftereffects of lime plaster surfaces carelessly ‘restored’ by some conservation quacks.

The upper main hall had some of the masterpiece cityscapes. In two, the effect was monochromatic. The Kapurthala House at Lakshmi Chowk had been provided with a clock. (It is part of history that many buildings in Lahore were supposed to have a clock, but the machines did not arrive from England because of World War II.)

There were other cityscapes the exact locations of which were unidentifiable.

The exhibition was a success. The organisers and contributors deserve a pat on the back for it.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Prof Naseem Hafeez Qazi)

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

Lahore, as visualised by visual artists