Manufacturing paintings for a hotel in Lahore

December 8, 2019

Painter and conservationist Dr Ajaz Anwar has dedicated this dispatch “to my friend Janjua, who died under the wheels of a speeding car in front of the University of the Punjab on the canal”

I was whiling away, painting outdoor spots as far away as Shahdara and the Hadiara stream and beyond, incurring huge burden on our meagre pocket money and other allowances, when the news of a welcome windfall flashed.

Pakistan International Airlines under the dynamic Air Marshal Nur Khan was a leading airline, comparable to BOAC and Pan American — twice a week, both ways. PIA was really about “Great people to fly with,” a compliment today reportedly bestowed by Jacqueline Kennedy, which may seem an exaggeration but was well deserved. PIA was acquiring and building hotels for its transit passengers’ stays for its connecting flights, the world over. The then Intercontinental (now PC) Hotel in Lahore was one. It was deemed necessary to furnish every room in it with an original painting in watercolour, depicting some Pakistan images. It had to be not small enough for the guests to check out with a frame hidden in a suitcase, nor so big as to be cost prohibitive. A paltry sum of Rs 75 was cautiously offered for each painting.

Shakir Ali, the principal of National College of Arts (NCA) at the time, wanted the amount to be raised to Rs 100, but Prof Khalid Iqbal allowed anyone who would agree to the offered price to contribute.

There started a big project akin to Freemasons Guild. Students from the evening lessons at Alhamra bunked their classes, painting in half-Imperial sizes. Khalid Latif, Zaheer, Mannan Azmi, Janjua, Misbahuddin Qazi and others painted several every day, with a big sky area and a small strip of some rural scene below the horizon.

I was in the midst of my master’s thesis at Fine Arts Department at the University of the Punjab, under a ferocious Anna Molka Ahmed, of Polish and Russian descent. She had left the evening classes of Alhamra after Naeem Tahir, then secretary, refused to listen to her over the Colin David-Zahra disaster.

Under the circumstances I did not want to endanger my aimed position in the fiercely contested exams. While others managed to produce scores, I was able to contribute only a meagre 13 scenes from Rohtas Fort, a Bahrain wooden bridge from Swat, the unique bulbous dome of Asif Jah, scenes from Sharqpur, and my own house at Nicholson Road (which I would want to buy back at current price). The six depicting vultures from the morgue of Animal Husbandry Hospital, were rejected outright. I have only one with me, five others vanished without a trace, just like the unmonitored, untagged chicks released into Chhanga Maanga forest by the Wildlife Department.

My giving preference to my exams/thesis paid off. I was awarded a “gold” medal by the varsity for having stood first (ref. Prof Eric Cyprian’s column as to how it, has no gold in it; thus those awarded one are cheated by the very academics preaching honesty). My Bata gold medal too was not gold, no matter how much it glittered to the envious eyes!

My topping in the exam came as a big surprise to me, and shocked many. I was in deep slumber when I was handed over the newspaper featuring the results. But I could not find my roll number on the given list. It was missing! Upon detailed scrutiny of the paper, I found mine in the sub-heading: “Mr Ajaz Anwar stands first” (ref. Pakistan Times; Nov 10, 1967). My fierce contestant, Imtiaz Ali, who had secured second position (by a margin of only two marks) was the first one to congratulate me.

Struggling to handle his father’s heavy-duty BSA motorcycle, Ali let out a loud “Mubarak!”

Ali later joined the Army, got to the rank of colonel but missed out on brigadiership, which I sincerely regret. For all we know, he could have been addressing the nation one day, beginning with “Meray azeez humwatno!” And, I am sure there would be no case of exploding mangoes, and novelist Hanif would have been deprived of the laurels!

History has its own peculiar ways, sometimes pre-destined. Those who secured lower positions were offered jobs; I was set for a state of joblessness for three years. I tried to keep myself busy, fishing in Chhoti Daik’s pristine clear waters where one could see kalbounses swimming in schools but rarely taking in the bait.

All my class fellows, out for a financial revenge, insisted on a treat which could be a sharp edged “Treet” for an out-of-job like me. I had no choice but to agree. While I waited for them at the Fine Arts Department of NCA, by mistake, they had all gathered at the prestigious restaurant of the immigrant Uyghur Chinese. I was much pleased to learn that the notoriously frugal Imtiaz Ali had to finance a simple bowl of sweet-and-sour soup. In the afternoon, I was spotted, chased, and made to agree to a sumptuous lunch at that very Uyghur restaurant. Fortunately or unfortunately, as the later events unfolded, I had an electricity bill handy. I proudly footed the entire bill which amounted to Rs 26, for the whole class. I wanted to say to them all: “Aafiyet olsun” (Turkish for “May it do good to you”), but I knew no Turkish back then. On the contrary, it did not do good to many of them. Nighat Sher e Muhammad, from a family of accomplished medical doctors, I came to know was down with acute food poisoning, as I went around to learn about the wellbeing of the rest of us.

As for me, my fate too hung in the balance. When the following month’s electricity bill came in double digits, along with a fine, I comforted my father with the excuse that it must have been Lahore Electricity Board’s fault, and that we should get it fixed. In the meantime, a news was flashed that the money for the accepted watercolours was due soon, and I was feeling rich with the anticipated Rs 975.

I requested accountant Masood for an advance which he graciously granted me. With the electricity bill paid in full, my father was appeased. But the Good Samaritan accountant was in jitters, worrying sick about his balance sheets. No, the IMF could not be that generous, the circular debt too had no provision for a bail-out.

At long last, the money finally arrived, much to the relief of many, especially the kind accountant. I was once again in my proverbial high spirits. I gave Rs 300, to the surprise of my mother, only for her to prepare for my further unemployment period. To Ansar, my schoolfellow, I gave back Rs 35 that I had owed him for long. Thus, I stood cleared of any terror-financing by my friends.

As for my friends at the Alhamra evening classes, many were by then riding the Japan-made motorbikes while I merrily rode my Orion sports bicycle. Whatever happened to the mass-produced landscapes, no one ever got a glimpse of. (Though the swimming pool of the hotel had many generous, feminine glimpses to offer.) The watercolours commissioned by the hotel, irrespective of the miserly prices, did set some trends to cover the bare walls of private houses and offices. Thereby some financial hope was promised to struggling artists.

Note: Free art classes, all ages @ House of NANNAs. Bring your own lunch!

                                                                                                                                                                                           To be continued


The writer is founding member of the Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing paintings for a hotel in Lahore