The shrine that is the Lahore Museum – Ayaz Amir


On Sunday with my son Sheheryar I went to the Lahore Museum after a long time. The word epiphany, or revelation, I find is a bit over-used these days but it was very much like that. I have stood before the Fasting Buddha before but this time for some reason – perhaps gathering age – I stood more transfixed than ever.

It was a crowded morning with visitors and school children in large numbers visiting from outside Lahore. It was slightly noisy too but it really did not matter because – and I am not making this up or exaggerating – standing there before the Exalted One you lose, even if for a few moments, all sense of time. You feel in the presence of eternity. For you begin to wonder whose hand could have infused life and spirit into that impassive stone. It is not just sculpture, it is something beyond.

But you should not be in a hurry. I had to be mindful of my son because I did not want him to be bored. I wanted to stand there long. Great art can move you to passion, set your blood racing. Here I felt as if peace and softness were descending upon me. Such must be the effect of divine meditation. Is this what happens to yogis in their trance?

I was keeping the picture gallery to the last. I have been there before but I had not the eyes to see or understand. Call it imperfect or defective education. The art education I should have had I never had. Only now when it is getting close to evening am I discovering the great Pakistani masters.

There are three Chughtais in the gallery, in an angle of the wall. I think they would be better placed where you could stand facing them and take their beauty in without having to crane your neck to one side – for remember there is a rope barrier, as there should be, stretched in front of the paintings. Still, Chughtai is Chughtai and to be able to see him at close quarters, even if you are bending a bit, is worth all the effort in the world.

But only three Chughtais? That is a shame. After all, he wasn’t a Tibetan or a Mongolian artist. He lived right here and died in the 1960s. An entire hall full of his paintings should have been devoted to him. I don’t know how the museum is run, what kind of money it has and what money there is for acquisitions. We should be paying more attention to these things.

Next to the Chughtais is another revelation, three masterpieces by Ustad Allah Baksh. The first is Tilisim Hosh Ruba. This Urdu phrase means magic so powerful that it leaves you stunned…and this painting does exactly that, such a profusion of magical but subdued colours that you keep on gazing, mesmerised.

Next is Oxen in the Field, the oxen moving away from you. As I stood watching a guard came and asked, can you tell where the oxen are headed? And I pointed towards the centre and said their faces are in that direction. Then he took me to the right side and said, now look. And the oxen seemed headed towards the far left. Then he pulled me back towards the left side. From there the oxen seemed to be moving towards the extreme right. How the Master turned this trick you have to judge for yourself. Again, it is not a rush job. Stand there like an acolyte, a pupil, to take the magic in.

The third painting is Dust Storm and it leaves you similarly transfixed. The landscape is of the Punjab and the dust storm is not of the Sahara or the Kalahari. It is of the Punjab, part of our experience and memory. The Hand of God toucheth all three paintings.

Again I felt a sense of depression coming over me. Allah Baksh was of this place. He worked all his life here. Here was his studio and here toiled his apprentices. There should have been a museum dedicated to him, the galleries overflowing with his work. But just three of them here. I don’t want to go on about this but there’s something wrong with us.

Is it our priorities? But then what about priorities? Taimur, the warrior-king, brought the wealth of the world’s art to enrich and adorn his capital, Samarkand. Those of his lineage, the house of Babur, who made India their empire were possessed of a sense of beauty and aesthetics. See that in their buildings and their gardens. Napoleon looted the treasures of Italy and brought them to Paris. When he went to Egypt he took scholars and Egyptologists with him. When Russian armies occupied Berlin at the end of the Second World War they got their hands on the priceless treasures of the Berlin Museum and took them to Russia. These included Heinrich Schliemann’s finds from the ruins of Troy.

So let us be a warrior race if we think we are one. Let us place Sabre jets and old tanks in our public squares. Let us celebrate our prowess in developing missiles that can carry death and destruction over vast distances. But can’t we at the same time, even as we test our rockets every few months and multiply our defences, pay some attention to those other things – as represented by the Chughtais and the Allah Bakshes – without which no nation can lay claim to greatness and civilisation?

There are a couple of Shakir Alis in the Lahore Museum and one or two by Ahmed Pervez. Again my lament: why not more? And what are those portraits of Pakistani leaders and Muslim leaders doing in one of the galleries? The Lahore Museum is the only place of its kind in Lahore. The spirit of the Buddha pervades it. Its lofty ceilings are works of art in themselves. In this hallowed space, the official portraits amount to an act of impiety.

There is a wonderful exhibition on Harappa taking place at the Lahore Museum. Put together with help from Unesco’s International Fund for the Preservation of Culture, it is something not to miss. Even someone schooled in ignorance – like myself, because how much of the history of Harappa and Moenjodaro do I know? – comes away with a better understanding of our past…our origins buried deep in the mists of time. Pottery work by the one and only Sheherezade Alam is also on display. It is stuff to die for.

Again the scold in me rises to the surface. Unesco must help us with Harappa, the Aga Khan with the preservation of our inner cities, the Norwegians with the upkeep of the Sheesh Mahal. Why can’t we do these things on our own? Melina Mercouri, the famous actor, used to be Greek Minister of Culture in times past. Andre Malraux, the author, was de Gaulle’s minister of culture. (I need not mention who Hitler’s minister of culture was.) We are rich in our culture and our past, but hopeless when it comes to preserving and celebrating it. Now look what in the name of progress and development we are doing to Lahore.

While looking up for this column I came upon, for the first time, the name of Rakhaldas Bandyopadhyay (R D Banerji), the man who first dug up Moenjodaro – such is the extent of my ignorance. At the entrance of Moenjodaro should stand his statue…for he walks among the immortals.