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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

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Sindh Wildlife

About a month ago an uncle of mine who works in the Sindh Wildlife department visited me in office. We started talking about Wildlife reserves and I told him about my interest in getting involved in WWF initiatives in Sindh but that I could not find any good website that would guide me in this direction. He told me to log on to http://www.sindhwildlife.com.pk. I typed the web address on my computer right there and the page that flashed before me said, 'Site suspended due to non-payment of bills'. Chacha was obviously embarrassed, but called me up a few days ago to say the outstandings have been settled and the site is now functional.

It is mainly a limited resource site providing information on the organization and history of the department, the main animals found in Sindh, info on protected reserves (the photographs don't seem to load) and some external links. Interestingly the Public Awareness section devotes most space to information on game hunting rules, permits and fees, when what I really wanted to find was how common people can assist in protecting our diminishing indigenous animal species in the province.

Another interesting thing to note is in the Animals section the population estimates given are from the year 1999 or 2001, meaning that since the last 7 years no estimates have been prepared (or published), especially for the endangered species like the Indus Dolphin or Marine Turtle.

The site is a good initiative by the Sindh Wildlife department, but a lot more can be added especially with respect to ongoing activities by the department, providing downloadable material and providing suggestions on how the public can assist and contribute in this very important arena.

If anyone is aware of more sites that have info on how to help/contribute, please do share.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Ex Chief Minister 'Manhandled'

Dr Arbab Ghulam Rahim, ex Chief Minister of Sindh under Musharraf rule, was a very frightened man on Monday, trying to run for his life and escape from the clutches – and shoes – of the mob that was trying to get their hands on him outside the Sindh Assembly in Karachi.

The scene in which somebody succeeds in hitting him hard on his face with a shoe has been shown countless times by all TV channels. This was after he had taken oath as MPA inside the assembly hall where someone else also threw a shoe at him (and missed) from the visitors’ gallery.

Later when someone interviewed a couple of women MPAs, instead of condemning the incident they started lamenting that they had not managed to get their own hands (read shoes) on him!

To give the devil his due, Arbab during his tenure as Chief Minister had been very vocal about his hatred for and criticism of Benazir Bhutto, had accused her of corruption and even went as far as to say that from a religious point of view the “leadership of a woman – and therefore BB – is a curse!” All this obviously seems not to have gone down well with the public.

In any case the incident can in no way be condoned. It is totally and completely deplorable and shameful that such an act was allowed to occur in the place where our representatives take the solemn pledge to protect the constitution and maintain law and order!!

Benazir Bhutto herself had only responded to Arbab’s accusations by taking strong exception in the media to his comments and sending him a legal notice of defamation, which was the correct course of action and response. Those jialas and supporters of BB who are defending the attack on Arbab are simply not helping BB’s cause. They have a much higher responsibility, especially after her death, to ensure that order is maintained at any and all cost and that we move on as a nation on the path of reconciliation and real democracy that BB envisioned.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Anwar Solangi: State of the Pakistani Artist

Well-known TV and Radio artiste Anwar Solangi, known popularly as Makno Khan after one of the characters he portrayed in Urdu serial Deewarain, passed away yesterday in Civil Hospital Karachi after a prolonged illness at the age of 64. Despite having worked in over 500 TV plays, 1200 radio programs and over a dozen Sindhi films, Anwar Solangi enjoyed neither the fame nor fortune that actors with such a portfolio are able to achieve in other countries. On the contrary, Solangi lived almost hand to mouth in a rented house, supported by small payments made to him whenever he could find some work.

Being very bitter about the system and the lack of acknowledgement for artists in the country, Solangi once admitted that he would never have ventured into acting had he known beforehand how artists are treated in Pakistan. In an interview in 2002 he had said, ” I run from pillar to post each month when my telephone connection is terminated for non-payment of bill. With 5000 or so rupees of cash per episode, I have to keep focusing on how to keep my bills cleared and my stomach full. I live from episode to episode for a livelihood in the most basic sense.”

Once, having received an award for best actor of Sindhi dramas, he had said, “An award is the biggest form of appreciation for an actor and all I received with this award was a total of 4500 rupees with 500 deducted as tax. The award is sitting in my drawing room. I can’t eat it. Don’t artistes have a right to a normal life? I have given this field my best. My youth, my energy, my devotion. And what have I received in return? Regrets, bitterness and poverty.”
Solangi’s example speaks volumes of the state of performing arts and artists in the country. Despite the mushrooming of TV channels in the country, many artists are not able to make ends meet. Some private channels do pay well, however by far the majority of channels, including PTV and especially regional or non-Urdu language channels simply are either unwilling or unable to compensate actors in line with their talent, time and efforts. Most artists therefore either act as a part-time profession or as a hobby - it is becoming rarer and rarer to find full-time actors.

If cricketers can be paid millions of additional rupees and other ’gifts’ for winning matches, surely our actors and artists can also be paid in line with their talents. It is high time that the Ministry of Culture, Sports & Tourism, under whose jurisdiction this falls, revisits and regulates the dismal wage, employment and royalties structure of TV and Radio actors in Pakistan.

Anwar Solangi will probably not be the last artist to die in poverty and bitterness, but may his death mark the beginning of change.
Cross-posted at chawkandi.wordpress