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From Amrita Shergil to Lady Harrison: A journey through history

Updated Aug 12, 2013 08:02pm


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Amrita Shergil's house. -Photo by Ali Zaef
Amrita Shergil's house. -Photo by Ali Zaef
Roop Krishna'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 & Sons bakery. -Photo by Ali Zaef
Syed Mohkam-ud-Din, the founder of the 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.


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Ali Zaef is a journalist, who occasionally finds the time to indulge in his greatest passion: storytelling.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (21) Closed

Dr. Chiranjit Parmar Aug 12, 2013 08:27pm

I very much enjoyed reading it. Sardar Sobha Singh had lately settled at a place Andretta in Kangra District of HP. His daughter is looking after his house and a small art gallery. Andretta is a very scenis place and that is why he chose to spend his last days there. I had seen him. Though he was a Sikh and kept hair, but he was not wearing a turban.

karamat bhatti Aug 12, 2013 08:32pm

compact and comprehensive article, very well done and thank you for the pretty interesting piece of writing.

ijaz syed Aug 12, 2013 11:25pm

Dear Ali Zaef sahab: My warm note of appreciation for researching and writing this very informative and well written story about Lahore! Knowing fully well that it is not easy to easy to search for anything in present day Pakistan, I feel that your story required more digging and patience. Khushwant Singh wrote a book about his last days in Lahore that might be available to you in Lahore. He writes abot Amrita Shergil in this book. If I remember correctly, according to Khushwant Singh, Amrita Shergil spent her last days in the area known as GRO in Lahore. Keep up the good works! Best, ijaz syed

salman Aug 13, 2013 12:20am

so whats the point of this useless blog/article? that we should not live in the past and start feeling gooey about hindus?

Bikkar S BRAR Aug 13, 2013 04:09am

Dear Ali Zeif Sahib,

Wonderful research work. Sobha Singh has painted Sohni Mahiwal which was a master piece. I also saw his painting on Mughal King Shah Jehan and Mumtaz ( Dying Mumtaz was seen in his lap and asking to make Taj Mahal), named the last wish again a master piece. I hope people will help you in your mission. Wishing you all the best.


syed wahab Gilani Aug 13, 2013 04:14am

Dear Ali ,

As I am also from Lahore and belong to one of the most respected families in Lahore since partition and own few old buildings in Lahore since partition as well ,but i am delighted to read your article and gained so much knowledge of my beloved city .Thank you for your effort to deliver this knowledge to public .

Badar Aug 13, 2013 07:05am

Thank you for revisiting part of Lahore's literary and artistic history. Loved the bakery part. Shall visit it next time I'm in town.

Few people know that Punjab University was sub continent's first degree awarding institution and fourth university. No wonder, Lahore produced great artists, academicians and thinkers. It also hosted Pakistan's first nuclear lab in early 50's led by Dr. Nazir, Pakistan's first nuclear scientist.

ali Aug 13, 2013 07:49am

thank you for the wonderful article. we have forgotten so much of our heritage. keep it up.

Aiza Aug 13, 2013 09:55am

What an immensely interessting piece of reading. Thank you for sharing this with us, this has great historical value. Hope that many other young journalists explore this incredible city the way you do and share it with the public. Some of Amrita Shergils paintings can also be seen at Louvre in Paris. She was a bohemian and progressiv lady of her time. Getting glances from this time was exstatic!

verda rizvi Aug 13, 2013 11:21am

nice. and well written

Shahid Rafi Aug 13, 2013 12:47pm

Good story buddy. Next time try to eliminate the first person singular.

priya suman Aug 13, 2013 05:29pm

The post is very informative. It is a pleasure reading it. I have also bookmarked you for checking out new posts.

Saqlain Malik Aug 13, 2013 08:18pm

Thanks Mr.Ali Zaeef for this really informative article.A little bit more of research and you can complete a book.God bless you and give you the courage to complete this.Thanks again

Sarfaraz Durrani Aug 13, 2013 08:23pm

Started with Amrita Shergil and ended up at a bakery in Anarkali, giving us a detailed tour of finer points of cakes and cookies. Keep it up the good work; you will go very far in your profession Inshallah.

Asif jamshaid Aug 13, 2013 09:55pm

@Dr. Chiranjit Parmar: Did we had two painters by the same name, my late father was a great admirer and friend of Sobha Singh who gifted him some of his paintings, of which some are still intact and worth seeing. I am talking of pre-partition days and it is almost over seventy years or so. If some one from SS's family can put some light on it, I am willing to extend more details in order to reach definite conclusion.

hermann Aug 13, 2013 11:45pm

@Shahid Rafi: you people always sunni/shea, always try to find something demeaning. something that you can pick on. what is wrong with you.

Scorpio Aug 14, 2013 12:24am

Perhap the Lahore Municipality could be lobbied to put a plaque on these houses saying such and such lived here in Urdu and English with a little biographical note. This could be sponsored by commercial organisations. Thank you for such an informative article.

M mustafa Aug 14, 2013 01:07am

Loved reading this article. I wish there was more research on 'Androon Lahore' areas, buildings and old gates of Lahore. Would love to see more pictures of old Lahore. Thanks for this informative article. Keep writing :)

Saeed Aug 14, 2013 04:57am

Very good read. I wonder paintings from that era exhibit in any Pakistan art galleries .

Khalid Khan Aug 14, 2013 04:59am

@salman: I hope you will learn some thing from the response to your comment. Why make fool of yourself while you can keep quite and be wise.

salam Aug 14, 2013 07:05am

The author hasn't mentioned the location of the bakery and I wonder if it is the bakery just outside of Anarkali, which was the best known bakery in Lahore, when I was a student at Govt. College in the early sixties. When one looks at the history of Lahore, and the names which stand out, like Ganga Ram and Dyal Singh and Aitchison, Hindu, Sikh and British, people who did good for Lahore, irrespective of faith and here we are, in Pakistan, where ethnic and religious bigotry has taken hold of our psyche.