Our past and Pest

November 01, 2018


The writer is an author.
The writer is an author.

WHO would have thought there might be a connection between Budapest and Lahore? Yet, apart from the fact that both have imperial quality forts that once dominated their cities, they share a connection through an itinerant Hungarian artist, August Schoefft, who visited Lahore between 1841-1842.

Born in Pest (the lesser half of Budapest) Schoefft belonged to a family of artists. The street where he was born in 1809 is still known as ‘Képíró Utka’/Artists’ street. At the age of 28 he felt skilled enough to trade his talent abroad, travelling through the Levant, accepting commissions en route until he reached India in 1838. The lure of the iridescent Sikh kingdom of Punjab proved irresistible. In November 1841, Schoefft arrived at the court of Maharaja Sher Singh, the openly anglophile successor of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

Schoefft completed a number of paintings for Sher Singh, which he left behind in the royal toshakhana or treasury. Schoefft took away with him sketches of personalities he encountered in Lahore. By the time Schoefft had returned to Europe and was preparing work for an exhibition in Vienna in 1855, his host Sher Singh had been assassinated, most of the Sikh notables decimated, and the dazzling Sikh empire that fired his palette had collapsed.

The paintings have been languishing in an airless chamber.

The show-stopper at Schoefft’s Vienna exhibition was a magnificent panorama titled ‘Der Hof von Lahor’/The Court of Lahore, containing over 100 figures, the placement of each indicative of his role at the Sikh court. Rulers sat with their kin, assassins were linked to their victims, feranghis or foreign mercenaries stood in a separate group, and Sikh, Hindu and Muslim courtiers mingled in a potpourri of interfaith congeniality.

Most of the paintings in the 1855 exhibition that had Indian subjects were acquired for Maharaja Duleep Singh — the last Sikh maharaja deposed by the British and then ‘adopted’ by Queen Victoria.

These paintings finally returned to Lahore when their last Sikh owner Princess Bamba Sutherland (Duleep Singh’s daughter) settled in Model Town, where she died in 1957. The Pakistan government in an act of unusual foresight bought the collection from her legatee, Pir Karim Bukhsh Supra. Since then they have been languishing in the Sikh Gallery of the Lahore Fort, under lock and key, festering in a secure but airless chamber.

Over the past two years, through the energetic concern of the Hungarian ambassador Istvan Szabo and his wife Emilia, the paintings will hopefully undergo an overdue resurrection. The Hungarian government has offered to have 10 of the Schoefft paintings shipped to Budapest where they will be restored by experts at the University of Fine Arts, Hungary’s prime art institute. After that, the paintings will form the core of an exhibition planned of Hungarian Orientalists scheduled for May 2019 at the prestigious Budapest History Museum.

After two years of meticulous planning, everything is ready — the expert’s report on the condition of the paintings, the funding, the transportation and forwarding arrangements, the specialised handling, and the venue for the display. These paintings — once part of the royal collection in the Punjab — could not have a better location for display than the imperial palace in Budapest.

All that remains is for the Pakistan government to surmount within itself the reluctance of descending levels of authority to part with objects they appreciate only when someone else wants them.

It seems incredible that in an age when objects of immeasurable value crisscross continents from one museum to another, when the Mona Lisa could be shipped to the US for exhibition without a frown appearing on her priceless forehead, our own functionaries should find reasons for examining the dentistry of a gift-horse.

Pakistan suffers from a bad press as it is. One has only to visit any country outside the perimeters of our self-perception to realise that we are spoken of in terms bordering on derision. The cricketer Ian Botham once commented that Pakistan is where you would send your mother-in-law for a holiday. Even mothers-in-law might hesitate to apply for a visa to visit today’s Pakistan.

That is why it is vital for us to share our heritage — whether it relates to the Indus Valley, Buddhist, Mughal, Sikh, or British colonial periods — with other countries. But for that we need to have a heart large enough to accommodate our past. Budapest is as good an example as any of that maturity. Opposite its floodlit parliament building is the ministry of agriculture. Its façade still carries bullet marks. Its portico still has fresh flowers to commemorate the martyrs of the 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union. The past and the present are melded into a continuum of tolerance and understanding.

It may take us longer than another generation to achieve that kind of social generosity. One first step might be to show cultural generosity and let Budapest welcome home its son August Schoefft.

The writer is an author.


Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2018