As Chairman of Pakistan’s largest commercial bank, Sultan Ali Allana is considered to be a leading figure in Pakistan’s financial landscape. Since 2004, he has led the Board of HBL as a representative of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, of which he is a director.
Mr. Allana is a career banking professional with over thirty years of experience in retail, corporate and investment banking. Mr. Allana holds undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from McGill University and the University of Wisconsin in Engineering and Management. In recognition of his services to the strengthening of the business and social sector in Pakistan, the Government of Pakistan conferred the Sitara-e-Imtiaz upon him in 2006. An avid art collector and patron, Sultan Ali Allana graciously agreed to share his personal experiences and views about his interest in the arts.
Sameera Raja: When and how did you realize you were inclined towards the arts?
Sultan Ali Allana: My late taya, G. Allana, as I recall, had an amazing collection and I was most fascinated as a child when we would go to his house which was located in the Garden Area and he would tell us about something he had either bought or something he had seen in one of his travels. I would sit on the floor and go through his vast collection of coffee table books on places, people and art. I guess it was in those early days of my life, that I developed a certain level of curiosity to learn more. Over time, my interest grew and I remember spending hours visiting museums when we travelled abroad for holidays.
SR: What was your first art acquisition and how did it come about?
SA: The first acquisition of art was when my wife Sharifa and I decided we would buy a ‘Gulgee’ when we were moving into our own apartment in 1989. We had a choice – it was either buying a ‘Gulgee’ and sleeping on mattresses or buying beds for our two children and us. We decided on the mattresses and our children loved it.
SR: What kind of art do you like and collect?
SA: We patronize Pakistani artists and as such Pakistani art. There is a wide spectrum I would say that interests us: from the Masters to some recent contemporaries. Pakistani art has so much to offer. In all honestly, you don’t have to look to the outside. We have talent and quality in our country.
SR: Is your collection diverse or do you concentrate on a specific artist / genre?
SA: We like concentrating on a few that we like and enjoy collecting.
SR: What is the single most important point you have in mind when looking at a work of art ?
SA: Its appeal, its feel, its sense of proportion, its aesthetics, its theme and above all, its resonance with oneself.
SR: Is your collection regional or international ?
SA: There are a few odd ones, which are regional, and some international. But mostly, all local.
SR: When you are travelling overseas, do you visit museums/galleries/fairs to see what is new and happening in the world of art?
SA: Absolutely. I enjoy visiting museums and galleries very much and whenever I get time, this is exactly what I do. It’s not just to see what is new in the world of art, but it is also to see what ‘all’ there is in the world of art.
SR: Some people buy through their eyes and some through their ears. Where would you place yourself?
SA: I think I would not be telling the truth if I did not say that, if a work appeals, I think through my ‘pocket’. Price on any work is an important consideration. Indulgence can be expensive and if you are a collector of sorts, you have to be careful in what you buy, when you buy and how much you buy.
SR: I believe you had an intimate relationship with some of our master artists. Would you care to elaborate on those relationships and how they were forged?
SA: First one that comes to my mind is Gulgee. I was a junior officer in Citibank and Gulgee had an account at the bank: I was assigned this account, perhaps because no one else wanted to handle him; he was thought to be demanding and as some would say, somewhat eccentric. I kind of looked forward to his visits to the bank; he was fun and full of life and his visit broke the usual monotony of my workday. He asked me once when I was going to Zurich for a bank course, to buy him a particular pencil he used for his drawings: it was Caran D’Ache, Prismalo II. They had stopped making the IIs. I looked and looked until I finally found a small shop in the old part of Zurich that carried the stock. I bought as many as I could and I sent these to him on my return. That evening, Gulgee came to our apartment and sat with us until the early hours of the morning. Our association grew and we eagerly waited for him and his wife Aunty Zaro to visit us and for Gulgee to pick up on one of his unending stories. He was very fond of our children, especially our daughter Sabiha, who he simply adored. Then, there is Jamil Naqsh and Najmi Sura, both artists of national stature and both people of amazing qualities. We got to know them through some friends of ours when I was still at Citibank and we have kept up with them since. Sharifa and I are very fond of their work and I think Jamil Naqsh is a true master of our time.
SR: Collectors often find it impossible to refrain themselves from acquiring something that they like. Can you appreciate art without the urge to acquire it ?
SA: Yes I can. In fact most of the time, that is the case.
SR: Who would you say are the three most important people that have inculcated and groomed your sense and appreciation of the arts:
SA: Foremost I would say Ali Imam. He was an ustad in the true sense. He enjoyed teaching and I enjoyed learning. Then there is my friend Iqbal Hassan who is always a step ahead of me and always gets better works of art than I do. I would put Jamil Naqsh also in the top three most important people in my grooming process: he has taught me much and in some ways, I would say that he has perhaps influenced my ‘eye buds’ in the world of art.
SR: Do you require approbation or accreditation from someone before acquiring an artwork? If so, who is that?
SA: No, no one really. If I like something and I can afford it, I usually buy it. However, if it’s a serious piece of work, I usually consult with my wife whose opinion I greatly value and who has a very good eye and taste for art.
SR: A thinking, feeling, progressive society needs to be inclined towards all forms of art. Do you agree?
SA: I totally agree. When you see history and when you look at civilizations that truly flourished, you will realize that art, architecture and other forms such as music, prevailed very widely. Art is an expression of human thought and I believe that this form of expression liberates the usual dogmas that constrain human progress.
SR: Who do you feel play pivotal roles in determining awareness building of the arts in society ?
SA: In today’s time and the world we live in, I think it’s the civil society that carries this mantle and in my opinion they must take the lead in promoting awareness and spreading knowledge. Corporates who have resources at their disposal and the discretion to follow progressive paths can support and should support civil society initiatives, which are viable, sustainable and have a mass appeal or impact.
SR: If you were asked to promote the arts of Pakistan, regionally and globally, how would you go about it?
SA: Pakistan has a population of nearly two hundred million. I think if you promoted art within Pakistan, you would, in due course, achieve the objective of promoting art regionally and globally. Quite honestly, unless we have a strong domestic understanding and appreciation of art, there is not much point in trying to create regional or global awareness. It is the home market where we should focus first. We need museums where works can be displayed and shown, we need school curricula that provide young minds exposure to art and culture and we need more in terms of media coverage.