Dr Ajaz Anwar narrates his fond memories of Anna Molka and her role as his mentor
he first time I saw her, walking on the Queen’s Road along with her daughter, she looked like a rather heavily built English lady. I had no idea that she would play a huge role as a respected mentor in shaping my destiny. After matriculation, I joined the evening art classes at Alhamra. She was there giving instructions and tutoring students in drawing as well as painting. She would sit over the ‘donkey’ desk, gently suggesting corrections, scrapping the entire preliminary outline. The team included Khalid Iqbal, Colin David and Naseem Hafeez Qazi.
She would see to it that the accountants paid the models. Even the tonga driver whose horse had posed for us was paid. There was a fifteen-minute tea break during which the models would rest. This was when I had just enrolled at Government College as the first student in the new Department of Fine Arts. Tariq Ali had led very serious activism in the college and as president of the students union, he had convened a condolence meeting for Justice MR Kiyani. My real interaction with Anna Molka started when I joined the Department of Fine Arts at the University of the Punjab in 1963 and learnt more about her life, past and later.
She had Polish and Russian parents of Jewish descent and was born in 1917. While she was studying at Royal College, she was already known for her aggressive behaviour and when a teacher tried to correct her painting, she rebuked him. It was there in London that she met Shaikh Ahmad originally from Amritsar and dated every day, she told us. Having arrived in British India just before the World War erupted, she was able to start the Department of Arts and Crafts in 1940 meant for girls only. The curricula included music as well.
Across the road was the Mayo School of Arts where her husband, Shaikh Ahmad, was appointed vice principal. But he was able to conduct some classes at the department, giving some lectures on Muslim architecture. This was a unique couple where the likes and dislikes went by contrast. Both had uncompromising personalities. They were blessed with two lovely daughters named Zahra and Tahira. Before they could grow up, the supposedly ideal couple had a split. The legal divorce never happened. Residing at 36 A Queen’s Road, near Mozang chungi, an evacuee property, a big bungalow at the end of a long narrow strip, they had altercations and disagreements. It was during such happenings that one day Shaikh Ahmad left the house and stayed at his studio at the Mall, behind Lord’s restaurant, waiting for three days hoping that she would turn up and bring him back. He finally left for Karachi along with his two students, Zafar and Saleem, who debunked their studies at the Mayo School. He had some disagreements with the system of teaching at that institute.
Anna Molka continued teaching at the University while the War madness raged. At the time of Partition, the number of her students declined drastically. Nevertheless, art practice continued. Her teaching method and painting methods were complementary and aggressive. She painted in oil mostly on canvas. “Paint them thick, some would stay,” it has been said. But her paints were always bright and never fainted because she was very strict about her materials. The carpenter, Bashir, who prepared her stretchers with proper eight keys and bevelled on the inside dreaded her remarks of disapproval. Painting with the knife is difficult I itself. With the bristle hair brush, on the other hand, with a long handle one can fully stretch one’s arm to have a view from some distance.
With a painting knife, one has to be closer to the canvas. This tool does not allow much detailed rendering and much has to be left to the imagination and aesthetics of the viewer. Her thick paint took quite some time to dry because sometimes she would squeeze tubes directly on the canvas. She liked to paint mostly from the spot in the case of landscapes and from the models posing for her. In pursuit of her painting expeditions, she braved summer heat looking for appealing spots. Those were not necessarily saleable vistas. “Looking for the extraordinary out of the seemingly ordinary” would be the motif. She would break the rules that she prescribed for us. A very bright warm colour would occasionally appear in the background.
Anna Molka retained her wit and writ. In one of her interviews with the newly installed Television, she related how she would cycle to the university while her dupatta had flown away.
Her subject matter varied and sometimes surprised the onlookers. She painted the Muharram procession and the holy Ka’aba. Towards the end of her career, she painted some macabre scenes. These large canvases are some of the prized pieces in the collection of the National Council of the Arts, Islamabad.
Very few painters are sculptors as well. She was equally at ease in both arts. She sculpted the busts of many famous personalities including that of Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum. But her best one was that of a blind man. The piece is still in possession of her daughter, Tahira Ayaz. It is very appealing. The visually impaired looking for alms was invited in by Ahmad and trained to pose for her. Though he was paid handsomely for posing, he in return left her with a piece that is worth a fortune. The blind looks seem to utter: akhiaan waaleo. Created in clay by the additive method, it has been cast in the best quality plaster of Paris. It throws a different challenge every time you look at it.
While BC Sanyal had lamented the non-availability of nude female model studies for students, let me put on record that during my time at the university, such female model drawing and painting classes were conducted, albeit only for girl students - much to the chagrin of males. Our beloved professor, Nasim Hafiz Qazi, painted a very realistic, uncensored life-size full figure of Majo who had posed for years. Of course, many life-size plaster cast replicas of nude female figures from Greek mythology were available to draw from. Sadly all these have disappeared due to misplaced iconoclast thinking.
Anna Molka retained her wit and writ. In one of her interviews with the newly installed television, she related how she would cycle to the university while her dupatta had flown away. On another occasion, she was confronted by a “husband of the cow” and she stopped pedalling.
Having gotten Dr Nazir Ahmed reinstalled as principal of Government College had further emboldened Tariq Ali. Meanwhile, the Ayub regime and the Governor Kalabagh had become even more dictatorial. The University Ordinance empowered the administration to expel any non-compliant student. Even the degree could be revoked. Tariq led a charged rally, the biggest in public memory, against the law. The police were ordered to stop it from reaching the Governor’s House. The ensuing violence was brutal. The baton charge presented a battlefield scene. The Mall was strewn with broken flower pots and bricks and whatever could be used as a projectile. The boys were beaten ruthlessly; an elderly man struggled to offer himself as a punching pad. The whole area, including the back alleys of Anarkali, was filled with teargas due to heavy shelling. Anna Molka protected her students by locking them up inside the Department. We nevertheless shouted hoarse upon seeing the arrests and dozens of protesters bundled into police lorries. Our eyes were all red in spite of the wet towels.
In the following days, newspapers reported shedding of crocodile tears by aspiring politicians. Once all was quiet, Ahmed along with some other teachers, visited the Old Anarkali police station to see if any of her students was in custody. There seemed none there in the lock-up. Then someone screamed from the back quarters. “Mem sahib, mem sahib”. She asked the officer to bring the captive. It turned out to be a studio attendant, Bashir Surma. She simply told him to run away before the confused policeman could react. The fact is, the white skin still commanded awe.
Ironically Mahmooda Saleem Khan, the education minister in Ayub Khan’s cabinet, was from the Sikandar Hayet family and related to Tariq Ali. Some officers in the armed forces, too, were alarmed. The emerging politician was whisked away. Next, he appeared in London to lead and engage in public protests against Vietnam and other battlefields.
The writer is a painter, a founding member of the Lahore Conservation Society and the Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of the NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at email@example.com