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The birth of a nation

How do you make a National Museum for a young country that is both sovereign and part of the Muslim world?

Kamila Shamsie | January/February 2015

Ten o’clock on a Karachi morning in the month of Ramzan. Most of the faithful who were awake before dawn for the pre-fast meal and prayers have yet to emerge into the light of day, so the streets near the old city centre, with its mix of colonial buildings and modernist architecture, are as uncongested as in the early days of my childhood when Karachi’s population was closer to 4m than 24m. I’ve given myself half an hour to drive from my family’s home to Strachan Road, but it takes less than 15 minutes to arrive at the National Museum of Pakistan.

In the last five years, while I’ve been writing about Pakistan’s archaeological past, it hasn’t ever occurred to me to come here, though I’ve visited the museums of Peshawar, Taxila and Lahore—sighing over their pre-Islamic Gandhara sculptures, in particular, which are a motif running through my latest novel, “A God in Every Stone”. I know there’s Gandhara art in the National Museum, yet I’ve stayed away. It isn’t explicable. For starters, this is the museum in which I first began to understand how the history of the country in which you’ve grown up can feel so much more intimate than any other history you encounter. And there’s something even more direct connecting this museum to my novel.

In 2010, at the Gandhara exhibition at the Guimet in Paris, I was particularly taken by a gold brooch depicting Cupid and Psyche—the legacy of Alexander in Pakistan, as all things Indo-Greek are. It was, I discovered, on loan from the National Museum in Karachi, though I didn’t remember seeing it there as a schoolgirl in the 1980s or on my return visit at the turn of the millennium. But perhaps that wasn’t so surprising—back then, the particular wonders of syncretic, expressive Gandhara art had yet to reveal themselves to me. It doesn’t explain why I stayed away these last few years, or why I feel this trepidation as I walk up the palm-lined walkway of Burns Garden to the museum which comprises two incongruous levels—the lower level a rectangular slab cut through with a repeating pattern of vertical latticework, the upper a corrugated container which has landed on the slab.

As you enter, the first thing to catch the eye in the lobby area is a piece of text in three languages, back-lit by tube-lights. It’s a verse from the Koran, in the original Arabic, with translations in Urdu and English: “God effaceth and establisheth what he pleases.” If you’re from Pakistan, you know to translate this further: “Oh please, extremists who think that figurative art is un-Islamic, and dislike the reminder of Pakistan’s non-Muslim past, don’t target our collection.”

I think of that Cupid and Psyche brooch with its full-frontal nudity, Psyche’s hand on Cupid’s breast, her palm cupping her own jutting hip—and I know I won’t find it on display. I’ve known that all along, I suspect, but wanted to spare myself the confirmation that some of the most sensuous art to be excavated from the soil of Pakistan is now exiled to foreign museums for its own protection. Hence my trepidation.

An act of subversion: Dusty models depicting the Siege of Debal, the first Muslim conquest of the region

On the ground floor there’s one very large exhibition room, brightly lit and air-conditioned. Even though the pre-monsoon cloud-cover and breeze make the day a pleasant contrast to the scorching heat of early summer, there is a welcoming aspect to the air-conditioning, an invitation to linger. And so much to linger over. Here, early Islamic pottery from the site of Bhambore; there, enormous demon-head doorknockers from a mosque in Mansehra; farther along, a collection of astrolabes from different parts of the Muslim world. Many of the displays are undated, so it’s hard to establish any chronology. In fact, the room is so overwhelming in the regions, time periods and art forms it covers that I can’t fathom the curatorial impulse behind it until I step back outside and see that I missed the sign identifying it as the Muslim Gallery. Which doesn’t quite explain the display in the centre of the room: a piece of Moon rock and a small Pakistan flag with a plaque which reads, “This flag of your nation was carried to the Moon on the Spaceship America during the Apollo XVII mission December 7-19 1972. Presented to the people of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan from the people of the United States of America. Richard Nixon 1973”. In its space-age wonder and proud show of Pakistan-American friendship, it feels more archaic than astrolabes.

Fly the Moon to me: The piece of Moon rock and Pakistan flag presented by President Nixon in 1973

So much of the impulse to write “A God in Every Stone” came from a desire to reclaim all of Pakistan’s rich, multi-religious traditions, which go back to the Bronze Age Indus Valley civilisation, that it’s hard not to take this room as a personal affront. How am I supposed to look at an astrolabe from Morocco without feeling depressed that it’s here in the first room of the museum, to the exclusion of Cupid and Psyche from Pakistan’s own site of Taxila? I finally discover a perverse delight in the large glass cabinet with model figures depicting the “Siege of Debal”—which marks the first Muslim conquest of what is now Pakistan. The figures clearly haven’t been cleaned for years, and all the soldiers advancing on the fort of Debal are grey with dust, as are the fort and the ground and the shrubbery. But there is an exception: one of the model soldiers has had a foot and arm lopped off; he’s tipped over onto a shrub, while his comrades-in-arms march past him, unconcerned. At the stump of shoulder and ankle someone has dabbed red paint, its brightness marking it as a relatively recent addition. I choose to read the vandalism as an act of subversion by someone who has possession of the keys to the cabinet, and this cheers me up.

I’m aware that I’m building up an argument in my head against this museum. But as I exit the room and walk towards the staircase I find myself confronted by giant photographs, covering an entire wall, of some of Pakistan’s most important historic sites, including the ruins of the Indus Valley city of Mohenjo-daro, and the Buddhist monastery complex at Takht-e-Bahi. I remember nothing of this from my school visit, though I do have a sharp memory of walking through airy, dusty corridors, open to the elements on one side, with that particular feeling of excitement that marked An Excursion. The room that made the greatest impression was the one with photographs and memorabilia relating to the “Founding Fathers” of Pakistan, whom we were studying at the time. That room animated history, and felt exciting—a young and dashing Mr Jinnah, an umbrella belonging to Allama Iqbal, the publication in which the word “Pakistan” appeared in print for the first time. At that point in my life I had already visited some of the great museums of the world—the Louvre, the British Museum, the V&A—and was aware how dingy and badly labelled the National Museum was by comparison. But I was also aware that nothing in any of those great museums had felt so personal, so much as though it belonged to me, as that room of photographs and umbrellas.

Levels of incongruity: The façade of the museum, which only makes sense to the author as she leaves

The relationship between a nation’s citizens and its history has been one of the recurring themes of my novels, and some part of that theme started to form the day I stood in the Founding Fathers’ room and experienced the museum’s ability to take history out of textbooks, giving it breath and muscle. A novel can do the same, I later learned, and by then I had also learned to be intrigued and more than a little perturbed that the Founding Fathers of the 20th century had caught my imagination far more than the great civilisations of Gandhara and the Indus Valley. I, too, had been caught up in a version of my nation’s history that didn’t quite know how to accommodate those pre-Islamic parts of it. Perhaps my arguments against the Muslim Gallery are in part an argument against my own younger self.

More than a quarter of a century later, it’s the pre-Islamic parts that most interest me. The Prehistoric Room is closed for renovation, but that only means I can arrive more quickly at the Late Harappan (or Indus Valley Civilisation) Room, un-air-conditioned and with a far stronger whiff of neglect than the one downstairs. In the centre of the room, on a podium of his own, is that most iconic of the Indus Valley Civilisation’s artefacts: the priest-king. Unlike many of the other objects in the museum, there’s an approximate date attached to the soapstone figure: 2500-1500BC. I look closely at the priest-king’s combed-back hair and cropped beard, his patterned cloak, the circlet at his brow. For years a replica of this figure looked out from one of the bookshelves in my family home, mysterious and distant, and now that I’m standing in front of the original I feel…quite certain it’s another replica. At this point the director of the museum, Mr Bukhari, walks in and I ask him straight. “The original is kept somewhere,” he says, smiling a little sadly. “It’s a national symbol. We can’t take risks with it.”

A soapstone figure of the priest-king Moenjodaro, dated 2500-1500BC

With just those few words he transforms my combative attitude. What pressures there must be in running a museum that requires a Koranic inscription at its entrance to try and ward off attacks. The object that should be the centrepiece of the museum—the one Mr Bukhari describes as a “national symbol”—has to be hidden away “somewhere” that can’t be named. I had intended to ask about Cupid and Psyche, but it seems an act of insensitivity to draw attention to that which can’t be displayed rather than to look at what is here.

And then, that’s what I do. I look at what is here despite the clear paucity of funding, the external threats, the impossibility of creating a single national narrative for a country as divided about its reason for existing as Pakistan. An elderly relative who was already an adult when Pakistan was created in 1947 often remarks that at the moment of its birth the country had two opposing claims whispered into its ears: “you are a sovereign nation”, and “you are part of the Muslim world”. In this museum, both those claims are given space, and it is for those of us who wander from the Muslim Room to the Gandhara Room to the Hindu Sculpture Room to the Coin Room to the Quran Gallery to see if we can knit a single narrative out of them or if we wish to privilege one over the other. Is a nation bound by geography or ideology? If the National Museum is forcing me to think again about these questions, to which as a novelist I’ve already given so much thought, isn’t that a mark of its success?

In this new mood of understanding, I enter the Gandhara Room, and though it’s instantly obvious that the collection here doesn’t match up to the much older Gandhara collections in the museums of Peshawar, Taxila and Lahore, it doesn’t seem to matter. Nor does the absence of Cupid and Psyche. I could spend a whole morning just looking at one grey schist relief panel which depicts a scene from the Buddha’s life: here he is, surrounded by other figures, some praying to him, one prostrating himself before him with hair tumbling down to the ground, others looking elsewhere. If I were a poet, I’d write a praise-song to the folds of cloth rendered in stone by the sculptors of Gandhara—the belly buttons and buttocks outlined beneath the gauzy texture. And look at the back muscles of this figure, the lotus leaves holding up that column. Observe the mix of influences: this Hellenic beard, that Indic moustache.

For more than three decades of my life I saw Gandhara art without grasping how extraordinary it was. If there was a moment that changed that, it was probably that exhibition at the Guimet, though I couldn’t say why. Sometimes you simply have to be ready for a particular kind of beauty to catch hold of your heart. Atlas and the Buddha, Cupid and Psyche, the goddess Hariti and her consort Pancika, lotus leaves and latticed balconies, satyrs and stupas, the Buddha’s eyes which gaze with indifference on the world and the Buddha’s eyes which know more about suffering than anyone should be able to endure: all this is in Gandhara art.

“I could spend a whole morning looking at it”: The schist relief panel depicting a scene from the Buddha’s life.

Every other room in the museum feels skimmable after this, particularly the Ethnography Room, about which the less said the better. But no matter. I walk out thinking happily about back muscles flexing in stone, and when I turn to look back at the museum’s façade I see it differently. The dissonance of its two levels is not a flaw in the design but a rather brilliant metaphor for the task of trying to create a “National Museum” in Pakistan. Here are two incongruous stories placed one on top of the other. It doesn’t quite make sense how they fit together, but there they are.

National Museum, Karachi, open Thurs-Tues, 10am-1pm and 2-5pm

 

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