CULTURE: MOHATTA COMES OF AGE

Published March 24, 2024
Satvik Mohatta, his wife Andrea Roeder-Mohatta and children — Maya, Avik and Tara Mohatta — admire a historic photograph of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah during their maiden visit to the Mohatta Palace Museum on February 14, 2024 | White Star
Satvik Mohatta, his wife Andrea Roeder-Mohatta and children — Maya, Avik and Tara Mohatta — admire a historic photograph of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah during their maiden visit to the Mohatta Palace Museum on February 14, 2024 | White Star

Karachi is no stranger to academic conferences, seminars, scholarly talks, literature festivals and musical evenings. Yet, with the ‘Distinguished Lecture Series’ at the Mohatta Palace Museum, held to commemorate the museum’s 25 years of existence, the audience were conscious they were in one of those remarkable moments that can only be understood after they have been experienced.

The garden lectures began on November 10, 2023, taking place in an orderly fashion every second Friday. Just as the sun dipped beyond the waves at the nearby Clifton beach, the conversations began. Enjoying the cool winter evenings, over the next four months, the audience transformed into a community, enjoying each lecture that took them on a journey of time travel, exploring a diverse set of topics and themes.

One must start with a lecture somewhere in the middle — a talk that changed the significance of all the other presentations. It was the talk by Satvik Mohatta, the great grandson of Rao Bahadur Shivratan Mohatta who had the palace constructed and the first Mohatta to visit since the family left in 1947.

THE MOHATTA FAMILY SCION

The emotion of the young Satvik, accompanied by his wife and three children, was felt by everyone in the audience. The Mohatta Palace was no longer just a grand building but a home, as we heard of the family that had lived there, the vintage cars, the polo ground, the evenings on the rooftop barsaati, and the sound of peacocks and the horses in the stables.

The home had hosted Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi as well as many maharajahs, who would stay at the Mohatta Palace for a few nights before catching the sea plane to Europe.

To commemorate 25 years of the Mohatta Palace Museum, a series of lectures on diverse and eclectic topics intermingled with musical performances were organised on its grounds from November 2023 to March 2024, driving home the evolving role of the museum as a venue for learning and reconnecting with culture

The palace was built in 1927 by Shivratan Mohatta of Bikaner in Rajasthan, who chose to make Karachi his business centre. For it, he engaged the only Muslim architect of Karachi, Ahmed Hussain Agha, who also designed the Hindu Gymkhana and the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Agha was inspired by the Indo-Saracenic style developed by the English architect Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob. He was the chief engineer of Jaipur state, where Agha had also been employed. Sir Samuel took his inspiration from Mughal architecture, which he carefully recorded in six volumes. In turn, Shri Umaid Singh, the ruler of Jodhpur, during a visit to the Mohatta Palace in 1929, asked Shivratan to build the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur.

 Translator Shahnaz and art historian Fakir Aijazuddin bring to life the literary classic Hamzanama in their session on January 5, 2024 | White Star
Translator Shahnaz and art historian Fakir Aijazuddin bring to life the literary classic Hamzanama in their session on January 5, 2024 | White Star

TIMELESS TALES AND RIVETING RENDITIONS

This intermingling of cultures defined the themes of the lectures. Each lecture was followed by a musical performance, carefully curated by the museum trustee, Hameed Haroon, to reflect the theme of the lecture of the night.

Satvik Mohatta’s talk was followed by a Marwari song (Satvik’s native language) by Mai Dhai, welcoming the stranger and then drawing him into the land of Sindh with a rendition of Mai Bhagi’s Kharri neem ke neechay [Standing under the neem tree]. Adhu Ram Bhagat of Cholistan sang Kabhi masjid hoon kabhi mandir hoon [Sometimes I am a mosque, sometimes a temple], after the lecture on Uch Sharif and Multan by architects Tanvir Hasan, Yasmin Cheema and Hasan Ali Khan, embodying the crossing of cultures.

Two of the most interactive lectures were by Shahnaz and Fakir Aijazuddin and by Arshad Mahmood and Ustad Nafees.

Translator Shahnaz and art historian Fakir Aijazuddin brought to life the literary classic Hamzanama through the dynamic miniatures of Emperor Akbar’s artists and the magical story of the Tilism-i-Hoshruba. Extracts were dramatised by the highly entertaining Dastangoi group of Karachi. It was followed by a nagara percussion performance by Faqir Sado and Muneer Ahmed from the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. The nagara are large drums that accompany dastangoi [storytelling] performances and are played across Central Asia, the Middle East and South Asia, and can also be seen in miniature paintings.

Composer Arshad Mahmood and sitar maestro Ustad Nafees with his harmonium, explained the niceties of ghazal styles from its all-female historical origins in the mujra ghazal to the distinct styles of Mehdi Hasan and Iqbal Bano. The audience enjoyed the mini-performances explaining murkis and behlavay — small embellishments — and their informal banter.

 Composer Arshad Mahmood and sitar maestro Ustad Nafees with his harmonium explain the niceties of ghazal styles during a session on November 24, 2023 | White Star
Composer Arshad Mahmood and sitar maestro Ustad Nafees with his harmonium explain the niceties of ghazal styles during a session on November 24, 2023 | White Star

A TAPESTRY OF HISTORY AND CULTURE

Designer and researcher Naheed Azfar enthralled the audience with selections from her eight-volume book on the tribal embroideries of Balochistan and with a fascinating story of the history and culture of the Baloch and their resistance to colonial power. It was followed by a thrilling performance by Baloch singer Akhtar Chanal Zahri.

The erudite historian Dr Waleed Ziad introduced his book The Hidden Caliphate, published by the Harvard University Press, exploring the little-known intellectual, spiritual Naqshbandi Mujaddidi network that spread from the rich educational centres of Peshawar across Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia and China.

Poets Zehra Nigah and Ahmed Javed, with Hijaz Naqvi representing the younger generation, and an impromptu inclusion of journalist Ghazi Salahuddin, explored three legends of Urdu poetry: Mir Taqi Mir, Allama Iqbal and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The discussion that left the audience wanting more was followed by a soulful ghazal by Ustad Nafees, which seemed to be a dirge for the marginalisation of literary Urdu, both in India and Pakistan.

Economist and art connoisseur Majid Ali presented a very personal assessment of Sadequain’s Paris paintings of the 1960s, which he sees as the high point of the artist’s experiments with abstraction. Khamiso Fakir presented a musical rendering of the legend of the Queen of Junagarrh, whose abandoned son becomes a Sufi musician and, as happens in legends, the king (his father) agrees to grant any wish of the young Sufi, if he agrees to sing for him. The wish is for the king’s head, which is granted — recalling the pen and ink self portrait of Sadequain, with his severed head in his hands.

 Sufi singer Abida Parveen performs at the closing ceremony of the Distinguished Lecture Series at the Mohatta Palace on March 7, 2024 | White Star
Sufi singer Abida Parveen performs at the closing ceremony of the Distinguished Lecture Series at the Mohatta Palace on March 7, 2024 | White Star

FROM MUGHALS TO MANGROVES

Not on the original programme of lectures, art historian Dr Mehreen Chida-Razvi came across from the Lahore Literary Festival to discuss the architectural contributions of the Mughal Empress Nur Jehan, the first empress to be given a status equal to that of an emperor.

Nur Jehan had her own coins minted and issued royal decrees. History presents her as a scheming, ambitious empress. However, Dr Chida-Razvi suggested that historians need to revise this assessment and acknowledge her vision and creativity.

Bringing us up to the present, architect Tariq Alexander Qaiser spoke passionately about his journeys through the mangroves of Karachi’s coastline, the spaces of solitude a mere 15 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the metropolis. He has spent many years exploring, mapping and understanding the mangroves, and raising awareness for their protection through his short films.

Writer Bina Shah and psychiatrist Dr Ayesha Mian discussed the all-important role of art and literature in dealing with difficult times and as witnesses to events. They pointed out that Pakistan has a great tradition of resistance in art and literature, but there is also a need to rewrite socially accepted self-myths.

A JOURNEY ACROSS TIME

If the lectures took us on ancient journeys across Central Asia and the hills of Balochistan and new journeys through mangroves and contemporary social life, the last lecture by communications designer Saima Zaidi presented the intersection of the old and the new.

Zaidi presented extracts from her book Mazaar Bazaar, an edited collection of essays on graphic icons, reflecting the evolution of the visual vernacular of Pakistan from pre-Partition to contemporary times. She also presented a preview of her upcoming sequel, Hazaar Bazaar.

Between the two presentations, the audience was treated to a small video and discussion on a project in the Walled City of Lahore, which engaged national and international artists and designers to bring back to life the overlooked heritage of Lahore’s inner city.

In keeping with this cross-fertilisation of traditions, the musical performance that followed was a modern rendering of a waee recital by Zulfiqar Ali, Nazar Hussain and Mazhar Hussain, weaving together different musical traditions while keeping the spirit of the traditional waee of Bhit Shah.

The lectures, says Hameed Haroon, represented working scholarship, highlighting the presence of a fresh authorship in the rewriting of history, both in Pakistan and the diaspora. Dawn has reported in detail on each of the lectures, with the videos of the lectures available on the Mohatta Palace Museum website.

A FITTING FINALE

The Distinguished Lectures series came to a euphoric close with a spectacular Abida Parveen concert, along with other performers from the lecture series. It was attended by more than 5,500 people. Trustee Hamid Akhund, who is best known for his promotion of the rich culture of Sindh on a grand scale, in Pakistan and across the world, was the impresario for the event. The event was free of cost and open to the general public. The invitation cards had been snapped up in a few hours.

The Mohatta Palace Museum has become a world class cultural institution, with its meticulously presented survey exhibitions, lectures and musical events. It is a place of learning for art students and hosts regular visits from schools, including those from deprived areas, creating an opportunity for Pakistanis to reconnect with their culture.

It will be expanding its facilities, with a new auditorium having a seating capacity of 200, an open-air baithak and a café. The sculptures which were removed from the Frere Hall grounds in the ’60s, and presented to the Mohatta Palace Museum by the Sindh government, will find a new home here.

While there are many academic educational institutions, there are few places for cultural education and none of the scale, quality and free access provided by the Mohatta Palace Museum. As Satvik Mohatta said, it is the best use of his ancestral home and a gift to the people of Pakistan his family can be proud of.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist. She can be reached at durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 24th, 2024

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