Few Pakistani artists invoke as much awe and fascination as Anna Molka Ahmed does. Of ‘mixed descent’ with Russian and Polish parentage, she adopted Pakistan as her home and Islam as her religion very early in life. A rebel with a cause since her young days, she contributed to Pakistan’s art world with passion and vigour that it is almost unprecedented. Her work in art education, in particular, continues to evoke reverence.

Much has been written about Molka, including a spectacular book on her life and work by Marjorie Hussain. Most recently, she came into the limelight again when Google decided to honour her with its ‘doodle’ on June 1. The date holds significance because that is when, in 1940, she established the Fine Arts Department at the University of Punjab, Lahore. This distinguished department (now known as the University College of Art and Design or UCAD) was truly her ‘baby’. She continued to give it her heart and soul, even during the most difficult of circumstances. All this is well-documented history.

Here one would indulge in exploring a little more about her persona, with impressions shared by a few people who knew her closely.

Of Molka’s two daughters Zarah and Tahira, Zarah opted for art while Tahira pursued a degree in psychology. Having personally been in touch with Zarah — a talented artist and teacher in her own right — her recollections of life with her mother reiterate the extraordinary qualities seen by many of Molka’s students and fellow artists who knew her. From some earlier conversations with Zarah, it seems that Molka enforced tough love in all her relationships. She was not one to do things by half measures.

Anna Molka Ahmed | Photo courtesy Zarah David
Anna Molka Ahmed | Photo courtesy Zarah David

Very recently, Zarah fondly recalled her mother’s lively, fun-loving side: “In the evenings, she had her friends and colleagues come over, and the house was always full of music and singing. She had so much energy, and Mummy was always the life of the party,” she said.

A mentor to those around her, Anna Molka Ahmed left an indelible mark in the art world and on education. Google recently honoured her memory...

Molka encouraged her daughters to learn singing and dancing, as well as how to play various musical instruments. In another endearing anecdote, Zarah recalls, “Mummy used to sit up the night before a birthday or celebration and sew my party clothes.” She was also a lover of animals, and Zarah narrates how their garden housed rabbits, birds and a lamb as well as dogs. Another aspect was Molka’s propensity to help charitable causes, an example of which is her allowing Zarah to perform classical dances for various charity events.

As a teacher and academic, Molka was formidable and an inspiring mentor. Senior artist and former principal of UCAD Rahat Naveed Masud shares the sense of awe, and even fear, that Molka invoked in her students and junior teachers. She would not compromise on what she considered was right, and every now and then would give a dressing down to whoever dared to defy her instructions.

With her daughter Zarah as a child | Photo courtesy Zarah David
With her daughter Zarah as a child | Photo courtesy Zarah David

Masud laughs while narrating how some students, and even teachers (now senior artists themselves), would be so shaken after a scolding by her that “they would literally sit and shed tears and would need to be consoled to recover from the shock.”

However, Molka was equally capable of showing softness, and was particularly kind to the junior staff.

Another senior and celebrated artist, Ghulam Mustafa, recalls her penchant for painting in the outdoors. In fact, she was cited by Google to be the first art teacher in Pakistan to have formally introduced outdoor painting to students of fine art. Mustafa narrates how, even after her retirement from Punjab University at the age of 60 plus, Molka would take him along with her to paint outdoors.

Maliha Azami Aga, a well-known artist and former principal of UCAD, also remembers Molka fondly: “Her white hair, larger-than-life personality, strong voice and physical presence was enough to leave a memory which has etched itself in my mind forever.”

Indeed there are so many others who would agree to, and even add on to these observations.

Rest in Peace, Anna Molka!

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 28th, 2020