Fyzee Rahamin gallery: ‘to be or not to be’

Published June 30, 2015
A view of the parking lot outside the gallery and auditorium. Below: an inside view of the yet to be constructed auditorium.
—Fahim Siddiqi/White Star
A view of the parking lot outside the gallery and auditorium. Below: an inside view of the yet to be constructed auditorium. —Fahim Siddiqi/White Star

KARACHI: The only expression that one can use for explaining the plight of the Fyzee Rahamin art gallery, which a few years back had an auditorium added to its premises, is of sadness. The foremost reason for it is the prolonged process of its rejuvenation which, it is believed, would eventually result in it becoming one of the city’s leading cultural spaces.

This does not mean that one intends to apportion blame to anyone. The authorities concerned must be doing their best to revive the gallery and build the auditorium. It is the delay, in the Shakespearean sense, which is making it live an unsung life.

To put things in perspective, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to give a brief backgrounder to the Fyzee Rahamin story, especially for the uninitiated. Atiya Fyzee was a writer of repute. She was born in 1877 and belonged to an illustrious Bombay family. She had a charming personality, which is why during the course of her intellectual journey she befriended a few distinguished men of letters. As Pakistan came into being, founder of the nation Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah requested her to migrate to the newly independent state for Muslims. Accepting his offer, she, with her artist husband Samuel Rahamin (a Jew who converted to Islam) came to Karachi in 1948. Here the couple settled in a residence near the Arts Council and called it Aiwan-i-Rifat. At the Aiwan-i-Rifat they arranged cultural events (musical concerts, poetry recitation programmes) until, it is said, a government servant’s antagonism caused them to leave the place. Samuel Rahamin died in 1964, leaving all his artworks to his wife. And Atiya Fyzee passed away in 1967 leaving his artworks and books on art and culture to the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, efforts were made to turn the Aiwan-i-Rifat into a cultural spot, to no avail. Then in 2009 the city government decided that it was its duty to revive and rebuild the Fyzee-Rahamin Art Gallery. By that time an auditorium had also been added to the scheme of things. In 2012, the governor of Sindh reiterated his resolve to construct the 1,800-seat auditorium in less than a year. Easier said than done!

This is the context which makes important a meeting, presided over by Sindh Chief Secretary M. Siddiq Memon on June 26 in his office to review work on the Fyzee-Rahamin Art Gallery and Auditorium. (They called it FRAGA.) According to a handout, the chief secretary at the meeting advised all the departments and institutions concerned to “strengthen the status” of the project.

Talking to Dawn on the issue, Karachi Commissioner Shoaib Siddiqui, who was also present at the meeting, said: “Unfortunately certain things have not moved forward. Wherever I go I talk about it and advocate the project, because it’s a soft and good investment. Its completion would present a good image of Pakistan in the world. Since it might be difficult to handle it on a government level (sarkari taur per), there are a few offers, one of which is from the Arts Council, under consideration. The auditorium has potential for becoming the biggest in the city. As for the latest information on the project that I can give you, it is: to be or not to be.”

Bilqees, one of the officials who look after the Fyzee-Rahamin Library and Gallery, is also not sure about the work on the auditorium but is pretty upbeat about the library. “We constantly organise programmes here — book launches, meetings with noted individuals etc. Recently, the addition of 7,000 to 8,000 books on different fields of art, courtesy a club, has further enriched the library.”

So, today what kind of impression can a visitor to the gallery have? Well, for starters, the first thing one would notice is that the foreground to the venue has been turned into a parking lot for the shiny vehicles driven by people working in nearby offices (who gave permission for that is unclear). Then stepping into the gallery itself may not be that pleasing an experience, because, according to Bilqees, ever since the weather became cloudy and rain looked imminent, the gallery staff bundled up the books and stacked them onto some round tables placed in different parts of the gallery.

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2015

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