Of art, old trees and pre-Partition homes

Art historian Sonal Khullar in conversation with Ammara Ahmad about Lahore and art history

Of art, old trees and pre-Partition homes
Ammara Ahmad: You said some lovely things about your connection with Lahore

Sonal Khullar: My Dadi was raised here. She was born in Dharamshala and was raised in Lahore in a house called Five Scotch Corner, which I am not sure exists anymore. Scotch Corner itself exists. Her father was from West Punjab, a town called Kila Soha Singh, now renamed – formerly in Sialkot district, now in Narrowal. There are a lot of family connections with Lahore.

And then, of course, there is a very deep connection between Delhi and Lahore. I hadn’t understood it till I had reached here (Lahore). So in that sense, there are the spaces- the built environment, the layout of the city, the monuments, the Boulevard. But it’s also the people. There is a “tehzeeb” (culture) here which reminds me of a lot of people I grew up with, who are no more. It was a certain generation that has passed – an old Lahore.

And I realised this when I came here: “Oh these are familiar people.” I remember when I was in Alhamra and I was looking at the people in the audience. The art world is such that we meet people frequently. I might not come to Pakistan but I meet people elsewhere. One woman in the sitting audience, I later learned, was the widow of Zahoor-ul-Akhlaq.

Her whole habitus– not style or andaaz – the way she carried herself, the way she dressed, the comportment was very reminiscent of a lot of people that I grew up with. My grandmother’s two close friends from school were here in Lahore. One was Uma aunty and then another – a friend I think I have only met a couple of times – migrated to Canada. There is just something about the way that they are. And then this closing ceremony of the Biennale took place in the Bagh-e-Jinnah. Some people were there, with a kind of being in the world that is not common anymore.

And of course, the language is so lovely. Delhi has not, you know, remained Punjabi like this. It’s a city that’s grown exponentially in the last 25 to 30 years. A lot of people have gone elsewhere. But the Urdu and Punjabi that’s spoken here is very special and rarely heard in Delhi.
"And of course, the language is so lovely. Delhi has not, you know, remained Punjabi like this"

AA: Where were you raised? Were you raised by your grandparents?

SK: My grandparents raised me in Delhi and my parents worked – so I spent a lot of time with my dada and dadi (grandfather and grandmother). I also lived in the US as a child and finished high school in the Philippines. It’s all kind of mixed up. Both parents worked for the government.

AA: Were they artsy like you?

SK: No. Not at all. They still haven’t understood what I do – no idea. I think they know that I am a Professor. Nothing more. But many artists have this issue.

AA: How was the Biennale in Lahore?

SK: I think it was great. I am writing about it. So things are still in process. This is not something to hide. I will have to think. I told a friend that from here I will go to London for a conference and then reach Seattle where I will catch up on some sleep. After waking up I will think and write. But that said, I think this was a very good experience. The book that I am researching for now, for it I have been to many art-world events. I went to Venice. There is a big art exhibition in Germany called Documenta, so I went there. But I have also been to several art events in South Asia. So I went to Dhaka two years ago. I have been to the Cochin Biennale in Kerala.

At Rohtas 2

I went to India Art Fair twice in Delhi. It is big and commercial. But it’s a selling event. It has many exhibitions and galleries – and the foundations and NGOs do a lot of stuff. It’s a big event in the city.

In comparison to them, this event (in Lahore) was small and focused – but not small in a bad way. It was carefully curated or carefully planned. Well-conceived. It was much more engaged in building a kind of local, regional, even national discourse on art then it was about attracting collectors or commercial interests. That’s also possible but I thought it was more invested in building institutions and infrastructure for art.

AA: The crowds were small but interested…

SK: Indeed. This is what I thought, too. I came in the middle and I saw the exhibition toward the end. I don’t know what happened at the beginning. But I also thought that the quality of the attendance and engagement was high. You know, it felt a little bit less to me and that too in a positive way […]it didn’t feel like a social gathering. It felt like we were building something.

The Lahore Fort, decked up for the Lahore Biennale

AA: Did you get a chance to explore the art scene in Lahore?

SK: Very little, because I was short on time. I went to this lovely gallery Rohtas 2, which is in Model Town. It’s a space that I was invited to by some artist friends for what was the closing of an exhibition. It is located in an old home – a pre-Partition home. So for me, there was just this deep joy of being in this space. Such houses are not there in Delhi anymore because the price of real estate has gone up so much. I remember those homes from thirty or forty years ago.

AA: People now sell the gardens?

SK: Yes. The gardens are gone. You can build high and you can build across. So now it is rare. I am not saying that they are not present in India. It’s just that they are not there in Delhi. I think one of the great pleasures is to see old trees. In Rohtas 2, the trees were not new and they were not small. They were big trees and a great variety of plants and flowers. I didn’t go inside the house but liked everything from the driveway to the veranda and the style of socializing – the lawn has chairs out and “Maltay” were placed with tea and chips. Very modest but in an old style.

Sonal Khullar

"The Lahore Museum galleries are organised by religion - Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist. I am not giving an endorsement of one display or another. But most museums are now organised chronologically"

AA: How was the Lahore Museum?

SK: The Lahore Museum was fascinating. I think it is a historical marvel in some ways, in terms of what we call professionally the ‘period display’. The way that the galleries have been set up there is not considered typically a modern or contemporary display. So having objects in those wooden cases is a very old style, almost a colonial style of displaying art. The style of display is a testament to a history to which the Lahore museum was deeply connected – the MAO College of Art, which is what NCA was called in the colonial period. And now there is a wall between the two. There used to be an exchange between the institutions. So the idea was that the Indian artists will look at objects in the museum and craft objects in the school. That would emulate and replicate what is there in the museum. That history is present in the museum.

You know, the lighting is not great to see a lot of the works of art. But the works are amazing. There are some things that troubled me as an art historian. The painting work is absolutely gorgeous. Especially, the painting on paper is gorgeous and very important. But it’s very exposed to light.

That painting should not be display at all in natural light and it should be rotated. I don’t know what they are doing about the rotation.

Zahoor ul Akhlaq in 1984

AA: Which painting are you talking about?

SK: When you step into the main gallery, the Pahari painting from Punjab. One of the other concerns that I have about the museum is that the galleries are organised by religion – Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist galleries. I am not giving an endorsement of one display or another. But most museums are now organised chronologically. In India, it is very common for national museums to organise dynastically.

It makes a very good study as a scholar because very few museums do it anymore. I am not just talking about the national museums but also the provincial museums.

That was unusual. So, for instance, the Sikh painting is still Punjab Hill painting, but it is in a separate gallery from the other Rajput paintings of the Punjab Hills. The Rajput painting of the Punjab Hills is in the main area. […]

Of course, the modernist painting was a pleasure. Paintings by Zain-ul-Abidin, Shakir Ali, Sadequein and B C Sanyal. The Shergill painting was lovely to see.

There are pleasures. A very interesting, wonderful collection but the displays are strange. You are actually by the rope held at a distance from the painting so you cannot actually see anything at a close-up. Some of the paintings need restoration. They become very dark over time.

Then I thought, I didn’t have time to inquire, the portraits of the male political figures at the very top is a very strange juxtaposition of the modernist paintings below. And I am not sure what the story is. But that style of painting is very different from the style of painting from the lower areas.

Do you think the paintings should have some cover? Like glass?

I love to see oil paintings for real but sometimes for protection, they have glass. I think glass or no glass. Some of them need to be cleaned because they have darkened. You can see it with the Sadequin mural which has been restored. It’s a brighter, livelier image.

Why the fascination with Amrita Shergill?

I think unfortunately a lot of the fascination is with her biography and personhood and I wish people would pay more attention to her art. So that was a correction that I proposed in the book that I wrote which discusses her training and background but really the focus is the works of art. Which I think have received too little an attention since the time, last 80 years, since she was showing art in India. I think the other factor that cannot be discounted is that Shergill was a very savvy promoter. Her family was very influential. And her nephew is a very prominent artist. So there are various interests that are very active in India in maintaining the kind of legacy and fame of Amrita Shergill.

Ammara Ahmad is based in Lahore, tweets as @ammarawrites and her complete works are available on www.ammaraahmad.com