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The Collector with a Treasure Trove

Author: Asif Noorani      Publications: Star Weekend      Dated: 10 Sept 2004

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Painter collector Wahab Jaffer is ensconced in a chair, which doesnt seem very comfortable to me, but I guess he finds it otherwise. I place myself on a three seater-sofa, next to him. I am told that I am in good company. Those who once, or more than once, sat on it include such big names in art as Shakir Ali, Laila Shahzada, Sadequain, M.F Hussain, Gulgee, Ahmed Parvez, Francis Newton Souza and Jameel Naqsh.

Behind me, in what is Wahab Jaffers study, are Zainul Abedin Ahmad Parvaiz and Gulgee. On my left is Sadequains painting from his Reflection series from the sixties. Next to me is a 40-year old statue made by a major Canadian sculptor (they dont use the word scupturess any longer), who answers to the name of Anne Kahane. In front is a sketch by Indian artist Souza, vying for space with a Bangladeshi painter Abdul Basit. Then there are specimens of Gandhara art all over the room.

Facing me is a bookshelf, which is spilling with books on art and some rare publications. There is a two-volume translation of the Holy Quran by George Sale, published in London in 1801, which makes it 204 years old. There are also books on the subcontinent, some published in the 19th century. In a couple of drawers there are antique maps of the same region he bought them in Toronto, London and Amsterdam. Elsewhere in drawers of various cupboards in different rooms there are engravings and scores of unframed miniatures – Mughal, Deccani, Kangra and Rajasthani. “I got some of them for a song,” says the 64 year old Pune-born collector cum artist. The man is honest, for he could have over-stated the prices of his rare acquisitions.

He moved recently from his KDA Scheme No. 7 house to a new and equally spacious place in Defence Phase 5. The ten years that he lived in Canada, his paintings were well taken care of. He has mixed feelings about the period. “I painted there, took part in exhibitions and sold my works. I made enough money to live there comfortably. l also bought some pieces of art like the sculpture next to you and some more that Ill show you when I take you on a tour of the house. But looking back I feel I missed much of the excitement in the art world here,” he says with a shrug. But seeing him at exhibitions and seminars in recent months on a regular basis, one feels that he picked up the thread very soon.

“In a way the late Mr Bhutto was responsible for my taking up an as a practitioner and collector. He nationalised my familys industries and I suddenly found that I had nothing to do. The trading business of the Jaffers, which was on the backburner, was revived and that kept the familys kitchen fire burning…Once as I was looking for paintings at Bohri Bazaar for my house that was under construction, a friend who was around instilled some sense in me. He said that the painter who was selling me his paintings at throwaway prices was bound to paint the same landscapes and portraits for another customer.  He advised me to buy artworks which were one of their kinds. He took me to Ali Imam, with whom I was destined to build up a lifelong relationship. What a grand old man he was! He was my friend, philosopher and guide till the end of his life. He ushered me into the world of art in more ways than one, teaching me the basic principles of painting. He also introduced me to some of the leading artists of his time and advised me, at least initially, on what to buy and what to avoid,” says Wahab Jaffer, as he pauses for a sip from his glass.

The first painting that he bought was of the late Bengali artist Mohinul Azim. It is on display in his dining room. He has works of art in every nook and corner of his double-storied house, which includes a spare bathroom. With his children now grown up, married and living separately, he has only his collection to father. His wife gives him a helping hand when he needs it.

The second painting that he acquired was Ahmed Parvezs, which was delivered six months after he had booked it. He got it for Rs 1,500 but the fringe benefit was that he saw the artist at work. “We became good friends, He was a good teacher and he was quite generous in teaching me what I needed to learn. Jamil Naqsh, on the other hand, would never let me, or for that matter anybody, enter his studio,” says Jaffer.

Wahab Jaffer owns a large number of works of Ahmad Parvez – 90 in all. When Marjorie Husain was doing a book on Parvez, she had to look for only one source for reproducing the late artists paintings – the collection of Wahab Jaffer, a fact acknowledged in bold letters in her monograph on the painter so many fakes of Chughtai all over, he doesnt want to take any risk.

As he takes me to the upper storey of the house, I cant help noticing a hat cum walking stick stand, which, he claims, is at least 200 years old. Another 19th century possession of his is a lovely writing table “No nails have been used while assembling this desk,” h e says. Both pieces o f antique furniture are in ship shape. You would have the feeling that they were made only a few days ago.  The staircase leading to the upper storey has quite a few masterpieces. Saleem Mansoor`s portrayal of the Hindu Gymkhana in pen and ink is a fine example of realistic drawing. He also has a Henry Moore lithograph signed and numbered. Then there are trunks full of a works.

“Do you plan to donate your collection to a national art gallery, if and when it is built?” I query.

“Look what they have done to Fyzee Rahamins collection. It was on Quaid-e-Azams advice that Fyzee and his wife Atiya brought their collection from Bombay to Karachi, Unfortunately,  the Rahamins didnt live very long after migration. First their collection was put up in Denso Hall, which was not air-conditioned. The smoke emitted by trams, buses and rickshaws entered the gallery through the perennially open windows. Then they moved the paintings to a building close to the Arts Council. The gallery has not yet been open to the public. I am told that some invaluable works have disappeared. Who took them away is not commonly known. But to answer your question in five or six words I would say that I havent decided to which institution Ill leave my painstakingly collected pieces of art and rare books.” Wahab Jaffer, as he folds his hands behinds his neck.

One only wishes that his collection will fare better than Rahamins. With more and more people taking interest in art and a more people interested in preserving artworks, one is inclined to be more optimistic.

Wahab Jaffer is these days painting with a renewed zeal for he is preparing for a solo exhibition at Canvas Gallery in January. A quick look at some of the completed canvases makes me feel that the exhibition would well worth be waiting for.