There are those who complain that Karachi is a grey city, some even adding that “there’s not a BIT of greenery here!”
Not a BIT of greenery, in spite of all the trees, for example, that follow the road much of the way from the airport to the city? Mind you, on returning to Karachi from the Karakorams, or even from abroad, the traveler is likely to feel that it looks strangely flat and grey. However, seeing Hanif Shahzad’s recent oil on canvas exhibition at Karachi’s famous Chawkandi gallery certainly puts such ideas to flight. A graduate of D.J. Science College (itself a rather beautiful piece of architecture) and from the Karachi School of Art, and with a creditable number of acclaimed exhibitions both at home and abroad on record, he is said to paint Karachi’s impressive historic buildings, its streets and beaches “with inordinate affection.” Some even say that his paintings conjure up “the sweet nostalgia that one feels when visiting the old precincts of the city.”
As a civil engineer, Hanif enjoys painting the historic buildings of Karachi, many featuring either the dome – a cosmic symbol in every religious tradition, representing the vault of heaven, as well as eternity and perfection – or the spire. The latter takes its meaning from the Old English ‘spir,’ meaning a sprout, a shoot, a stalk of grass, though from ancient times this architectural form has been considered a phallic symbol.
One of the artist’s greatest loves among historic buildings in this city is the Mohatta Palace. This, until it was bought and renovated by the Government of Sindh for use as a museum devoted to the arts of Pakistan, stood derelict for many years after the deaths of its eminent last residents, Fatima and Shireen Jinnah, though still eminently worthy of artistic and photographic representation. Hanif has painted it in cheerful sunlight, under darkly clouded skies, in the moonlight, under a blue sky with every detail clearly visible under the fierce midday heat.
The palace was built in Clifton, Karachi, by Shivratan Chandraratan Mohatta, a Hindu Marwari businessman from Rajasthan, India, in 1927. It was his summer home until independence, when he left for India. Built in the style of the elaborate, traditional stone palaces in Rajasthan, using pink Jodhpur stone in combination with locally obtained yellow stone, and with its Indo-Saracenic archtecture, also its peacock motifs surrounding each of the 9 domes and its numerous floral motifs, it has a really distinctive presence.
Some even say that his paintings conjure up “the sweet nostalgia that one feels when visiting the old precincts of the city”
Amazingly, whereas Hanif’s past representations of the palace were true to form, this time around he has astonished art lovers by engaging in fantasy, experimenting boldly with colour (and giving us 8 domes instead of the actual 9), showing the historic place in blue, green, bright pink, a combination of yellow and mauve. One of the most attractive compositions shows the palace in a combination of yellow and orange, with careful and original decorative touches added to the domes, much attention to the windows, while the prolific, many-hued plant life in the foreground blends well with the earthen path that gives a final touch of solidity.
Similar treatment has been given to the Hindu Gymkhana, a graceful building established in 1925, its design based on the the tomb of Ittemad-ud-Daula in Agra, while the stone for its 2-ft-thick walls was acquired in Bijapur. After independence, its condition gradually deteriorated, and it was almost demolished in 1984, but was protected by the Heritage Foundation of Pakistan. Only a portion of it is shown by the artist, who has surrounded this also with lush plant life in imaginative colours, and replaced the hard, noisy road now leading past the place with an earthen track, much easier on the eye, the spirit and no doubt on the feet. There is also a luminous quality about a number of his Hindu Gymkhana studies.
Then, featuring neither dome nor spire, but a large square tower(the tower being ideally a symbol of hope and freedom), originally a little taller and used as a lighthouse for ships arriving in Karachi, we see Holy Trinity Cathedral, built of Gizri stone in 1855. It features 4 clocks, all needing repair, and the verger complains that those who came to repair them only made them worse – a common tale, but true. Hanif’s rendition is faithfully executed, and brings out both the cathedral’s magnificent proportions and its mellow, ‘Mother Church’ ambiance. As an artist he has enhanced the effect of the brickwork, and added flowers outside the sanctuary, plus extra greenery elsewhere. Meanwhile, one cannot but admire his capturing of the sunlight reflected from the barrel-vaulted roof.
As to the tower’s being a symbol of hope and freedom, the irony of this strikes us when we think of the tower in which Rapunzel, of ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tale’ fame, was imprisoned by a wicked witch. Then take the Tower of London, for instance. Way back in history it was a dreaded place – a place where royals who were said to have disgraced themselves were incarcerated. Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII was incarcerated and beheaded here. So was Catherine Howard, the ageing Henry’s teenager fifth wife, for indulging in illicit love affairs. In Shakespeare’s Richard III two little princes were held in this place, along with many others though various reigns. Nowadays, of course, it is the sanctuary of the British crown jewels, whereby hangeth many a tale.
Downtown, or rather in the old city, there is a variety of picturesque buildings, one shown in a daylight street scene with pedestrians and a little traffic, and sporting both domes and tower. On the other hand Merewether Tower, opened to the public in 1892, rising to a height of 102 feet, beautifully designed and gracing one of the city’s busiest intersections, is painted at night. Its mighty spire carries four clock faces, each seven feet in diameter and the tower is illuminated by street lights, shop lights, while citizens and vehicles are shown moving about at leisure, the daytime rush being over. The artist’s use of light here is quite amazing.
However, Hanif has not limited himself entirely to architecture. He has offered night scenes of the port, some with dramatic lighting, a glorious golden sunlight over the water, a cloudy early evening view of Clifton Beach, groups of snack bars and their customers here and there on the waterfront. Let’s look at Clifton Beach, where we see a large, dark cloud hovering above the busy scene like a giant stingray, with 2 breaks in this dark mass looking for all the world like a couple of white birds. The popularity of the beach is obvious in this study, with a gay crowd of people playing, paddling, waving to friends, one or two evidently deep in conversation. The camel is called ‘the ship of the desert,’ and here we see the inevitable camel-wallah steering his ‘ship,’ as it were, silhouetted with his customers against the evening sky, completing the odd symmetry of the composition.
Hanif Shahzad has been described as an expert at realistic painting, though his works definitely have a painterly touch, rather than being in the style of photorealism. He says, “No matter how often I paint it, the city keeps e coming back for more.”