Karachi: The dead statues society

Karachi: The dead statues society

Zahra Naqvi,
Rolling head

Imagine a surprisingly youthful Queen Victoria fixing you with a regal stare while a headless male figure, presumably Prince Albert, stands by her side. Close at hand, the blindfolded figure of Justice seems somewhat disabled with the scales of her trade missing from her upheld hands. Shapely muses tilt rounded urns from which liquid gushes forth. Another gentleman strikes an imposing stance, the effect ruined somewhat by the fact that his head rolls near his feet on the ground below. And this motley assortment is assembled in the most unlikely of places, exposed to the elements in an open maidan of the KMC warehouse. Welcome to the dead statues society. Buried in the small by-lanes of the old quarters of Karachi, this magical assemblage is wasting away undiscovered.

Wrenched out from roundabouts, gardens and street corners, these relics of our colonial legacy have been doomed to oblivion by the local authorities. Even in a city as culturally starved as Karachi, where the statues would well represent a very real part of our history, the fear of being branded infidels has scared off successive administrations from restoring these discarded figures to their original sites or finding a new home for them.

Apparently, during Ayub Khan’s regime, fundamentalist fervour had found a-ripe target in these statues which dotted various parts of the city. With a visit by Saudi Arabia ‘s King Faisal looming ahead and the mullahs screaming for the elimination of the ghair Isamistatues, Ayub Khan issued an abrupt order for the removal of the offending objects. Subsequently, Queen Victoria and her ilk were haphazardly looted out from their resting places by the KMC. This hurried operation cost several statues an arm or a leg, some were split right through the torso and some even smashed to bits. These unfortunate figures were then stashed away in the KMC warehouse on Lawrence Road while some were dumped on the premises of the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board building.

Queen Victoria looks upon her strange surroundings | Arif Mahmood

On my search for these forsaken statues, I was led into the quarters of the. sweepers working for the KWSB. As we guiltily knocked on the door of one of the homes, hesitant to disturb the residents in the middle of the afternoon, the door was opened by the man of the house who, for his part, was quite unperturbed by the intrusion. Apparently, he and his family are used to strangers traipsing through their homes for a glimpse of the missing statues.

But I became increasingly mystified as the man began calling for chairs and ladders even as I could see no trace of the promised figures. It finally dawned that the statues were literally walled into an enclosure which had no entrance. Hence, one had to climb up and peer down into the space housing the statues. Balanced precariously on top of a brick placed on a chair which stood on a table, I gazed down on the heads of a stately Roman warrior, an angel, an English sepoy and a kneeling boy.

“I have been living in these quarters for the last 15 years,” the sweeper whose house it was informed us. “And these statues have been lying here ever since. But sometimes, at night, the children would stumble across the statues and get scared, so we had them walled in.” And so, heathen soldiers, avenging angels and stiff upper lip type British sepoys have remained suffocatingly closeted in the sweeper’s front courtyard to this day. “Many people come here and look at the statues, but they all go away and the figures stay here.”

Maidens in distress

While the precise age of the statues is not known, with very little written material available on them, they are at least 80 to 90 years old. Some of them, such as the figure of Queen Victoria and the romantic young women, were removed from the gardens surrounding Frere Hall, which was built in the 1870s, and so the figures are presumably of the same age as well. Carved in bronze or marble, the statues were probably crafted by local Hindu craftsmen who were skilled at fashioning figures of their own deities. The towering, now headless, figure of Prince Albert was taken down from what was once the Victoria and Albert Natural History Museum and now houses the KWSB. Mahatama Gandhi, who once guarded the entrance to the Karachi High Court building, was rooted out of his place and has mysteriously disappeared. In a similar instance, a colossal black granite monument to Nelson, which dominated the Karachi Polo Ground, was defaced by filling in the engravings on the monument. During Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rule, all the writing on the stone block was erased and the ground re-named Sherpao Park.

Saifar Rahman Grami, Director Social Welfare and Culture KMC, said that a proposal was floated by his department last year for the rehabilitation of these statues. According to this scheme, the statues were to be placed in an enclosure at the recently renovated Burns Hall Gardens. “And if some people felt that Islam would be endangered by these statues being put on public display then viewing could be kept limited. Perhaps some interested foreign visitors would make a bid for them and we could then dispose off these controversial statues while ensuring that they remained intact.” But not surprisingly, like most other such schemes, the proposal was also shelved.

Later, the authorities were approached by the principal of a local art school requesting them to grant the institution custody of the statues for their premises, but once again the request was denied.

Losing his head: Prince Albert stands tall

“When people think of the KMC, cleaning up generally springs to mind,” says Grami sahib. “In actual fact, up to 70 per cent of the KMC’s responsibility falls under the category of social welfare and service. But this is very low on the KMC’s priority list as well. So it is extremely difficult to push such schemes through.” And even when a proposal is considered and approved, rapid changes in the administration put paid to them, the new government shelving schemes which their predecessor’s could claim credit for.

In this particular instance, the problem is compounded by the fact that the statues carry the added stigma of being associated with but parasti and being repugnant to the true spirit of Islam. Even the more liberal elements within successive administrations are reluctant to pursue the issue for fear of inciting a fundamentalist backlash. And so the irony is that while sculpture exhibitions are feted in certain circles, these majestic relics of our recent history are crumbling to bits.

But there is a distinct case of double standards involved in the local administration’s strictures against setting up statues to mark or commemorate certain institutions. According to reports, the building housing the Sindh Rangers headquarters in Hyderabad is guarded by the towering statue of a gun toting sipahi, which has obviously received the sanction of the local authorities and defence officials.

Two classical beauties strike an elegant pose

Another problem with the uprooted statues is that they hail from an era which most would-be patriots prefer not to draw attention to. The figures are viewed by some as an unwelcome reminder of an age of enslavement they would prefer to gloss over. The issue of provoking religious or patriotic sentiments apart, the problem at hand is clearly a lack of will and interest in salvaging a tiny bit of our past. Simply no one at any influential level is interested in the relatively simple task of cleaning up and assembling the figures into some kind of collection.

According to earlier reports, a far greater number of figures jostled for space at the KMC warehouse. But even the most persistent investigations yielded about two dozen statues in all at both the KMC and KWSB sites. “Some figures, especially of soldiers, were carried away to Islamabad during the martial law years in the eighties,” said an employee of the warehouse. But just who these people were or where the statues ultimately wound up remains a mystery. This seemed to confirm the suspicion that the best pieces have probably been spirited away to private collections.

Visitors can breeze in and out of the premises unchecked and it seems all too easy to smuggle off a piece or two.

Among the small collection which remains, a few fragmented body parts and the lower torso of a toga swathed cherub are tantalising clues of the missing pieces that were once included in this exotic company.

Meanwhile, the broad pedestal which once supported Queen Victoria’s statuesque frame is today being used as a bench to squat on by the chowkidars at the warehouse. As the queen herself would have put it: “We are not amused.”