THE WAY IT WAS: Wives yes, but no kites —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Feeling ignored, the officer in charge could contain himself no more and loudly informed me, without budging from his seat, that I could not photograph the mural. I had not even touched the camera but I confronted him by asking, “Why not?” “There have been several thefts in the past. Photography has been prohibited,” was the reply

Basant has come and gone. Basant, pala urant. But thank God the winter is still around. I rather like these grey, overcast days. I don’t particularly care about people who like sunny days. I’d rather have a nice cloudy day any time. We have the sun around for thirteen months in a year. Who can ask for more? I think it is a colonial hang-up some of us have imbibed from the English. I love the weather the English hate. Let’s not emulate the English who are always fretting about wet weather. Now that the Indians seem determined to divert our rivers should we not be praying for more rain? In many schools I remember on sighting of a summer cloud students would demand and often succeeded in getting a ‘fine day holiday’. Has anyone heard of a fine day holiday for a bright sunny day?

The MMA has been raving and ranting about Basant. I wish The General had not let them out of the bottle and enabled them to form governments. Can those who cannot manage mosques peacefully, run a government? MMA wants to have Basant discussed in the National Assembly. Stop scowling baba; go fly a kite. It will lift your spirits.

I wonder why the mullahs hate to see people making merry. For a mullah marrying four at a time if you please is fine. Wives yes, but no kites.

We all share MMA’s concern for people who get hurt and killed on Basant. We should enforce suitable measures to ensure stricter precautions. But in the meantime what about the daily business of innocents being shot in the mosques? What about pedestrians being blasted away unawares by bombs. These and many more are far more important issues that need to be discussed, debated and settled in the National Assembly than paris and patangs. Would you not rather experience the sight of a kite raised to life, fluttering in a light breeze than have a rocket launched to transform you into splattered ketchup?

If a person doesn’t like flying kites he can always go for cricket but I am afraid that cannot be done in a suthan or salwar. There was a time wearing trousers was considered un-Islamic. I believe grandfather of Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari refused to play cricket at Aitchison College for the same religious reason. Had he taken to playing cricket, I am confident, Farooq Leghari would have been remembered for better reasons.

Why cricket reminds me of art is perhaps because Mr Leghari never painted at school. Like every other student he was required to attend the two double periods every week but I don’t believe Moeen Najmi, our distinguished art teacher, ever felt urged to look over his shoulder to see what he was about. It was during one of these periods that Kamal Hayat, one of Farooq’s classmates, produced a memorable work of art. Kamal had depicted two persons sitting on their haunches in the actual act of shitting — excreta and all. It was something similar to what some of the more creative post-modernist painters attempted thirty years later in the West.

GD Langlands claims that Mr Leghari was the best student he ever had. I am quite perplexed how Mr Langlands arrived at that revelation because he was not Farooq’s housemaster. Nor did he ever teach him. Most of Farooq’s contemporaries would remember him as a shareef boy. Of all the games a student was required to he Farooq excelled in tennis. I am not quite sure if he played for Oxford and got his Blue. Moeen Afzal, one of Farooq’s classmates once informed me that Farooq loved hunting better. While they were both posted as SDOs in East Pakistan in 1968 Moeen noticed that Farooq loved the companionship of weapons dearly and would feel at better ease taking a loaded gun to bed with him. I trust he was not married then.

I am not certain if Sardar Farooq Leghari ever met Shakir Ali. I assume he may have heard of him from Moeene Najmi, the art teacher, who was one of Shakir’s close associates. Shakir Ali is not as well known to the general public as Sadequain but he is considered a pioneer of modern painting in Pakistan. Shakir, besides producing many thought-provoking canvases, executed several murals. Some of them are based on an extremely innovative employment of calligraphy. One of these murals was commissioned by Bait ul Quran at the Punjab Public Library. This was his earliest comprehensive calligraphic undertaking. The Bait ul Quran mural is based on the Ayat ul Kursi. The words and alphabets have been skilfully stylised into a decorated pattern and enriched with texture and images of leaves and flowers. I was fortunate to have been around when the artist worked on the mural and later — when it had been installed — to see him apply the final touches.

Recently I needed to photograph the mural for an article on Shakir Ali I was asked to write for Jamini, a handsome art journal newly launched in Bangladesh. What I had envisaged as an aesthetic undertaking unfortunately turned into a sour experience. It was entirely my fault, I confess. No citizen should ever enter a government building or office without being properly announced. But since I felt particularly confident that morning I proceeded to the library without much ado. I parked the car in front of Wazir Khan’s pavilion where the Italian General Avitable and his local wives had resided for a time as Maharaja Ranjeet Singh’s guests. Soon I spied a person grimly walk in my direction. I had barely emerged from the car when I discovered a coupon forced upon my person. My spirits were lifted. The rest of the proceedings during the day, I felt, would be equally efficient and quickly executed. At the Library entrance, I was guided towards a dark corridor. At the end of it was a sleazy staircase where the remnants of a carpet — recently ripped off — still clung to the surface. The stairs led up to the Bait ul Quran. It was an open staircase, so while I was climbing up I could peer into the left room that was dingy and dark. At the farthest end I could faintly detect presence of a mural by Sadeqain. The mural, stretched across the entire wall, was smothered in morose darkness. It seemed as though it had been in that state from primordial times.

The citizens of Lahore should be grateful to BA Qureishi for having the Shakir and Sadeqain murals commissioned for the Library. I was relieved to see that Shakir Ali’s mural was in place. Sometimes ago, as FS Aijaz ud Din recounts, the mural was grounded. As a result, it has lost much of its original lustre. This is particularly evident in the areas painted red. In most, though not all, public buildings works of art are kept clean no better than the floors. I am certain that the person who is required to dust the furniture and wipe the floors is additionally tasked to sweep the art works clean — assuming that officer in charge suffers from an aberration for cleanliness.

On sauntering into the Bait ul Quran, now one large shoddy room, I noticed a person behind an empty desk in conference with another. The man eyed me apprehensively. A stranger had stepped into his territory. I proceeded towards the mural to have a closer look. I had my camera casually dangling from the right shoulder. Feeling ignored, the officer in charge could contain himself no more and loudly informed me, without budging from his seat, that I could not photograph the mural. I had not even touched the camera but I confronted him by asking, “Why not?” “There have been several thefts in the past. Photography has been prohibited,” was the reply. I argued that he was welcome to satisfy himself that I was not a thief and then allow me to take a snap or two. “I am afraid that cannot be done”, he stood his ground. When I insisted that I had to take the photograph, he said, “OK, you write an application and I will forward it to the chief.” Alternatively, I was informed, “Go and see the chief yourself.” Since office of the chief librarian is located in the farther part of the building, I requested him to let me talk to him using the telephone on his table. I was surprised when he called. I could hear the chief on the other end. He was apparently not in an agreeable mood and would not submit to such familiarity. The telephone was timidly put back on its rack. I was advised once again to write down an application.

No wonder the Sadeqain and Shakir murals are in a derelict state, like prisoners pining away in a dungeon. No wonder books in the Library are depleting by the day. No wonder no one can be persuaded to donate a penny to the Punjab Public Library for new acquisitions. Reading books and appreciating art are really such an awful waste of time. Citizens made to write applications and stand in endless queues can certainly spend their time better. Just as well Sardar Farooq Ahmed Khan Leghari did not take to art.

Prof Ijaz Ul Hassan is a painter, author and political activist