The 150-odd Ravians

April 3, 2022

Dr Ajaz Anwar discusses Prof Dr Erfan Ullah Babar’s compilation of portrait sketches of illustrious Ravians, through the Government College University’s history

A sketch of Wajahat Masood. — Image: Supplied
A sketch of Wajahat Masood. — Image: Supplied

Prof Dr Erfan Ullah Babar of the Fine Arts Department of Government College (University), Lahore, has compiled a book that contains his portrait sketches — in lead pencil — of 150-odd luminaries of the varsity, from GW Leitner, one of the longest serving principals (1864-86) of the then GC, to Syed Iqrar Ul Hassan (1984) who is currently occupied as a broadcast journalist and is also the recipient of the Pakistan Achievement Award for Best TV Show of 2019, Sar-i-Aam.

The book was launched at the Fazl-i-Hussain Reading Room, GCU, under the aegis of the vice chancellor, Prof Dr Asghar Zaidi. Noted columnist Prof Dr Sadaat Saeed and I reviewed the book for the big number of academics and staff members and students, and it is encouraging that the Q&A session turned out lively.

On one of the walls of the room hung a painting by Prof Aslam Minhas depicting the epoch-making Pakistan Resolution meeting of March 23, 1940, being presided over by Jinnah, shown in full figure with countless others in the background. (The painting had been donated by his wife, Prof Azra Minhas.)

It may be mentioned here that when Aslam Minhas was a young boy, his family led by his father, Dr Ghulam Jilani, migrated from Ludhiana during the Partition upheavals. (He was also related to this scribe.)

The book is a bold visual documentation of the many Ravians the institution has produced. Even though photography had long been invented, and by the time the Lahore College (as it was initially called) was founded in 1864, there was a lot waiting to be explored or recorded. Babar chose to draw from photographs. The canvas or the list is really big. Countless images were sifted through to montage an agreeable complexion.

Babar’s medium is basic: lead pencil which is graphite. Hence, the viewer isn’t lost into the intricacies of colour, but is left instead to indulge his imagination. He uses only the HB (medium hard) pencil. No softer one of B type has been used to register darker shades. The Kohinoor with chrome yellow wood or Venus with green wood, brands from England were no longer available, so he uses the local ones, proving that they are equally good.

The paper he uses isn’t very special either. He appears to have used Cartridge, Kent or Scholar, as no grain or texture is visible, and it isn’t stark white either.

When it came to the selection of a suitable paper and tint for printing the images in the book, no suitable papyrus was readily available. Therefore, Babar used the standard off-set paper of 135 gram which being stark white had to be afforded an extra plate to obtain a pale or yellow tint ground.

The book is a venture by the GCU Printing Press. The binding is good and there is no ‘dust cover.’ The title is in simple block printing with silver illumination over reddish ground.

Babar has rendered the portraits to appear sculptural or three-dimensional, yet these are essentially black and white drawings. In copying the classic sculptures, colour of the hair or pupils is ignored. This confuses the general viewer who gets the impression that the model is blind. Reference to photographs has solved the problem in which the hair appears black or grey.

Similarly, the various apparel have their colours represented by various shades of grey; the deepest shades cast in the folds of hair, skin, lips, fingers, eye-brows, the areas under the chin, or even the sunglasses with a strong highlight. The upper lip is generally in darker shade because of the position of the source of light. These renderings go beyond mere sketches. These are serious portraits in lead pencils. This collection is also a historical record of personalities that were groomed at the GC. Many of these Ravians eventually got teaching jobs here, while the rest served in various public sector departments both here and abroad. Some even distinguished themselves in the armed forces.

The book follows the chronological order instead of alphabetical. Even though less is known about GC’s Muslim students or faculty members from the pre-Partition days, it’s a fact that some of the best brains came to attach themselves with the institute itself. A study of the contents of the book under review reveals some of the most active personalities through the college history, for instance, GD Sondhi, who took charge during the World War II (1939-45) and became a legend in his lifetime.

Lahore seems to have been deprived of many intellectuals in the brain drain that followed the great exodus. Muslims used to be enrolled in fewer numbers for economic reasons. In the initial years of the college, right after the Partition, luminaries like Syed Ahmad Shah Bukhari, U Karamat, and Sirajuddin played important roles.

The list of the luminaries must have been very exhaustive for Babar to choose his book’s subjects from. One is surprised to see that the portraits of diverse personalities like Kamini Kaushal, KL Saigol (Pran Nevile’s favourite singer), Syed Babar Ali (of Packages) and others share the space in the volume. It is not possible to give the long list which itself would make an interesting read.

Some of my contemporaries have also been sketched here, to my great joy. When I saw Sarmad Sehbai, for instance, my instant reaction was that the Peter Pan will not grow up. Born a year before me, Sehbai used to ride pillion on my bicycle to his residence in Samanabad. Then instead of paying me something he’d ask for an anna for his (Capstan) cigarette before disembarking.

The entire album of sketches is a delight every time I flip through it. Through so many human faces, each with a different angle or tilt of the profile, with eyes fixed on some object outside the frame, you are sure to find someone you knew.

Mustansar Hussain Tarrar is one such person. (A little trivia: Once, the traffic constable caught him. He wanted to issue him a ticket, but was unable to spell Tarrar’s name right. After some deliberation, he finally let Tarrar off the hook.)

I discovered a pensive image of Saadat Saeed while scrambling through the book folios. Though Saeed was sitting right next to me at the time, he hadn’t told me that he too featured in the book. Much to my delight, his sketch showed him looking some three years younger than me.

That said, a lot of my contemporaries are not to be found in the book. Perhaps, they weren’t considered photogenic enough, or the author thought that their facial features or frontal bones or nasal bridge weren’t too expressive. Many an eyeball socket has been concealed by thick glasses. I believe that the book needed a disclaimer and not an apology for not having been able to include everyone. The retired IG Saadat Ullah Khan, and Tariq Ali Khan who had challenged the writ of Kalabagh, are also not part of the compilation.

Being head of the Fine Arts Department, Babar was obviously familiar with all the students of the department. He has included most of them. However, Tanvir Shams, son of Malik Shams, the curator of Central Museum, Lahore, and a miniature painter, who is now based in London, is missing, perhaps owing to his long absence from the country.

The portraits gallery includes a rare depiction of Muhammad Hussain Azad whose father was hanged in the holocaust following the 1857 uprising. The post-Partition principals of GC and, the later VCs, have all been grouped together. They include Dr Nazir, Majid Awan, and Khalid Aftab who was principal of the college from 1993 to 2002 after which he became its first vice chanceller until 2011. Khalid Aftab founded the Minhas Art Gallery. He was followed by Prof Dr M Khaleeq-ur-Rehman (2011-2015), Prof Dr Hassan Amir Shah (2015-2019) and Prof Dr Asghar Zaidi (2019-to present) who has also promoted the painter/ writer to be the dean of the arts.

The book states that no part of it may be reproduced. Even if the portraits are used by some historian, they remain Babar’s property. I don’t have the right to suggest that these may be allowed to be used with due acknowledgement, or that some copies of the publication may be given gratis to Babar. Plagiarism in written material often remains camouflaged until pointed out.

Though no price has been mentioned, a modest price tag of Rs 1,000 was suggested.

After the review, an exhibition of some of the portraits, simply framed, was held at the varsity’s Salam Hall. All invited thronged the venue. The originals are in mellower tones than the printed ones. Signatures appear on all the portraits, yet some don’t carry the year these were sketched.

(This dispatch is dedicated to Khushwant Singh)

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

The 150-odd Ravians