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When grand homes outgrow their owners, they have no option but to become museums.

Notable are the Louvre in Paris, Tsarskoye Selo outside St. Petersburg, the Kremlin in Moscow, and the Hofburg in Vienna. In the United Kingdom, the royal residences of Hampton Court and Windsor Castle have become quasi-museums. If King Charles III has his way, the State and royal rooms in Buckingham Palace too will become available to the public as a full-time museum. (Its former Royal Chapel is already a mini Royal Gallery.)

Smaller benefactions associated with their donors are the Wallace Collection in London, assembled in the 19th century by Sir Richard Wallace. In its 25 galleries are displayed Old Masters, French 18th-century paintings, furniture, and armour.

Further afield is Powis Castle in Wales. There, on shameless display, are the ill-gotten gains of the 18th century kleptomaniac Robert Clive acquired during his stay in India. These include ‘Tipu Sultan's magnificent state tent, made of painted chintz; gold and bejewelled tiger's head finials from Tipu's throne [,] precious objects in jade and ivory’.

Many of the royal residences within India have undergone a similar conversion: e.g. in Jaipur, the City Palace houses the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II Museum and its prime treasure – the illustrated Razmnama (a translation into Persian of the Hindu epic Mahabharata), commissioned by the Emperor Akbar in 1574. The Maharaja Jaipur’s Delhi residence is now the National Gallery of Modern Art. 

Many of the Indian stately homes have become hotels. Preeminent amongst them is Udaipur’s shimmering white Jag Niwas (now the Taj Lake Palace hotel), seemingly afloat in Pichola lake.

Less grandiose and more specialised is the privately managed Calico Museum of Textiles, founded by the textile magnate Gautam Sarabhai in Ahmedabad. Expanded over time by his family, its magnificent collection is a homage to the versatility of Indian art.

Within the old family home called The Retreat is a Haveli, in which are ‘housed religious textiles, as well as south Indian bronzes, Jaina art, and Mughal miniature paintings’. In an adjacent ‘Chauk’ are displayed ‘royal tents, carpets, furnishings and costumes of the Mughal and regional courts; textiles for India’s export trade, as well as a wide range of ethnographic textiles’.

Ingeniously, the remodeled family swimming pool’s walls are used as a gallery and a huge antique Mughal tent covers the whole pool as a decorative ceiling.

Such an application of patrician wealth to plebeian benefit has no parallel in Pakistan. For one thing, the former princely states like Bahawalpur, Khairpur and Swat were comparatively modest in their means and provincial in their reach.

The closest Pakistan has to a ‘royal collection’ is that of the Talpur family in Hyderabad. Select objects from this tantalising hoard amassed by the mirdoms of Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas and Khairpur were shown to the public (many items for the first time) at the Mohatta Palace Museum in September 1999. Titled Treasures of the Talpurs, the objects on display included ‘rare jewellery, ceremonial textiles, historical manuscripts, decorative objects, furniture, paintings, arms and armour’.

Even these remnants were enough to recall the wealth of the Talpur Amirs, which had so excited Charles Napier’s avarice in 1843.

Rather like the Sarabhai’s Calico Museum in Ahmedabad, the Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi’s Clifton is a laudable example of private sector initiative filling the void of public sector inertia.

The beige sandstone Mohatta Palace was built in 1927 by Shiv Rattan Mohatta, a successful Marwari entrepreneur. After 1947, it served as Pakistan’s first Ministry of Foreign Affairs when Karachi was still the capital. In 1964, the palace was given to Mohtarma Fatima Jinnah (sister of the Quaid). It remained with her family until 1980.

Neglected thereafter for 15 years, it was purchased by the Government of Sindh and the Federal Government (a rare collaboration) ‘to house a museum that would foster awareness and appreciation of the cultural heritage of Pakistan and of the region’.

Substantially remodeled, it opened as a museum in September 1999. Since then, over the past 25 years, its Board of Trustees has fulfilled that promise. It has expanded the display area from the original three to forty-four galleries, using them to present thematic displays of textiles, tiles, Buddhist sculptures, antique maps, holy Qurans and modernist works by amongst others Sadequain. The museum has been heavily supported by private collectors.

To mark its Silver Jubilee, the Mohatta Palace Museum is presenting an ambitious programme of events, including on 5th January a session on the bardic tradition, featuring the Tilism–e-Hoshruba, to be recited by NAPA-trained dastangohs.

As the year 2024 stares at us stark and barren, such cultural endeavours are not occasional distractions. They are the distaffs around which are spun the precious skeins of our national culture.



[DAWN, 4 January 2024]    


04 January 2024
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