When Geeti Sen visited Lahore

March 27, 2022

Dr Ajaz Anwar fondly remembers hosting his friend from India, a noted art and culture critic, before regaling us with his time spent in New Delhi

When Geeti Sen visited Lahore

The year 1997 was quite tumultuous for me. I had to rush back to Pakistan to receive the Pride of Performance Award from President Farooq Leghari on March 23. For the first time in history, the ceremony was delayed by two days, perhaps to allow me to recover from the jet lag of 310-odd miles.

Earlier, I had appealed to him to save the Tollin’ton and he had ordered an inquiry. (All this shall be narrated in a separate dispatch.)

My friends who had come to receive me had only this news to break to me — that the Tollin’ton, which had been lying forsaken and where drug addicts would camp, had been taken over by the FWO as their head office to oversee the rebuilding of the city roads.

I apprised the president of the development during my brief interaction with him over a handshake, at the ceremony. He nodded.

When Geeti Sen (a noted cultural and art critic from India) visited Lahore, I joined her. She had brought with her some sort of ‘elixir’ which had been prescribed to her. She was supposed to gather some written references and photographic material for their publication’s special edition to commemorate the 50 years of Independence. She stayed at the Punjab Club. She was eager to visit Nurjahan’s Tomb and Victoria Girls’ High School. So, I took her around the Walled City where she took many amazing photographs. But the milestone in front of the Qaisar cinema showing “Delhi 310 miles” really summed up her mission, because the India Quarterly International had been named Crossing Boundaries.

The principal of the Victoria Girls High School denied us entry, perhaps because her daughter had not been admitted to the National College of Arts (NCA), Lahore. But the shoddy repainting of the murals depicting various arabesque motifs and green parakeets made interesting visuals.

When the school time was over, an old staff member signalled us to sneak in.

Haveli Naunehal Singh, named after the grandson of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, seems to have been rebuilt over old Mughal foundations. It faces a large open space, called Bhaiyyon Ka Maidan.

The most skilled miniature painter of the time, Sheikh Shujaullah, lived nearby.

I took Geeti to Ganga Ram flats where noted painter Amrita Shergil had stayed and breathed her last. Later, we visited the Ganga Ram Hospital where the children’s ward, with its name Mulchand, inscribed in Hindi, attracted Geeti.

Interestingly, Geeti wasn’t well versed in the Hindi script. As we hurried towards the resting places of Nurjahan and her daughter Ladli Begum, and her father Sher Afgan, it had begun to drizzle.

Ladli Begum was married to Prince Sheheryar Mirza, the son of Emperor Jahangir, and a contestant for the throne, who lost the war for coronation and lies buried in the garden around Asif Jah’s tomb.

The visit to Nurjahan’s tomb was really exciting. The mausoleum was shorn of any embellishments and no plantations around it seemed to have survived. It typically reminded me of the verses attributed to her: “Bar mazaar-i-maa gharibaan, naye chiraghy nay guly/ Naye par-i-parwaaneh soozad, naye sada-i-bulbuly.

The graves were in a basement that was well-lit by a sloping daylight tunnel. There was a plaque commemorating the building’s restorations by Hakim Ajmal Khan in the early 20th Century.

Inclement weather prevented us from continuing with our visit. Moreover, that very evening, I was to be interviewed by a panel that would assess whether I was fit for the job of a professor. My PhD, the PoP, and my knowing two foreign languages, were of no consequence. But it was a small price to pay for standing up against the mafia that wanted to usurp the 17-kanal Tollin’ton Market on The Mall.

It was time to see off Geeti, with the promise that I would visit New Delhi.


Visiting India the same year turned out to be rather expensive and difficult, even though it was an all-expenses-paid trip and many friends were waiting to host me. I had had to get the various NOCs all over again.

Though the Indian High Commission was in a high security zone and mobile phones and briefcases were not allowed, the invitation from the Indian government helped me get a non-reporting visa. I could have requested for a visa to visit Agra but I didn’t — something I deeply regret.

We were offered a visit to the Taj Mahal, but I did not want to do anything illegal. I had been invited to exhibit my paintings at the India International Center’s Art Gallery at Max Mueller Marg. Since this involved technicalities, I decided to take along only ‘signed’ prints of my Old Lahore series.

I had sent a fax message to a Pakistani diplomat in Delhi, inviting him to inaugurate my exhibition, but got no reply. Later when His Excellency Ashraf Jahangir Qazi accidently walked into the venue, I realised that my request hadn’t been delivered to him in the first place. But he was kind enough to invite me and my spouse to the High Commission for tea. He also inquired about my father, ANWAR, who had been a cartoonist at The Pakistan Times.


The art gallery had a number of aluminum frames that came in handy. A couple of days were spent putting the images into the frames. Finally, the exhibition was declared open by Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal (1901-2003), who originally was from Serampore and had settled in Lahore till Partition. He had also been my father’s teacher.

Instead of cutting a ribbon, in India, they light lamps made of bronze. During the speeches, I reminded Sanyal that while I bade him goodbye on his maiden visit to Lahore, I had wished to meet him again. Pat came his reply: “Like a counterfeit coin!” Everyone present had a hearty laugh.

The exhibition turned out to be a great success. Most of the visitors were Lahoris and, hence, octogenarians. The visitor’s book was filled with touching remarks like “Woh din jab yaad aatay hain toh kaleja munh ko aata hai!

Sadly, the sales were rather meagre. But I was content with the fact that the visitors were not art enthusiasts but had come to see the Lahore of their childhood days. Pran Nevile was one of them.

Much to my regret, I forgot to invite the green-eyed Rehana Lafont. We had carried lots of flying kites with us that were all hung from the ceiling of the gallery. The visitors were astonished to see the splash of colours. Many asked for these as souvenirs.

In India, there’s no such display of colourful Basant. So, we obliged them all.

We decided to stay further on our own, because I was more familiar with the city (as Muslim architecture is my field). I had written extensively on the Qutb Minar complex, many tombs in Delhi, without even visiting them. But now I wanted to explore them. My hosts, Dr Narayani Gupta and Geeti Sen, took me around. Nevile too sent his driver Bhim Sen at my disposal. I took countless diapositive snaps which are part of my archives.

Next: Strolling through Delhi

(This dispatch is dedicated to Dr Narayani Gupta)

Note: Free Art classes, all ages and genders, are held every Sunday at the House of NANNAs.

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 ajazart@brain.net.pk

When Geeti Sen visited Lahore