As a resident of Rawalpindi for most of my early life, I am reluctant to admit that I actually visited the 16th century Rohtas (fort), long after I had been a regular at the ‘other’ Rohtas as a teenager, and by that I mean the art gallery in Rawalpindi/Islamabad. Opening as a space in Faizabad, at the intersection of old Rawalpindi and new Islamabad, “….where artists were free to express themselves”, Rohtas was a much needed addition to the virtually non-existent art infrastructure of Pakistan. However, the time that it opened its doors in 1981, had to be the worst in the country’s history, in terms of the repeated attacks on civil liberties and human rights, in the aftermath of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s judicial murder. Thus right from its polemic birth and infancy Rohtas gallery (a name suggested by the erudite Shoaib Hashmi) and its founders Naeem Pasha (a leading architect) and Salima Hashmi (an art educationist) resolved to exhibit “work that was no longer welcome in the government gallery or public spaces”.
This was a bold move, after Zubeda Agha had closed down her gallery and donated all its paintings to the National Art Gallery (NAG) and came twenty years after Zubeda had set up the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Civil Lines, Rawalpindi, with a seriousness of purpose and an avowed commitment to Modernism.
For Pasha this was nothing short of heroic, as he not only provided this safe space for the gallery in his office but fearlessly launched into this love affair with rebellious art, never thinking twice about the negative repercussions for his architectural practice that had numerous government projects in its portfolio.
And thus Rohtas became the only private gallery outside of the metropolis of Karachi, where Indus Gallery, founded by Ali Imam sahib in 1971, and Zohra Hussain’s Chawkundi soldiered on to provide exhibition spaces to contemporary artists, in Zia’s time. Its four extraordinary ‘policy’ parameters as defined by the founders were: exclusion of calligraphy, no placid landscapes (patronized by officialdom), causing no offense to anyone and with the aim of not losing friends.
So Salima and Pasha began showing works by established and emerging artists whose work embodied the ideals of progressive, artistic and humanistic values, and a wide range of media. The earliest exhibitions included the Karachi Show comprising “prints from Marjorie Hussain and Shahid Sajjad, collographs by Mehr Afroze, canvases by Jamil Naqsh, water colours by Hajra Zuberi and sculptures of Shahid Sajjad etc”. And prominent artists of Lahore, including delicate drawings from Colin David, bold prints by Naazish Ataullah, and the revolutionary art of Mian Ijaz ul Hasan.
Their real coup de ’etat came in 1983 when Pasha was able to persuade the extremely elusive Zubeida Agha, for a show and to her absolute delight, her dear friend Faiz Ahmed Faiz inaugurated the exhibition (at the ‘Faizabad’ venue of the gallery). There was a huge turnout of friends, and admirers, the progressives and the general public. This was followed by numerous exhibitions of female artist & activists of the 1980s and those who were the signatories of the ‘Women Artists’ Manifesto’ of 1983, after the discriminatory Hudood Ordinance of Zia that put women’s bodies at the center of the state’s political agenda. They included among others Nahid Ali, Naazish Ataullah, Mehr Afroze, Durriya Kazi, Mobina Zuberi and Summaya Durrani.
Rohtas had a program of about six to nine exhibitions in a year and other than those mentioned earlier, the works of Modern Masters like Mussarat Mirza, Bashir Mirza, Saeed Akhter, Zahoor ul Akhlaq and Ahmed Khan were also shown. Soon the gallery became a must-go destination for the diplomatic community in culture-starved Islamabad, and its events appeared in the city pages of newspapers, compelling some open-minded civil servants and army officers to occasionally stumble in. I recall the only time I ever saw Faiz sahib in my life is, when I accompanied my parents to the 1982 opening of the exhibition of Zahoor ul Akhlaque.
Rohtas by opening its doors not just provided exposure to Pakistani art but began to play a huge role in revealing its true expressions. Pasha’s tremendous generosity of spirit was further evidenced by simultaneously opening up his home to all artists, thinkers, poets and intellectuals, and it became tradition for him to host a dinner to fete the artist and for informal conversations. Thus this tiny space, in the heart of the establishment, became “the hub of artistic, political and to some extent, diplomatic conjecture, where ambassadors from rival countries would vie to be invited” says Pasha. It were as if through this exposure the world was fast becoming aware of the significance of the deep rooted and pluralistic Pakistani culture and its importance of belonging on the world stage. In other words, a cultural and a community space had been created – an alternate universe where the contemporary art discourse began to take shape.
It merits highlighting that Rohtas and its founders did not have a commercial vision, and shows were largely subsidized by Pasha’s practice. Instead, the focus remained the showcasing of significant artistic investigation, endeavour, and concerns and the cross fertilization of art, craft and design. In December 1982 Ghazala Rehman a pioneer in contemporary furniture design, inspired by vernacular forms and traditional techniques, also had her very first exhibition of boxes and screens embellished with traditional ‘kashi’ motifs at Rohtas, as did Sheherzade Alam the ceramist par excellence. Last but not least was the objective was confidence building and encouraging the creation of important art collections. The gallery moved to Islamabad in the early 1990s and continued to change venues, with Pasha’s practice and finally found its permanent home in his delightful house in F-6/2 in Islamabad, itself an excellent marriage of traditional craft and modern design.
In 2001 a second branch, Rohtas II opened in Salima’s annexe in Lahore and to-date remains the most important venue in Pakistan for experimentation, for both emerging and established artists.
Rohtas and its founders played a hugely supportive and nurturing role in furthering careers of many young artists by offering shows, inviting critics and collectors for private viewing, and promoting and placing their work with important collections and museums, both inside and outside Pakistan. As an extension of her teaching, Salima’s endeavours resulted in an annual exhibition of talented graduates from the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore, which became a regular attraction for art lovers and the relationships developed in the process, proved to be life-long. And it would not be an exaggeration to say that most of the ‘rock-stars’ of the international art world today upon graduation had their debut shows at Rohtas. These include among others the ‘genius’ Shazia Sikander, Rashid Rana, Imran Qureshi, Ayesha Khalid, Resham Syed, Nusrah Lateef, Faiza Butt, Saira Waseem, Farida Batool, Muhammed Zeeshan, Hasnat Mahmood, Khadim Ali and Ali Raza among others.
Rohtas’s nurturing approach was evident when in 2002, ten years after she graduated from the NCA with her autobiographical thesis scroll, Shazia Sikander was invited back for a series of conversations with the gallery’s collectors, educators and art enthusiasts, in Lahore and Islamabad. By then Shahzia had radically redefined the parameters of the traditional mughal miniature – it had exploded off-the-page onto the world-stage, paving the path for those who followed. The eloquent artist now settled in the US, spoke about her incredible journey, how she had explored the medium as a student at the prestigious RISD and how opportunities led her into US museums enabling her to further her creative ambitions.
In 1994 a group of artists from Karachi were invited by the gallery to show their experimental and diverse practices, beyond the confines of inner conversations and studios, these were Naiza Khan, Durriya Kazi, David Alesworth, Elizabeth and Iftikhar Dadi. These artists were examining media, craft & culture industry, folk art and visuals practices at mazaars/shrines, thus employing a multi disciplinary approach to their work, including artisans, and which people at the time found difficult to label as ‘art’. This led to a trilogy of exhibitions, inspired by new thoughts and networks and today it is hailed as a mini-movement, acknowledged as the Karachi-Pop.
Those artists who chose to venture into academe were also celebrated through repeated participation in group-shows and solo presentations, prominent among those were Quddus Mirza, Anwar Saeed, Afshar Malik, in the 1980s, and Quddus (after his sojourn at the RCA) and Imran Qureshi in the 1990s. Rohtas not only displayed the trajectories of the careers of these individuals, who in turn influenced and shaped younger minds, but also invited the art educators to curate shows at the gallery. While Quddus continues to curate some of the best shows in the country every year, he also regularly contributes to national and international art magazines. In 2003 Imran’s top-notch exhibition of his own first batch of graduating students, in Islamabad and Karachi, was completely sold out and a learning experience for the young artists. The names of Khadim Ali, Mohammed Zeeshan, Ayesha Durrani, Mehreen Zuberi etc. thus became indelible. Likewise the uber talented Naiza Khan, trained in the UK participated in numerous Rohtas shows, and in 2010 curated the phenomenal ‘Rising Tide’ exhibition at the Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi.
Salima Hashmi’s untiring efforts of writing and publishing, in addition to teaching bore fruit when she was invited to curate international shows including ‘Hanging Fire’ at the prestigious Asia Society in New York in 2005, and ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’ in 2007 at Art Dubai, an annual international event including artists from the MENASA region (Middle East and North Africa). In her own words, “……Art professional in Pakistan also teach. So there is a chain in which artists, who have shown internationally, do not isolate themselves in their studio. They go back to their (home institutions) academy and open their work for inspection. In turn, they offer students their knowledge and experience. They teach students that the market should not determine the direction of their practice, and how they should document the times without fear.”
While the passionate and articulate Salima ensured the international debut of emerging Pakistani artists, Pasha was now close to realizing his life-long dream of designing and constructing and opening of the National Art Gallery (NAG) in Islamabad in 2007. An institution at par with national galleries in major capitals of the world, to provide a permanent home for the works of the great Masters Chugtai and Allah Bukhsh, the Modernists Shakir Ali, Zain ul Abedin and Zubeda Agha, Sadequain as well as show-casing the emerging and the contemporaries. The project that had been on and off for well over two decades, before it got the necessary nod and budget from the government, became reality. And aptly its opening in 2007 commemorated the 60th anniversary of Pakistan’s creation.
Though 90 miles away from Islamabad, the mighty Rohtas (Fort) on the banks of the Jehlum river was never stormed by any invader who came to the Potohar region, Rohtas Gallery singularly and undisputedly took the art world by storm.