Dr Ajaz Anwar narrates his experience at the recently held Anna Molka award ceremony
n what otherwise seemed like just another Friday afternoon, I happened to walk into the Senate Hall of the Old Campus of the University of the Punjab, founded in 1882. I wanted to present two of my latest books to the principal of the College of Art and Design. A most interesting function was in full swing to which I, in spite of being one of the oldest alumni, had not been invited. After delivering the books and registering a verbal protest, I back-traced my steps. Some friends chased after me and took me back in. The chief guest, Ms Saman Rao, executive director of the Punjab Arts Council, offered a water bottle to help me cool down – mercifully she did not pour it over my head.
My consent to stay for the following proceedings paid off because many of my friends and a galaxy of visual artists were visibly pleased to meet me though there were some reluctant encounters as well. The assembly moved to the hall where artists of all styles and ages were available to explain their endeavours. It needed more time investment on my part to review and enjoy the exhibition so I left, promising to revisit it the following day. It was a treat to be received by Sumbal Natalia, the curator of the vast exhibition. It was titled the Anna Molka award and it was the second edition. The idea of the recognition of emerging and already established artists was conceived by the principal, Prof Dr Sumera Jawad.
While I did not get a chance to peek into the previous year’s exhibition, this one was a brave collage of all sorts of visual arts, albeit only two dimensional except for Jamil’s terra cotta and ceramic pieces depicting the jharokhas of Lahore. The media chosen were diverse and included some of the most experimental. Though mostly oil paint was used, laser and hand-scissored Nastaliq and other classic calligraphic styles were used as well. Imran Murshad’s “jis dhaj say koi maqtal koe gaya” is one example. The underlying message – religious or political - needed no elaboration.
As I interviewed the curator it turned out the entries had totalled over four hundred. Out of those about one hundred and fifty were selected for display. Some were from abroad as well. There were participants from all provinces. Balochistan had some interesting, colourful items. The invitation to participate was open. Any individual or institute could participate. The selection was divided into age brackets of 20 to 40, and 40 and above. The jury panel - consisting of RM Naeem, Atif Khan and Mughees Riaz - was balanced between the National College of Arts and the University of the Punjab.
The subject matter varied – some items were super realistic while others, were suggestive and abstract rendering. Portraiture and a few still-lifes made their mark as well. Perhaps the largest and most creative entries were from the younger category. An elaborate catalogue prepared for the record would help a visitor go back and forth in the vast exhibition hall to form one’s own opinion. During the inaugural ceremony, prizes were given for various categories were given. A shield bearing the likeness of Anna Molka, and a low relief made by Irtibaat ul Hassan were presented to some. Sadly, the exhibition is due to conclude this week. Moreover, it has not been much publicised. No price list and no comments register are available. Yet, it is a treat for all who manage to visit.
Anna Molka had grandiose designs for an art department with facilities for modelling from various heights and angles. She also wanted a ceramics facility. It never materialised.
Anna Molka to whom this exhibition and award are dedicated was the founding head of the department originally called the Department of Arts and Crafts. While it was upgraded later, she served as the longest serving head, from 1940 to 1973. She was replaced by Prof Anwar Afzal because the new government introduced the appointment of the head by rotation for three years. Retired at sixty, she was appointed a professor emeritus. Her contribution to the field of art education, especially to Lahore’s art scene, will be discussed in another dispatch.
Prof Dr Niaz Ahmed Akhtar, the vice chancellor, has observed in his note that the University of the Punjab was established in 1882. It may be further elaborated that it was founded in a room of the Government College as an examining body to replace the University of Calcutta’s examination system.
The department also offered music classes and the students were all ladies. Their number was drastically reduced at the time of Partition as also happened at the Mayo School of Arts. The imposing building on the Mall, as the foundation stone inaugurated by Sir Charles Montgomery Rivaz, records was built in 1905. He was the lieutenant governor of the Punjab. The executive engineer was HM Baines and the architect Bhai Ram Singh.
It may be pointed out that the buildings that marked the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria, namely the Central Museum of Lahore, the Mayo School and the Municipal Committee used the British brick with the standard dimensions that have remained fixed since then. The University of the Punjab building represented the new colonial style with local and European architectural elements keeping in view the local climate. Hence this building, since it faced south, needed elaborate verandah shades. It was elaborately ventilated because it was built just before the electricity and municipal water supply were introduced.
Sir Charles Rivaz, after whom the Rivaz Gardens government officers colony was named, was a keen environmentalist. He built the Lawerence Road as the present Mall came to be rechristened. He would not permit any old tree to be felled and instead changed the alignment of the road. Thus there were many more old pine trees providing cool shade. The main building has an imposing tower whose clock is one of the oldest in Lahore. The spacious lawn in front of it was used by the very creative artist Durre Nayab to make an installation using thousands of white mugs to create a portrait of Anna Molka for her to view from her abode in the skies above.
This hall is the largest in Lahore, it is well ventilated and is most suitable as a multi-purpose exhibition venue. The height of it is till the rooftop around which wooden balconies have been placed supported by stone brackets for the audience to peep down at the ceremonies. It served mostly as an examination centre where I too perspired profusely while taking my annual examination. Misbah Qazi was apprehended cheating, much to the regret of Anna Molka. This hall was used for political gatherings as well. I heard Rustam Kiani declare here that human rights cannot be usurped even during martial law. Perhaps this is why he was never promoted to the Supreme Court.
While the New Campus was being built, various departments gradually shifted there and the vacant spaces were allotted to the Fine Arts Department. Anna Molka had grandiose designs for an art department with facilities for modelling from various heights and angles. She also wanted a ceramics facility. It never materialised. One good that came out of it was that most of the Old Campus space is there for the artists to use and enjoy. Consequently, the main hall was repaired and refurbished by another principal, Prof Dr Shahida Manzur, and inaugurated by the then VC, Prof Dr Zaffar Mueen Nassar on the auspicious day of August 14, 2017. Now, this hall holds some of the largest art exhibitions in Pakistan. I always wanted to exhibit my work here, my alma mater. While all the subsequent principals consented to my idea of ‘Return of the Native’, it never materialised. The nearest I came to it was when I exhibited my work, House of NANNAs visits Tollinton, inaugurated by Saman Rai who was director of the Lahore Museum. The entire staff and most students crossed the Mall to attend on March 14, 2019.
Breaking news: the much loved young officer Saman Rai has been transferred once again, this time to the Directorate General of Population Welfare.
*Dedicated to Zakia Dil Malik, daughter of Khawaja Dil Muhammad
The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of the NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org