Frere Hall, and its gardens, is one of the gentlest places in Karachi. I like to think it always was. It was designed as a gesture of appreciation not as a symbol of colonial power. It was funded mainly by citizens, both British and local. It was not a church or a government office, but a place for relaxation and leisure, and it’s one of the very few heritage buildings that maintain its original function.
Karachi has a number of parks, the seaside, eating places that spill over to streets, newly-adapted cultural spaces such as the Mohatta Palace and the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre. However, Frere Hall has the distinction of being conceived as a cultural space with easier public access and, for the last 154 years, continues that legacy.
Commissioned to honour Sir Bartle Frere’s nine years of service as commissioner of Sindh, during which time Karachi emerged as a planned city, the building was designed by Lt Col H. St Clair Williams and completed in 1865. Its main halls were used for concerts and theatrical performances by The Karachi Amateur Dramatic Society founded in 1899. On the walls, paintings and photographs gifted by private citizens were hung. A bar and lounge in the eastern verandah completed the image of a relaxed evening out.
The ground floor was once home to a museum relocated in 1892 to theD.J. Science College and then to a custom-built museum. It then housed the Karachi Municipal Library which started its journey in 1852 as a small library for officers in the cantonment, before it was moved to the Karachi Gymkhana and then to Frere Hall as a public library — again with generous funding from the public and the municipality.
In 1869, Frere Hall hosted the first industrial exhibition showing produce, livestock, products, building material, and machinery from Sindh, Punjab, Bahawalpur, Kutch, Afghanistan, Madras and Bombay — the expo of the time. The grounds were designed much later in 1887-88, by Major Finch, director of the Indo-European Telegraph Company. Every Saturday, a regimental band played music in the band stand. Nannies would bring children in the mornings and for evening outings.
The people may have changed, but the activities have remarkably continued till present times: the three-day All Pakistan Music Conference, the Karachi Biennale, regular art exhibitions and seminars, the Sunday book fair, the grounds milling with families, a meeting place for young friends and shady spots for the city’s tired.
While the next-door Sind Club was for the use of members only, Frere Hall encouraged mingling with citizens. Just 23 years after Sindh was occupied by the British and only eight years after the 1857 rebellion — including a foiled attempt by the 21st regiment of Bombay Native Infantry stationed at Karachi — it says something about Karachi’s egalitarian environment that such a public space could be envisioned.
It surprises today’s Karachi that Frere Hall has not succumbed to developers. It holds a special place for Karachiites, rich and poor, those who live nearby or come from the farthest corners of the city. With its low railings, bounded by relatively quiet roads, it is a quiet sanctuary in the very heart of the city.
However, Frere Hall has the distinction of being conceived as a cultural space with easier public access and, for the last 154 years, continues that legacy.
Muhammad Yameen, 86, has been coming to Frere Hall every day since 1947, except for a few years spent in the Emirates. His friend comes every afternoon to enjoy the sun.
Kaid Benfield, director of Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth writes, “The busier and livelier a city is, the more it needs places of retreat,” and quotes the lyrics of Van Morrison:
“We walk in haunts of ancient peace.
At night we rest and go to sleep.”
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 10th, 2019