Dr Ajaz Anwar argues that unchecked, “rank commercialisation” has pushed up the prices of built property
Dusting history is one thing and covering it with dust is another. Even recent history — or living memory — is being obliterated or denied. Lahoris in the past as well as in the recent history have played their part. These were towering personalities that belonged to various arts, cultures and literatures and showed valour in testing times.
Some members of civil society started pinpointing the places where these people had played their innings. It was circa 1986 that a group was formed by Ghazala Rehman, a member of the Lahore Conservation Society (LCS), along with the late journalist Shafqat Tanvir Mirza. Together, they adopted the name of Lahori Sangat.
The members set out to put commemorative plaques at various places where some historic event had taken place. The idea was to honour the people. One such plaque was mounted at a flat where noted satirist cum short story writer Saadat Hassan Manto had lived in Lakshmi Mansions near the Regal crossing.
Over time, many of the plaques disappeared because these needed to be revisited. With unchecked, rank commercialisation that pushed up the prices of built property, the Manto family too took the bait and moved out. The said flat no longer exists. The plaque too is gone.
This was not for the first time that an attempt was made to erase the history. Old-timers would remember that outside the Panorama Centre there was a plaque that indicated that Kipling worked there for one of the oldest newspapers of the sub-continent — the Civil & Military Gazette. The family of Sheikh Naseer that got this property on the condition that the publication would not be discontinued, was more interested in the prime land.
The Faletti’s hotel had rooms with plaques where Jinnah, Justice Cornelius and the team of Bhawaani Junction had stayed. The hotel was sadly sold away despite litigation initiated by this scribe and Mrs Katherine Abbasi through Barrister Erum. The then chief justice of Lahore High Court, Justice Iftikhar was dead against all heritage. He even tried to block the court proceedings involving buildings protected under the Punjab Special Premises Act. It was only through a daring campaign orchestrated by architect Imrana Tiwana that the then chief justice of Pakistan Rana Bhagwandas ordered the demolished block to be rebuilt.
Today, this block too needs a plaque commemorating the big victory in saving heritage.
Over time, the Lahori Sangat entered a period of dormancy, though the idea was not exactly given up on. More recently, architect Fauzia Qureshi gave new impetus to it and drew up a plan to affix numerous such plaques. Ghazala Rehman is also actively collaborating in this. The nicely designed plaques, in dark blue, with the logo and names in white now adorn several places in the city.
Majeed Sheikh, in a recent column, has appreciated the movement. On October 5, many concerned citizens gathered at Nasser Bagh (or the Gol Bagh, as it was originally called). The first plaque was affixed at a pillar of its boundary wall facing The Mall, where Lala Lajpat Rai had led a protest against the British and suffered injuries in the lathi charge and later died. The volunteering team, besides Fauzia Qureshi and Ghazala Rehman, included Fiza Zaman, Shahnaz Malhi, Nighat Saeed Khan, Nazish Ataullah, Popti Bukhari, Fatima Hafsa Imtiaz and Akhtar Chohan.
The members then moved to the University of the Punjab where Anna Molka Ahmad in 1940, had founded a department originally called the Arts and Crafts Dept. Soon it was renamed the Department of Fine Arts. Ahmad was appointed professor emeritus following her retirement. A plaque was installed outside her office. Many of her former students and admirers joined the ceremony.
This institute has now been upgraded to a College of Art and Design.
Shared memories of the great mentor filled many an eye with tears. The volunteering crowd then moved towards the Central Museum, as it was called back then, to pay tribute to Bhai Ram Singh who had designed this Jubilee building among various other buildings in the city. Crossing the road through the ruthless, unbridled traffic was quite a challenge. While the plaque was being drilled over one of the pillars of its outer gate, some policemen in postmen’s uniforms came to inquire as to what we were up to. They were from the Old Anarkali Police Station where, as oral history tells us, Nur Jehan’s haveli once stood. Fortunately, they were able to understand our mission and endorse it.
Next, it was time to move to the Ganga Ram Trust buildings, also on The Mall, behind which in one of the flats lived and breathed her last one of the finest painters of the land: Amrita Sher-Gill, daughter of a Hungarian mother and a Sikh father, who died in 1941. Besides being trained in Europe, she was a student of BC Sanyal.
The group then made their way through the crowded Neela Gumbad to Dhani Ram Road, where they fixed a plaque at the house where Amrita Pritam (died 2005) once resided. The Delhi Muslim Hotel in Anarkali, where Maharaj Kathak lived till the end of his life, was the next target. I wish its owners Kaukab Shah and the late Mazhar Shah were there.
The event was covered by Shoaib Ahmed in the daily Dawn the following day.
Amarjit Chandan, after seeing the photograph of the blue plaque, pointed out a mistake, via email to me. The correct date of death of Lala Lajpat Rai was November 17, 1928. I promised him that the committee would be informed and a new plaque would be installed.
We should be grateful to Chandan for this and should be more careful about facts and figures.
Now that many more plaques have to be affixed, it is suggested that these sites should be frequented by the locals so that no damage is done to these. Moreover, the structures that have disappeared since should be pointed out. Muzaffar Mansions, on Nicholson Road, where Mazhar and Tahira lived, has been knocked down and an ugly plaza has raised its head in its place. Our diaspora and friends from across the border can help.
p.s.: The plaques installed should have been bigger for greater visibility.
(This dispatch is dedicated to Tahira Mazhar)
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 [email protected]