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Art and abandonment

December 25, 2013

THEY came at the invitation of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The painter Samuel Fyzee Rahamin and his wife Atiya took up residence on Karachi’s Burns Road. They named their house Aiwan-i-Rifat after a house left behind in Bombay, and like that house they painted it white.

It was supposed to reflect the germination of a vibrant and burgeoning cultural life in a new city, a new country. That, they supposed, was the reason the country’s founder had invited them; painter and his writer wife entrusted thus with overseeing the birth of art in a newly created country.

Samuel Fyzee Rahamin was certainly qualified for the task. He had trained in London in the early 1900s under the American painter John Singer Sargent, whose paintings currently command prices above $10 million. He had also received instruction from the British pre-Raphaelite painter Solomon Joseph Solomon. His own work was shown at renowned galleries in both London and Paris.

A Jew who converted to Islam after his marriage to Atiya Fyzee, Samuel Fyzee Rahamin became, on his return to India, art advisor to the Maharaja of Baroda. In this capacity he advised the Maharaja in the acquisition of works of art that formed the basis of an impressive collection.

Five paintings are still on display at the Baroda Museum and Picture Gallery in Baroda. Six more of his paintings, which include portraits of the Maharani of Baroda and various other princes, are on exhibit at the Maharaja Fatesingh Museum. He also did portraits of the Nawab of Janjira and painted the first dome of the Imperial Secretariat of New Delhi. His work was also acquired by the Tate Museum in London, where it remains.

When Samuel and Atiya came to Karachi in 1948, things were for a while just as they should have been. The couple, which had been involved in organising many cultural and musical activities and entertainments in cosmopolitan Bombay, applied their creative verve to their new milieu.

In the early days of the Aiwan-i-Rifat, there were musical evenings and poetry soirées. Samuel and Atiya had in the early days of their marriage collaborated on a book on Indian music, and now they brought together aficionados of classical music and dance at their salon in Karachi.

It seemed that the seeds of art, music and cultural production that were being sown would grow. Samuel Fyzee Rahamin continued to paint, and Atiya continued to write, and together they continued to put their faith in an artistic future for a new Pakistan.

Art and appeasement do not enjoy comfortable cohabitation. It is quite likely that Samuel and Atiya’s failures at the latter led to their eviction from the second Aiwan-i-Rifat, just a few years after their arrival in Karachi. According to historical sources, they managed to annoy a government official. This led, in turn, to the loss of their home.

When they left, they took with them their considerable collection of books and art, trying still in their later years to foster the artistic collaborations for which they had been invited to Pakistan.

It was a task that was increasingly difficult in a country unsure of the status of art in its society, plagued by questions of what kind of art would be permissible enough, pure enough to belong to a country that had been created in purity’s name.

Samuel Rahamin could be considered a casualty of the confusion, and it imposed on him a sad end. When he died in 1964, he lived in near poverty, dependent on the goodwill of a soon-scant assortment of well-wishers. He left all his paintings to his wife; and when she died not much long after, she left them to the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation, choosing the city she had come to as her heir. Her hope was that they would be exhibited in a venue larger than the tiny existing museum at the Aiwan-i-Rifat where they had once lived.

The second tragedy of Samuel Fyzee Rahamin features neglect, apathy, and disdain in starring roles. In 2009, the construction of the Fyzee Rahamin Art Gallery and Auditorium was taken up by the city government of Karachi, after many failed attempts begun and abandoned in the 1980s and 1990s.

An auditorium with the capacity to seat 1,800 people would be constructed, it was promised, and it would all be done in three months. Two years later, there was no sign of it. In 2012, the governor of Sindh, Ishratul Ibad, again promised that construction would be completed in eight months. A year and a half since that last announcement, the work remains incomplete. The recent changes in government suggest that it will remain so.

The paintings of Samuel Fyzee Rahamin hang in the palace museums of India, in the Tate Gallery in London, and are also stowed away in a poor and neglected space in a congested corner of Karachi. The largest portion of his collection, allegedly including 1,500 rare texts on art history and various treasures collected by his wife Atiya, all languish under the auspices of the now defunct KMC.

The neglect of Fyzee during his lifetime reflected the failure of the Quaid’s experiment in sowing the seeds of art in a desert city, a possible premonition of the cultural wasteland it became.

Since his death, both governments and promises have come and gone, and all have failed to resurrect the original promise, the tragic idealism of Samuel Fyzee Rahamin, a painter who came to Pakistan but was never, in life or in death, embraced by it.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.