At The Intersection Of Identity, Architecture And Art: The Lost Stories Of Dyal Singh Mansion

At The Intersection Of Identity, Architecture And Art: The Lost Stories Of Dyal Singh Mansion

What lies behind the frame of storytelling is a stage on which the storyteller performs, constructs a narrative of their own, and creates a meaningful dialogue with the audience. A storyteller is not confined to being a person; it can exist as a space or a setting as well. Every space has a story to tell; these stories are woven into the very fabric of every space. Much like people carry stories with themselves, spaces, too, are silent storytellers. Within the walls of such spaces stand forbidden tales of the city; every nook and corner draws you closer to the stories of its people, which otherwise remain untold or forgotten. Along these lines stand the pillars of Dyal Singh Mansion that seemingly usher one into a world rarely known— the restless heart of this city, Lahore. 

Imagining space as a narrative medium, Dyal Singh Mansion reiterates the theme of collective identity in light of the British colonial rule, the representation of the Sikh community and the events of Partition. Dyal Singh Mansion stands as a pre-Partition heritage site on the heart of Mall Road, built by an influential Sikh belonging to a feudal family, Sardar Dyal Singh Majithia, in the early 1930s. 

The identity of Dyal Singh Mansion, also known as Dyal Singh Haveli, is buried in its name, as Dyal Singh reflects the legacy of Sikh heritage, while the word Haveli emerges from the Arabic word Hawali, meaning Partition or private space. As a space, the mansion emerges from multiple narratives of history, which together redefine the identity of the space itself. The role of architectural elements in creating a relationship between social and physical phenomena is pivotal to the study of Dyal Singh Mansion. While the symmetrical layout of the mansion signifies the influence of British colonial rule in India, the architectural design of the mansion merged in its intricate domes, arches and carvings, aligns with the traditions of Sikh architecture. The architectural motifs of the mansion delve one into understanding the architecture of space as a storytelling technique that can facilitate the understanding of a shared history under one roof.

In the frame of storytelling, the Dyal Singh Mansion ties multiple stories of shared history together, one which represents the colonial heritage of the city and the other which renders the cultural identity of the Sikh community in Lahore. This can be illustrated in how the Dyal Singh Mansion closely connects to the remnants of the India-Pakistan Partition in 1947, which separated the Dyal Singh Mansion from present India. Interestingly, the Dyal Singh College and the Dyal Singh Library reside on the other side of the border in Delhi, India as well which also speaks a lot regarding the shared history of Pakistan and India. The mansion unravels the tapestry of time around the memory of Partition from which the two countries struggle to recover to this day. 

The 2006 Anti-Danish Cartoon Riot in Lahore: Violence, Religion and Politics

As reported in a newspaper article in The Express Tribune on 30 July 2012, the mansion caught fire on 14 February 2006 during protests around the Danish Cartoon Controversy. A wave of mob violence, in a series of social protests, erupted on the streets of Mall Road, among which stood the Dyal Singh Mansion. Among the burnt offices at the mansion was a popular restaurant Shezan, burnt down by the protestors to display their outrage against the controversy. (Yasif) 

In light of the brutal events of 2006, the unprecedented act of violence had been demonstrated by a few religious fanatics who led the destruction of public property to condemn the cartoon illustrations of the Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him), published in a Danish newspaper. As documented in Amélie Blom’s research titled “The 2006 Anti-Danish Cartoons Riot in Lahore: Outrage and the Emotional Landscape of Pakistani Politics”, the tragedy has been outlined as a “war zone”. One group of rioters set the old Dyal Singh Mansion on fire, the protestors attacked multiple offices in the building, such as the Pakistan International Airlines office, travel agencies and Telenor mobile company outlets. (Blom, 14)

Given the unfolding events, the gravity of the situation brings forward the interplay of violence, religion and politics behind the present state of Dyal Singh Mansion. The walls of the mansion stand as a silent testament to the tragic events of 2006 when the building suffered a devastating fire, as a cause of which the walls have weathered over time with cracks running through its ceilings and traces of soot and smoke, evident in its crevices. The atrocities of 2006 around the mansion recount a story of loss and abandonment, one that has completely changed how the local community engages with the space. Based on the findings, one can deeply understand the relevance of social nuances to the changing narratives surrounding a particular space. 

With storytelling as the reflective metaphor to tap into, the conversation of art and space completely shifts the narrative surrounding Dyal Singh Mansion. In line with a news article in The Friday Times in March 2022, The Lahore Biennale Foundation, in collaboration with the artist Farida Batool curated a three-day art exhibition titled “Lahore ki aik dastaan” (The Tales of Lahore) in Dyal Singh Mansion. Through this initiative, the mansion featured artworks based on the stories of Lahore, intertwined with the themes of memory, legacy, and migration. On display were works of projection art along with on-site live murals in Urdu, which altogether conveys the essence of language for the locals who communicate with the space every day, such that the space speaks not only for itself but for the people around as well.

By picking Dyal Singh Haveli as the setting for the exhibition, the display explores the colonial heritage of Lahore— the city which comes alive with the lost stories of its people. Such is the underlying influence of art that it transcends all boundaries between the space and the observer, and this is why, perhaps, the walls of the Dyal Singh Mansion continue to be reimagined today.

Works Cited

Blom, Amélie. “The 2006 Anti-‘Danish Cartoons’ Riot in Lahore: Outrage and the Emotional Landscape of Pakistani Politics.” South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, no. 2, 2008

Desk, News. “‘Lahore Ki Aik Dastan’: LBF Presents 3-Day Exhibition at Dyal Singh Mansion.” The Friday Times - Naya Daur, 17 Mar. 2022

Yasif, Rana. “Threat to Heritage: Office in Dyal Singh Mansion Catches Fire.” The Express Tribune, 29 July 2012