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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Heritage Spotlight: Hindu Gymkhana

The Seth Ramgopal Goverthandas Mohatta Hindu Gymkhana was built in the year 1925, to be used as a club by the elite and upper class Hindu community that formed the backbone of commercial acitivity in Karachi at the time. It spans an area of 47,000 sq yards and was designed by a Muslim architect, Agha Muhammad Hussain, who boldly used a Mughal-Hindu mix of architectural design, arguably the first of its kind in a city that was dominated by European-style architectural buildings. With its thick walls, carved cupolas and other features the building reflects in miniature the magnificence of a grand Rajasthani palace.

After partition in 1947, the premises were used by the Federal Public Service Commission until the capital shifted to Islamabad some years later. As has been the case with a large number of such historical sites, the Hindu Gymkhana subsequently fell victim to neglect by the authorities and suffered severe physical deterioration and degradation. In 1984 the site shot into limelight when the government of the time decided to demolish the building, but the efforts and intervention of various local and foreign bodies saved it from extinction.

In 1994 the building was declared a cultural heritage site to be protected under the Cultural Heritage Protection Act. In or around the same period a scheme was approved, first to convert the premises to establish Sindh College of Arts, later revised and decided to turn the Gymkhana into a cultural heritage complex by the name of Kak Mahal Cultural Complex, with an approved cost of Rs 38 million.

In 2004, President Musharraf issued a directive to hand over the building to actor Zia Mohyeddin who had selected it as the site to set up the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA), the first academy of its kind in the field of performing arts in Pakistan. All the cultural material placed in the building was shifted to the Sindh Provincial Museum in Hyderabad to make way for NAPA, which was formally inaugurated by Musharraf after a year in February 2005.

In April 2006 the Hindu Gymkhana was in the news again when it was reported that illegal construction work was being carried out by NAPA in order to build a 50-feet high theatre and auditorium at the site. The site being declared protected under the Heritage Act, any changes or construction required mandatory clearance and NOCs from KBCA (Karachi Building Control Authority) and the Sindh Culture department, which was not done by NAPA. The ensuing publicity made NAPA stop this construction, however small illegal alterations continued to be made to the building in order to accomodate the requirements of the Academy.

This year in February 2008, a Hindu welfare organization took both NAPA and the government to court in a bid to reclaim the building, claiming that the property belonged to the Hindus of the city who had no place of their own to carry out social or cultural activities of their community. The organization also alleged that of the total 47,000 square yards area, over 27,346 sq yards had been ancroached upon by the Police department, 6,700 by the Federal Public Service Commission, 4,164 by the Aligarh Muslim University Old Boys Association and 416 sq yards by a private individual. The organization also alleged that parts of the building had been demolished, damaged or modified beyond recognition, in gross violation of the Heritage Act.

Two weeks ago, on April 17, the new Culture Minister Sassui Palijo while appreciating the efforts of NAPA, declared that the Academy will have to vacate the Hindu Gymkhana building and find some other premises, as the historical site will be handed over to the Hindu community to carry out its social and cultural activities.

There is diverse reaction to this decision. On one hand many are hailing this move of handing back the building to its 'rightful' owners, and on the other many are also lamenting the treatment meted out to NAPA which has also done some praiseworthy work towards the revival of performing arts in Pakistan. Perhaps if NAPA had remained within the confines of the law in preserving the protected site it would have continued to occupy the premises. Another question that comes to mind is where was the Hindu community during the last 60 years when the building was deteriorating badly and why it did not make any demand for its restoration earlier.

In any case, there is no doubt that the government must make more efforts to protect and preserve the sites that fall under the Cultural Heritage Protection Act, but while doing so there is also a need to devise some sort of strategy to put these buildings to good use in a manner that can promote and enhance their cultural and historical value further.
Cross-posted at Chawkandi

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