A house after its first residents

December 19, 2021

Built in 1928, the Mehta Mansion at 11 Temple Road, Lahore, stands today as a lone sentinel

A house after its first residents

11 Temple Road, A Strange and Sublime Address, is neither The House of Bernarda Alba nor A House for Mr Biswas. Like the latter, however, the colonial mansion built in 1928 in the heart of Lahore did symbolise class status and financial standing. This house of brick and mortar, plaster and stucco, was once home to Amolak Ram Mehta, a senior public health official, and Shanti Mehta, who continued to live in Lahore until 1947.

Their son, Ved Mehta, who was to become a writer of repute, was born here in 1934. Before going blind at the age of three due to meningitis, he recalls in his serial autobiography, Vedi and Stolen Light, days spent in the company of Daddyji on Mehta Estate: “When I was 11, we finally started living at 11 Temple Road for the first time in my conscious memory. My father had provided for everything... The walls were painted in distemper, and the floors were finished with marble chips, which shined just as well as the marble slabs in the palaces of rajas”.

Around one hundred years later, standing tall in the midst of Mehta Estate, the house has stood the test of time as a lone sentinel.

Memory speaks about us, and it deeply relates to our fears and sensitivities. Memory collects and keeps fragments of our lives. It lies dormant, evokes and sometimes lacerates our conscience. A memory can also evade us. In these times of fast changing technologies, and overlapping pictures, news and experiences, it has become difficult to save, preserve and manage the experience as unique and unrepeatable.

The works on show are an exercise in deconstruction, both in medium and content – pure dedication towards subject matter. Take, for instance, Imrana Tanweer’s two-channel video projection Ifs and Buts and her installation of cotton rags cut to imperfection and scattered all along the tabletop called Pieces, alluding to jagged-edged fragments of memories. By dissecting the modernist utopia of the last century, layer after layer, a discursive framework that breaks genres and transcends continents becomes excavated, culture versus nature, form following function, the absolute embracing the particular. In case of Saba Qizilbash, the narrative aspects of Sino-India Border in water-soluble graphite on paper, turns into pure poetry. Every angle is a new chapter and there are countless ways a viewer can enter these works. These are sites for remembrance of shared histories and imposed boundaries under constant surveillance. A path overgrown with weeds leads towards an abandoned house that was designed as a symbol of immortality, end of history, and the journey comes to an end, because this is Coming Home.

When the Mehta House was born in the 1920s, the architectural experiments regarding the utopian ideals of an alternative city were already in process but shortly after, these dreams vanished. They left behind only traces, covered in dust collapsed, and abandoned. Sana Saeed remarks: “To live is to leave traces”. In her statement accompanying Mark Making and Leaving Home, she states: “The house at 11 Temple Road is a repository of precious memories” and “these are not mere residual memories from some past”. Requiring the tools and patience of an archaeologist, Saeed takes the brush in hand and the chisel in mind. Hints of a past life are scattered all over her blood-stained couch, but the dust forms a completely new layer, a barely visible avalanche, powerful nonetheless: a cityscape on its own. Shadows are to be seen through the windows, gently weeping in the wind like the trees that have long been left to their own fate.

Dua Abbas was apparently fascinated by the spaces because they were familiar to her in a sense that they were part of her childhood, yet always belonged to the past. What was probably futurist at that point, now seems retro-futurist or even obsolete. Time was never an absolute term and the myth of linear progress became a mere footnote. This very personal approach seems to be contradictory to the subjects which are cooled down to a freezing point, an icebox of ideologies, a memorial to modernity, a hazy sunset that went by in the blink of an eye. Upon closer examination, light becomes the mediator between the inner sanctum and the outside. A certain warmth is present; sunbeams almost too weak to be noticed still make their way through cracks, letting the rooms stay cool but not cold. The landlord is long gone, but the keys are where they should be. The lock is rusted and squeaks, but not in an unfamiliar manner as the knob slowly turns. The smell is the first thing that tingles the senses. It resembles an organism at work. Once that created its own way of breathing, slowly but steadily: almost invisible movements, fragile and subtle, synchronised to the echo of conversations long passed.

Sahyr Sayed’s organic approach is more than literal. By employing clay dumplings ready to be kneaded into roti, placed neatly in rows in a glass cabinet, the paradigms of art making need to be reconsidered. Opposing the softness of a regular canvas, neglecting the texture and olfactory qualities of the medium, the installation encourages a distance. The ‘structural denial’ of painting turns into one of its strongest advocates. Her choice of subjects work along these lines naturally. To fully appreciate the result of this meticulous method is to imagine walking through one of the rooms: the softness of the carpet that works like a slow motion dolly shot, the scent of a certain piece of furniture that is long gone. The traces of its inhabitants disappeared completely; you can only imagine the noises their lives made, but these echoes are vibrant and clear if only one knows where to listen... maybe the sound is coming from the door that was left open.

There are many entry points to the work of Maheen Niazi - one of the most important ones being the choice of material. By choosing caps made out of green plastic in Hollow Levitation II, the concept of a ‘mediated reality’ is emphasised. A sort of elastic but also neutral structure, constantly oscillating between desire and destruction. It’s almost like the setting is favoured over the subject, the interplay of all the details combined resulting in the distinct atmosphere that is so unique to this show. Combined with the hygienic appearance, the occultation of the texture of the work and of the manual work through a transparent surface. It is the pragmatic qualities of plastic that made it the material of choice for the artist. It works like a kind of translucent skin which acts as a distancing element at the same time.

This exhibition is a step in Fatma Shah’s personal journey into the concept of ‘memory’. Through her curatorial intervention, the artists have tried to connect different fragments that are chronologically and geographically apart, while respecting their uncertainty and precariousness that illustrate the lack of power and control with regard to their destiny. Therefore, this exhibition is an attempt, although certainly humble, to voice once again those images by retrieving them, preserving them, trying to keep them alive, to rescue them from the emptiness they would otherwise have been destined to.

Fatma Shah has attempted to redraw a past that seemed far away – a past that, in reality, could be an archive – through the sentimental value of a house and its many objects and their symbolic value (residual, material, urban remnants, simple fragments or evidence). Likewise, the ten artists’ manual and artistic intervention, whom she invited to interact with the ‘built environment’, has been instrumental in freezing moments of history, aiming to make them alive and functional. I do not believe in a past conceived as a random consequence of events. Rather, I believe in history and in memory as critical conscience of the past, and as a necessary condition for reshaping our present.

The intimacy in scale and content of Imagined Archives supports the retelling of individual stories that have been collectively forgotten. What appear to be abandoned pieces of furniture, buckets, bowls, shoes, clothing, suitcases, electronics and photographs with an aura of family snapshots disclose humble origins; and the wear, whether resulting from utilitarian necessity or simulated effect, reveals a close relationship between an individual and an object. Sustained use and handling have produced a patina that serves as a unifying language speaking in terms of the passage of time with a subtext of dispossession, conveying a sense of loss through relocation of personal objects from an imagined private sphere into a collective space of public display.

Another attribute of the uncanny is the blending of objective and subjective narrative styles. The uncanny effect of Imagined Archives results, in part, from the items presented and from collapsing a seemingly objective mode of presentation that is blended with subjective interventions in the form of artifice employed to accelerate processes of deterioration and decay. The patina that serves to unify, whether resulting from the actual passage of time or from highly skilled manipulation, also strengthens interpretations associated with dispossession. The pieces of furniture, the bric-a-brac and photographs not only one belonged to someone; these mundane objects also served to define, and were defined by, the everyday lives of which they were a part. The dislocation of the items, and the state of decay that results from abandonment of things once necessary and meaningful reveal a rupture. The dislocation and decay contribute to a sense of estrangement that gives rise to the uncanny. Even though there is no personal relation to the individuals represented through their images or their belongings, the photographs and the objects establish connections through an engagement with what has been left behind.

Imagined Archives benefits from the ambiguity that results from combining fragments to retell stories of variegated lived experiences. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau discusses Marcel Detienne’s dependence on modes of storytelling to reveal significance of ancient Greek stories. When asked what a particular story means, Detienne does not respond with an explanation but rather by retelling. De Certeau maintains that Detienne interprets Greek fables as a pianist interprets a musical composition.

Our encounter with the personal effects gives rise to the sense that it is actually absence that has the greatest presence in the exhibition. Imagined Archives counters what Ernst Gellner termed collective forgetfulness – the anonymity, the amnesia are essential. Both memory and obsolescence have deep social roots; neither springs from historical accident.

The doors might be open, but it becomes clear that the noise comes from within. The only other source of sound is the pebbles under the wheels of an automobile. The reflection on its windshield establishes an almost invisible limit, an illusory effect of tranquility, between the exterior and the interior, completing the metaphor itself. Coming Home is the beginning of the end of the beginning. The future is what is to be seen in the rear mirror.

The writer is an art critic based in Islamabad

A house after its first residents