By Dr Sohail Ansari
Recently two personalities related to Karachi passed away. The one factor to link them both is a building and the month of February:
The British Raj leased a land of 47,000 square yards, for 100 years in 1921, to Hindu Gymkhana. The construction commenced with a fervor and completed in 1925. The architect was Agha Ahmed Hussain who designed the building to a combination of Hindu and Mughal style. Jodhpur stone was used for the construction. It was the first building in Karachi made in the then-popular Neo-Mughal design. It was named Seth Ramgopal Goverdhandas Mohatta Hindu Gymkhana. It served as a club for the Hindu commercial elite that lived in Karachi in the years before the Partition in 1947.
Cricketer Naoomal Jeeomal in the 1930’s, was one of the productions from Karachi Hindu Gymkhana.
Following partition, it became an evacuee property and it got deserted. Over the years of neglect, the building got ruined.
In 1960, a movement was launched by Bhagwandas Chawla, Khubchand Bhatia, and Seth Motandas for the repossession of the Hindu Gymkhana to the Hindu community. It went to cold storage due to the 1965 war with India. Later, the movement restarted, but again got suspended due to the 1971 war.
For a very brief period in the 1970’s, it became a centre for Sindhi Arts and Crafts.
In 1978, almost 60 per cent of its land was given to the Police Department. A further about 6000 square yards were given to the Federal Public Service Commission. Another 3,500 square yards were given to the Aligarh Muslim University. Some 400 square yards of land was allotted to Mr Khan. Consequently, the gymkhana was reduced to and left with only 4,500 square yards of land to itself.
In General Zia ul Haq’s era a decision was made to sell the Hindu Gymkhana. P.K. Shahani raised a move and succeeded in getting the Hindu Gymkhana on the list of heritage sites under the Sindh Heritage Act. In 1984, the regime decided to demolish the building in view of its deteriorating condition. Heritage Foundation saved it. The department of Culture managed to get a plan for its renovation into a Museum of Folk Heritage.
At one point, the All Pakistan Newspapers Society run by Hameed Haroon desired to establish their offices on the site of the Hindu Gymkhana.
In 2005, General Pervez Musharraf handed the building over to National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) on a lease for 30 years. Zia Mohyeddin was the Founder and Chairman of NAPA. The new National Academy of the Performing Arts was opened on 1 February 2005 by President Musharraf.
Four years later, in 2009, the Government of Sindh sent a notice to NAPA to vacate and return the possession of the Hindu Gymkhana. The reason stated was that Napa had violated the lease agreement by illegally commencing the construction of an auditorium on the gymkhana premises which was a violation of the Sindh Cultural Heritage Preservation Act.
Various Hindu bodies, including Shri Ratneshwar Maha Dev approached the High Court in 2014 for getting the Hindu Gymkhana back to the Hindus.
Yet again, the Government of Sindh issued a notice for NAPA in 2018 to vacate Hindu Gymkhana, so that the building may be used as a heritage site. However, this long legal battle has yet to be resolved, and NAPA holds on to the building yet.
Late in 2021, the Supreme Court directed the secretary Heritage Department and the provincial law officer to submit a report with regard to shifting of the NAPA from the Hindu Gymkhana. In addition to that, the academy was also instructed to demolish the auditorium that it had constructed within the premises of the heritage site.
Status quo is maintained, the academy continues with its tenancy of the protected building.