Magical evenings

February 25, 2024

Magical evenings

Dear All,

On a recent visit to Karachi, I was lucky enough to attend some of the special events being held to mark the 25th anniversary of the Mohatta Palace Museum. The museum’s Distinguished Lecture Series has included some wonderful talks and presentations and each session has featured music by traditional practitioners.

This lecture series seems to have managed to pull in a lot of people and has been a reminder to Karachiites of just how lucky they are to have this beautiful museum – a museum that highlights local culture, craft, music, art and history etc in a thoughtful manner.

Although registration was required, these talks were open to all and made for a delightful evening: sitting out in the open, on the lawn, facing the beautiful Mohatta Palace facade, while the cool Karachi breeze wafted through every so often. After the talk, came the music, performed by local and traditional musicians from different parts of the country. Some of the performances I saw were absolutely outstanding. They highlighted what rich and varied music traditions are to be found across various regions and musical genres of Pakistan.

One stunning performance was by the Baloch singer Akhtar Channal Zehri, whose stage presence was close to mesmerising. His troupe of musicians sat to one side while he sang, swayed, danced and gesticulated as his powerful and expressive voice held everybody spellbound. Many in the audience said they wished they could understand Balochi so that they could have followed the ballads better. Similarly, the performance by Mai Dhai, a singer from Umerkot, Tharparkar, was a revelation. The strength of her voice and the haunting quality of the Marwari songs was memorable. Audience members were fascinated by the stamina of this woman in her 70s who sat in the centre of her troupe of musicians and sang with her face covered by her veil, singing in ghoongat.

Magical evenings

Mai Dhai’s performance was paired with what must have been one of the most affecting talks of this series, that by the great-grandson of Rao Bahadur Shivratan Mohatta, the wealthy businessman who built Mohatta Palace as a home for his family. Satvik Mohatta is the first Mohatta to visit since the family left following the Partition of 1947. He said the Palace was a sort of legend in their family. He recalled how his paternal grandfather used to tell him stories of life in the Palace and how the black and white photograph of the Mohatta Palace always had the pride of place in their family homes, “there was no internet at the time; all we had was this photograph. I’ve been hearing stories of Mohatta Palace since then, that’s why it’s great coming here and hard to put this into words.”

It was indeed an emotional experience for Satvik Mohatta as the first member of the family to return to what had been their family’s home. The visit was made all the more poignant by the fact that his father had wanted to make this trip but passed away just over a year ago. “It was his dream to visit Mohatta Palace… for me to fulfil his wish, I can’t tell you the emotions I’m going through.” Luckily, his father had given an interview to a TV channel some years ago in which he had reminisced about the Palace. Satvik Mohatta included that in his presentation – so in a way his father did make the journey to the Palace.

Satvik Mohatta showed old photographs of his family and the house in his presentation. He he shared some of the stories about the Palace that had been passed down over the generations. One of the stories was about a pudding that the cook at the Palace used to make, which was very well liked, and which he continued to make when they moved to India. “He used to make this bread pudding loved by all the dignitaries. He never shared the recipe. We used to say to him we need Karachi’s bread pudding.” The younger Mohatta had brought his family with him to Karachi. His wife later told the audience how moving the whole experience was for all of them but especially for her husband who said for him the black and white photograph they had grown up with was suddenly filled with vivid colour and life when he walked through the gate and saw it in person.

This was an emotional talk because it was just one of the many stories of a land divided, of homes and villages lost, of yearning and memories and visa restrictions. But it was also a very heartening story because the Mohattas came and found their old house to have been lovingly and beautifully restored, converted into a place that cherishes and promotes history, culture and art and which welcomes all visitors.

On its 25th anniversary this is something that the Mohatta Palace Museum can be proud of, its consistency in maintaining standards of excellence and in cherishing the building that was for years known as a haunted house, bhootbangla, a derelict place hidden from sight by overgrown bushes.

But now it is alive, a gem of a building restored carefully and cherished. It highlights creativity, new research, art and culture and our engagement with our surroundings. Thus, speakers in this 25th anniversary series have included Tariq Qaiser (on environmental activism and the mangroves), Waleed Ziad (on his research on Sufi adepts between the Oxus and the Indus) Shahnaz and FS Aijazuddin (the latter’s translation of the Hamzanama’s Tilism-i-Hoshruba), Naheed Jafri (on her 8-volume Balochistan Namah on Baloch embroideries, history and culture), Zehra Nigah, Ahmed Javed and Hijaz Naqvi (a homage to the legendary poets of Urdu) among many others.

It has been a series of magical evenings at Mohatta, the perfect way for the museum to showcase why it exists and what it stands for.

Best wishes

 Umber Khairi

Magical evenings