Chughtai – Revisited
Chughtai – Revisited

Chughtai – Revisited

Author: Sangeeta Thapa
Originally published in NuktaArt, inaugural issue, May 2005
Cover Design: Sabiha Mohammad Imani
Source of inspiration: Painting by Zubeida Agha, Karachi by Night, 1956

M. A. Rahman Chughtai

A month before I was preparing to leave for an exhibition at the Alhamra Gallery in Pakistan, Gautam Rana of Baber Mahal Revisited called me on the phone saying that we had to meet at his office as there was some important news that he wanted to share. He also asked me if I had heard of Chughtai, the artist from Pakistan. I confirmed that I had. After all, living in South Asia, who hasn’t heard of Chughtai?

At his office, Gautam pulled out a book on Chughtai from his selection of treasured books. It was a book that I was familiar with, having lived in Pakistan for two years. In his conversation he revealed that this book was sent to him by Chughtai’s son.That he has a Museum in Lahore and that I must meet him when I go there. It was welcome news as I adore Chughtai’s paintings. I enquired if he knew Chughtai. “I didn’t”, he said “read this correspondence and you will understand.”

Chugtai, Shahjahani Connection, courtesy, Arif Rahman Chughtai

Subject:               Descendents of Rana Chandra Shamsher Jang Bahadur
PM of Nepal 1922
Date:                    Mon, 18 Oct 2004 15:57:16 -0700
From:                   “g2” <>
To:                        “Arif Chughtai” <>
CC:                        “Sangeeta Thapa” <>

Dear Gautam Sahib:  This is an enquiry out of the blue and concerns your Prime Minister in 1922, Rana Shamsher Jang Bahadur. Your Prime Minister had lost his wife and was visiting Mussorie in India at that time and went to an exhibition of paintings. There he saw the works of M.A Rahman Chughtai or Abdur Rahman Chughtai and fell in love with them. He bought a few paintings and established contact with the artist in Lahore. We have his letters in our archives.

The painting was on paper and watercolour wash and approx. size 20 inches by 28 inches. It depicted a king on his deathbed surrounded by his three daughters. We have photograph of it as it was made in 1920. In the 1960s a Pakistani in Nepal came across a sale of household effects by a family and the things were the belongings of Rana Shamsher Jang. He bought three or four paintings and brought them here for the artist to see. This was in the lifetime of Chughtai who was astonished to see them after 40 years. However the family who sold most of his things kept a painting to hang in some library or college or auditorium or something. They said that work was very dear to Rana Sahib. The descendents of Rana Sahib know of possible places where the painting may be hanging. This concerns research on our part and we are very eager to find the location of the work. If you cannot do it yourself, get us in touch with someone who can, and we will gladly assist. I am the son of the artist and founder of his museum here in Lahore. We think the work may be in Tri Chandra College library or so or even somewhere else. Could you possibly tell us the name of the present administrator, and I will pay all charges involved in the same. This is not to sound petty but to give our minds away that our heart is in the matter and we do not want to lose contact with any possibilities. If you need more details, please ask me. I will be very grateful and have already sent you a letter by post with more details. Let us revive the relations of our elders.

Best wishes

This was major news. Two important questions came to mind: where were the Chughtai paintings and what was their value on the art market? Judging from the date 1922, it was easy to conclude that the “Shamsher Jung Bahadur” was actually the Prime Minister Shree Teen Chandra Shamsher Maharaj. This indicated that the paintings were in the collection of the descendents of Chandra Shamsher ‘s family.

The sale described above is a tragic testament of the type of fate shared by so many Ranas who were ignorant about the value of their inheritance and even more about the art, artifacts and jewelry that came into their possession in the form of inheritance from ancestors who were known to be discerning collectors. I promised my cousin Gautam Rana that I would investigate. I also told him that Chughtai had influenced a few painters in Nepal, namely Karna Narsing Rana, Kesab Duwadi, Uttam Nepali and Govind Dongol.

After a few days of inquiry, I learnt about the existence of some very valuable Chughtais in Nepal, in private collections that date back to 1922 and in the family of Chandra Shumsher. Quite by coincidence, an old dealer of antiques had come by to show me two old works that looked like they were by Chughtai. I called Gautam, informing him about this development and asked him to correspond with Chughtai Junior again.

Gautam Rana wrote:

Dear Mr. Chughtai,

How are you? I would like to inform you that my cousin Sangeeta Thapa (her father is Himalaya SJB Rana who is the only Nepali to receive The Star of Pakistan) has been invited to Pakistan on 20th Nov. 2004. She is an art curator & owns the finest Art Gallery in Kathmandu called Siddhartha Art Gallery, web site:

She will be in Lahore for 4 days at The Alhamra Art Gallery from 20th to 24th Nov. 2004. I’m taking the liberty of giving her your e-mail address so that she can directly fix appointment with you. She knows of 2 Chughtai paintings which are currently on the Nepalese market. Though there is no signature, they have been identified as Chughtai’s works, it is 20”x28” in size. Please expect her e-mail any day. Thanking you.

Yours sincerely.
Gautam SJB Rana

From:                   Arif Chughtai to: g2
Sent:                    Thursday, October 21, 2004 10:22 AM

Dear Gautum Sahib,

She will be welcome a million times. I will wait to meet her. By the way Alhamra was founded by my father and even the name was given by him.

Best Wishes
Arif Rahman Chughtai

More exciting news, as I was on my way to the Alhamra in Lahore. I needed to learn more, so I logged on to Chughtai on the internet but ended up viewing the website of the Delhi based Vadhera Art Gallery which probably has a link up with the name Chughtai. From the website I learnt that Vadhera was selling Chughtai paintings on the internet, along with many Indian masters. I wrote to Arif Chughtai informing him of my arrival, the show at the Alhamra, and my desire to see the Chughtai Museum.

Arif Chughtai wrote:

Dear Ms Sangeeta,

Thanks for your information. The Art world at present is allergic to Chughtai and fearful of Chughtai Museum. We are an independent people, loving our country and very proud of our Ideology. The present set up does not like the word Ideology. Ever since my father died in 1975, the Culture people are trying to bankrupt us, or move us out of existence. That is why deliberately M A Rahman Chughtai is neglected by the Goverments. It is my efforts, internationally which upset them.

The people here love Chughtai and he is the father of Art in Pakistan. He founded Alhamra, the insignia designed by him, the name was also given by him, and the same was inaugurated by his show by the Governor General of Pakistan Khwaja Nazimuddin.  Prime Ministers and Presidents have visited our home.

Thirty years of struggle on the part of a young boy at that time is phenomenal but of no interest to these people. We love Pakistan, otherwise we would have left Pakistan. I get people from all over the world. A new gallery building has been added and waiting to be inaugurated. I am not trying to discourage you. We will talk more when we meet. You must see our establishment. You will love our efforts and you will love us.

Best wishes

Rana Chandra Shamsher Jung Bahadur, courtesy, Arif Rahman Chughtai

This was strangely informative. It gave me a clear indication that artists in Pakistan were divided into camps for whatever reasons, like it is everywhere else. I decided to keep politics out of my conversation when I visited Arif on the second day of my trip to Lahore. Shashi Shah, my “Old Master” was keen to meet him too. The Chughtai Museum is in the middle of a rapidly expanding city. It has a large holding of land, many old trees, and a Museum complex that is still being built.

Arif took us to his office, where he generously showed us many paintings by his Father.  I fell in love with the Chughtai paintings all over again. Chughtai was born in Lahore on September 21, 1897. Like many others, I have found Chughtai’s paintings to be truly oriental, an exquisite synthesis of Persian and Mughal styles. His love for women, beauty and nature are expressed dramatically with sensitive and sensuous lines and colours. Someone described Chugtai’s work as being “sumptiously decorative”. His compositions are amazingly varied and reveal a remarkable eye for detail.

Arif told us that the Museum Trust possessed over ten thousand works by his father in the form of 2000 water-color paintings, pencil drawings, 300 aquatints and etchings, block prints, naqashi, calligraphy, stamp designs, coin designs, national and international insignias and illustrations. As we looked at Chughtai’s work, we realized that we were coming face to face with the works of a great artist, whose artistic career spanned a good sixty years. His works were in the collection of the British Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Peace Palace, Hague, UN Headquarters, New York, Kennedy Memorial Boston, US State Department Washington DC, President’s House Bonn, Nizam of Hyderabad, Queen Julianna’s Palace in the Netherlands, Emperor’s Palace Bangkok, President House Islamabad and in the Governors’ Houses in Lahore and Karachi. It came as no surprise that he was declared National Artist of Pakistan and bestowed many honors like Khan Bahadur, Hilal e-Imtiaz and Pride of Performance by his country. He was also the Founding Member of the Alhamra Art Center and the people of Pakistan gave him the title “Mussavir-e-Mashriq”.

The range and repertoire of his genius encompassed literature too and he wrote several short stories, research books and articles on art. I was glad that my ancestor had somehow acknowledged this genius and bought his work. When I asked Arif about the works Chandra Shumsher had bought, he shared the intimate circumstances that resulted in the series of paintings that were exhibited in Mussorie.

M A Chughtai met Abindranath Tagore in Calcutta. This is also where he saw Tagore’s painting The Last Days of Shah Jehan which was a famous work at that time, but Chughtai was not impressed. According to Arif, his father wrote to Tagore and expressed his reservations on the painting. It felt artificial. He felt that Tagore had not done enough research. In the painting the palace looked bleak and the grieving daughters of Shah Jehan did not look that they were grieving or that they were of noble lineage. Chughtai also felt Shah Jahan looked like a mendicant in the painting! He wrote to Tagore and informed him that he would make a better painting on the same subject.

In 1919, Chughtai visited Agra to research for the imagery he needed to make his own painting on the death of Shah Jahan. He spent time at the Taj Mahal and at Mussamanbagh where Shah Jehan actually died, to research architectural, physiognomic and costume details before he embarked on his painting. When the painting was ready Chughtai titled it The Passing of Shah Jehan it was exhibited in Mussorie, India, along with his other works, and Chughtai deliberately priced it five times more than Abindranath Tagore’s painting.

Destiny somehow brought the grieving Chandra Shumsher to this exhibition and as soon as he saw the Shah Jahan painting, he was mesmerized. The painting seemed to reflect his own personal grief. He purchased the painting along with a few others. This purchase was very important for Chughtai as it created a stir in the art market. He was not a well-known artist yet, the purchase by the Prime Minister Shree Teen Chandra Shumsher Maharaj validated the artist’s worth and soon his work began to be bought by other Indian Maharajas and important collectors in India and abroad. I was keen to see the exchange of letters between Chughtai and Abindranath Tagore and also between Chandra Shumsher and Chughtai which are in Arif’s possession. However, as time was running short, we needed to get back to the Alhamra.

I was touched by how Arif greeted me, ” Today, history repeats itself, I stand here instead of my father and you in the place of Shumsher Jung of Nepal. You are Shumsher Jung himself, as far as I am concerned”.

Chughtai died on the 17th of January ,1975. The record sale of a Chughtai painting has been £ 40,000 on the international market. Today, the market is shaky as there are many fake Chughtais cropping up. Sotheby’s and Christie’s still refer to Arif for authentication of his father’s work.

Arif also shared the difficulties he faced being the trustee of the Chughtai Museum. I was moved by Arif’s devotion to his father’s memory and his service to the nation in maintaining the works. However, I was even more moved to learn that Chughtai, the national artist of Pakistan, lay buried on the premises of this proposed Museum, awaiting a final “befitting mausoleum”.

Arif Chughtai wrote:

Dear Ms Sangeeta,

I was really disappointed in not meeting you again, for I think we have the potential for making not only the relations between Pakistan and Nepal stronger, but also living up to the tradition of Rana Chandra and MARC’s relation in the Past. You surprised me for I saw no signs of what I thought I could expect, but a vibrant personality with humility which is surprising – with your background. You are a very nice person and we will not only remain good friends, we will better our friendship with time. You have now a Pakistani access here with no hypocrisy and simple goodwill. Keep the contact alive. I had so many other things planned to give to you. We will do it in the future. My best wishes to Gautam Sahib and Lok Bhakta Rana Sahib. Thanks for your greetings. Our cards are being printed and I will send some to you soon. The theme is NEPAL. And it carries a photo of your ancestor. We are going to go a long way.

Best wishes

Sangeeta Thapa wrote:

Dear Arif,

Back home in Kathmandu where the weather is much cooler! I feel the exhibition went off very well. The arrangements made by the Chief Minister’s Task Force was exceptional. I wish we had such a task force here and would like to duplicate that energy or synergy. In Karachi, I gave a presentation on the impact of conflict on art in Nepal, at the AICA Pakistan Seminar, on the 26th, and returned to Nepal on the 27th. Whirlwind..whirlwind.  I am so pleased we met, and I know this won’t be our last meeting. My connection with Pakistan goes back to the 80s and I know I will be back soon to strengthen our friendship. I will be writing on our meeting in two magazines. They have already called me. Need some more info from you. I have already read what you gave me in Lahore. I laud your noble efforts on being the trustee of your father’s incredible work.

Warmest regards

Sangeeta Thapa is a dynamic figure on the Nepal art scene. She is the Founder of the Kathmandu International Art Festival and the Kathmandu Triennale. As the director of the Siddhartha Gallery in Kathmandu, she has undertaken curatorial projects in the country and abroad. Sangeeta frequently contributes art writings to magazines and reads papers at art forums.

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