Imagine walking through huge iron gates into the premises of a majestic haveli and a brigade of house help present to take orders from you. Picture living out a royal dream where you get to wakeup to a beautiful garden outside every day. Shiv Rattan Mohatta, a Hindu Marwari businessman from Rajasthan, India must have envisaged similar luxuries for himself when he hired architect Agha Ahmed Hussain to build him a summer home in Karachi’s plush seaside area of Clifton in 1927. Little did he know that he would get to enjoy this lavishness for only two decades when he would leave the property behind and migrate after independence. The Mohatta Palace we know today was seemingly built with a lot of passion as evident by the use of the finest materials. The building has been designed in the tradition of Rajasthani palaces with imported pink Jodhpur stones as well as yellow stone from Gizri. Spread on an area of 18,500 sq ft, the palace’s façade is trimmed with windows, stone brackets, intricate carvings on the stone, spandrels, domes (nine to be exact), balustrades with floral motifs and exquisite railings. Undoubtedly, the building is an Indo-Saracenic architectural marvel. But, sadly, what many don’t realise is that it has many more stories to offer, as well. Post-independence, this building was in the use of Federal Government, it was where Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been set up until Islamabad was given the status of the official capital. In 1964, Mohatta Palace had the honour of being the residence of Mohtarma Fatima Ali Jinnah and was consequently dubbed ‘Qasra-e-Fatima’. After her demise and later, the departure of her sister, Shireen, from this world, the building was sealed because of an absence of a will. This property saw 15 years of decay while its legal status was in dispute with the Jinnah Family Trust until it was finally purchased by the federal government and was gifted to the provincial Government of Sindh. After reviewing different proposals, it was decided that the Mohatta Palace would be turned into a museum. “The first major restoration took place from 1995 to 1999,” says the Director of the museum, Mrs Nasreen Askari, a delightful lady to talk to and ever-so-happy with getting an inquisitive visitor. Isn’t the maintenance of an almost 100-year-old building difficult? She agrees and shares, “We use a rare form of calcium sulphate for renovations. The stones haven’t needed much maintenance because they are of good quality.”
Inside the museum, the adjoining rooms and corridors woven together in a maze-like fashion will instantly arouse curiousity and imagination of anyone. The building is full of exhibits; big sections are dedicated to textile (from contemporary fabrics to traditional garbs, from cloth dyes to carpet weaving), national history and establishment of borders of Pakistan, geographical and weather mapping instruments, beautiful watercolour paintings that will just hypnotise the onlooker, and so much more. A particular gallery that Mrs. Askari is proud of putting together is called Firdous Barouye Zameen Ast (Persian for ‘Paradise on Earth’), that showcases manuscripts, miniature artifacts and mendicants from Kashmir. She urges people to come visit this one especially, as the dimly lit room is filled with a treasure of fascinating knowledge and dazzling utensils made from copper, brass and silver, among other exhibits.
The museum “has had 20 exhibitions since its inauguration – each year, there is one major and one minor exhibition on history, arts and culture.” Unlike other museums of Karachi, Mohatta Palace is well kept, well-managed and is perhaps the busiest. “There is a certain vitality to the museum because of all the events held here, but that’s not the only kind of vitality I want for this place,” Mrs. Askari continues with a hint of disappointment in her tone, “The truth is we don’t have a lot of means to earn money for the museum. Our entrance ticket is just PKR 20. So we lease our gardens for corporate events and that raises funds but I want people’s attention towards the fortification of their identity. I am afraid, kaheen hum apni shanakht na kho dain. We have forgotten all the beautiful aspects of our culture at the altar of convenience and economics.” But things are not all that bad. She is particularly happy about being well attended on Sundays as well as proudly tells me that the museum entertains around 250 students per day. Even though the museum doesn’t get the desired attention, Mrs Askari feels accomplished in that students and people from middle class and working class visit Mohatta Palace regularly. •