Amrita Shergil's house. -Photo by Ali Zaef
Roop Krishna's house. -Photo by Ali Zaef
Syed Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons bakery. -Photo by Ali Zaef
Syed Mohkam-ud-Din, the founder of the bakery. -Photo by Ali Zaef
Earlier this year, I set out in search of some old houses in Lahore city, where the legends of arts had once lived, I came across the house of Amrita Shergil, a true Punjabi artist, who breathed her last in this city. She resided in an apartment at 23 - Ganga Ram Mansion (once called the Exchange Mansion), where presently a family of an auto mechanic is living.
They were well aware of the historic importance of the house. I enjoyed their hospitality and took many pictures. Coincidentally, I learned that 30th January was not an ordinary day but unfortunately, the Pakistani and even the Indian media seemed to miss the 100th birthday of Amrita Shergil, “the Frida Kahlo of India”, who painted the sufferings of Indian women and died at the young age of 28.
I also found the studio of art legend Bhabesh Chandra Sanyal, also known as B.C. Sanyal, who gave a new stroke to Indian art. Sanyal, born on 22nd April 1901, is the guru of the art of the undivided Indian sub-continent. In 1937, he set up a studio in the premises of the Forman Christian College, which later became an art school. Then, Sanyal moved his studio to the basement of the Dayal Singh Mansion, opposite the Ganga Ram Mansion, where Amrita had also lived for a few months. It was my good fortune that I was able to find B. C. Sanyal’s studio, however, it was saddening to see it in a complete state of decay; I was unable to find a single trace there that paid tribute to this once celebrated artist.
A few weeks later, I got the opportunity to interview eminent artist, Professor Ajaz Anwar, I told him about my progress. He was happy to hear of it. That is when he told me that B.C. Sanyal had established studios at other places in the city as well. I instantly pounced on the opportunity to explore them and sure enough, found another studio at McLeod Road.
Then, I searched for the house of another Lahore-based painter Roop Krishna and fortunately, I found it without any trouble because it was splat at the entrance of Anarkali, the second shop from the Mall. There was once a big book shop here, which was owned by the family of Roop Krishna.
Satish Gujral, another eminent painter and brother of former Indian premier I. K. Gujral, also lived in Lahore for a short span of time. He essentially belongs to Jhelum but moved to Lahore to pursue his career in arts and got himself enrolled at the Mayo School of Arts. There, he had an opportunity to meet art legends like, Roop Krishna and Amrita Shergil. Legend has it that one day, Satish Gujral went to pay Roop Krishna a visit, when he saw some of Amrita’s paintings lying on the street. He was shocked to discover that Krishna thought she was not a good painter and was “just making trash”. It was a great irony that the family of Roop Krishna later sold their bookshop called Ramakrishna and Sons and settled in London and that Amrita is today considered a legend while, very few people now know about Roop Krishna.
I hesitantly entered the building, almost completely like a ghost house. I shouted but no one replied. Then I found some people working in a room. I told them that I was a journalist and wanted to take some photos of this building. They said I would need the permission of the owner of the building. Interestingly, I am still waiting for their call.
My expedition took me next to College Road, where near the square, there used to be the studio of the famous painter Sobha Singh, who mostly painted Sikh gurus. He had moved to Lahore in 1946 and also worked as an art director on a film. I couldn’t find his house, because many old buildings had been demolished here. So I went to a nearby hosiery shop and asked the shopkeeper about Sobha Singh’s studio. At first, he didn’t understand what I was asking about. Then when I told him that I am was looking for the place of the artist whose paintings were all burned down during the partition riots, he asked me to go to the nearby S. Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons, which he said had been there long before the partition. When I arrived, Mohkam-ud-Din, the owner of the bakery warmly welcomed me and assured me that he would help me find the studio of Sobha Singh.
However, several days later Mr. Mohkam too, couldn’t find anybody who could tell me the exact location of Singh’s studio. While, I was upset about this, I was delighted by the hospitality that Mr. Mohkam displayed, a jolly man in his late 50s, he was keen on telling me the history of his bakery. He said the Syed Mohkam-ud-Din & Sons bakery, was established by the young man of the same name Mohkam, whose father Qamr-ud-Din was an army contractor for tea supplies during the British Raj before moving to Lahore from Jalandhar Cantt. He was on good terms with the then Punjab Lieutenant Governor Sir Charles Aitchison, the celebrated founder of Aitchison College. His wife Lady Aitchison, a true socialite was popular for her extraordinary baking skills. On the request of Syed Qamar-ud-Din, Lady Aitchison taught his young son western baking traditions. It was at a time when the concept of a bakery was new in Lahore. When Mohkam gained expertise in baking, he decided to pursue it as his career and opened the first bakery in Lahore on 1st January, 1879. Many British dignitaries and government officials were present at the opening ceremony, and of course Lady Aitchison cut the ribbon.
During those times, baking items were not very affordable. British socialites and local elite were the only regular customers of the Mohkam Bakery. Famous literary bigwigs, educationists and politicians, Tufail Hoshiarpuri, Waqar Ambalwi, Muhamad Tufail (Former Editor “Naqoosh”), Agha Shorish Kashmiri, Maulana Kausar Niazi, Dr. Ghulam Mustafa Tabasum, Dr. Nazir Ahmed, Dr. Ajmal Khan and many others were among regular customers also.
Mohkam-ud-Din said, “the founder of Ahmadiyya community Mirza Ghulam Ahmed and Dr. Allama Muhammad Iqbal also used to come here and meet my grandfather and spend hours discussing religio-political issues in here.”
Several decades later, Nagina Bakery became the place for literary gatherings. But in reality, Nagina Bakery was only a tea shop owned by a young Sikh, where the bakery items were actually supplied from Mohkam Bakery.
In the beginning, Mohkam said, the clientage of Mohkam Bakery was limited to British officers, Anglo-Indians and the Christian elite because the common natives considered the bakery items as “foreign food”. After the partition, another bakery opened on Mall Road but it didn’t flourish.
Mohkam bakery makes cakes on order. In the first half of the last century, Christian wedding cakes and Christmas cakes were their specialty. Later, Muslim cakes became famous for events such as Eid Milad-ul-Nabi and other religious festivals.
Interestingly, Mohkam Bakery makes cakes ranging in weight from one to three hundred pounds. The ingredients of their routine cakes are dry fruits, nuts, royal spices etc. One cake of 300 pound is baked in 15 to 20 days. Wedding cakes have several other ingredients which include rum, brandy and red wine. The prices of the cakes also vary according to the quality of the item. You can buy a cake anywhere from 550 to 5500 PKR per pound. Cakes made with red wine are the most expensive product in the bakery because they are made with the finest quality of wine.
They usually sell 15 to 20 cakes daily but on special occasions sale increases. Around a 100 special red wine cakes are sold a month because of their costliness. After taking a bite of it, I could safely say that I had never tasted a more delicious cake before.
Many people also buy the cakes as souvenirs. That might have been the reason why former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, former president Farooq Leghari, to name a few, preferred this bakery during their stay in Lahore. It is not only a bakery but a symbol of cultural heritage. In the words of Mohkam: “We are not worried about the declining sales because we believe in quality, not quantity.” Moreover, workers at the bakery have been working there for the last several decades, so the taste of the items is enduring. Even the most junior baker working, has been there since the 1970s.
Lady Harrison, a renowned painter of the late 19th century, who served as a teacher of fine arts at the Mayo School of Arts (now National College of Arts) was very good friends with Syed Mohkam-ud-Din. He often praised her fingers.
One day, Harrison asked Mohkam, “Could you make cookies like my fingers?” Mohkam replied, “why not?” And so he set about to bake cookies, which were not only delicious, but also a symbol of friendship and a tribute to the art. Since then, these cookies have been known as ‘Harrison’ Fingers’. Mohkam tells me a regular customer of the bakery, aged 90, asks for these cookies as “Lady Harrison di ungliyan”.
Lady Harrison is alive today because of these cookies.
Read this blog in Urdu here.