August Issue 2003

By | People | Profile | Published 21 years ago

He commissioned his first painting when he was 10 years old and bought his first Sadequain when he was 19. He speaks fluent Mandarin, is culturally obsessed with China, Japan, Italy, India and all things Sindhi. He has a formidable collection of Pakistani art, colonial images of the subcontinent, shawls, carpets, sea shells and a library spilling over with 40,000 books. He was 28 when he stepped into the publishing world as director administration for the Dawn group and 30 when he became CEO. One of the moving forces behind the restoration of both the Mohatta Palace and the Hindu Gymkhana, he co-curated perhaps the most significant art exhibition in the history of Pakistan — ‘Sadequain — The Holy Sinner.’ And now, a year later, is publishing perhaps the finest art book ever to come out of Pakistan.

Together with Hameed Akhund he has worked tirelessly to promote Sindh’s sufi heritage, is deeply involved in breeding and rehabilitating Sindh’s wildlife and is responsible for the herds of deer that now run through Karachi’s Safari Park.

His abiding passion for the last 10 years has been Gedrosia, his estate in Gadani where he spends every weekend and where he has done something never done before: planting date-palm orchards using brackish water. Gedrosia is the only example of this on the entire Pakistan coastline. He puts in a hectic eight or nine hours at work, devotes his evenings and nights to a host of eclectic projects and dreams of going to the Taklamakan desert some day.

It’s no surprise then, that Hameed Haroon’s day begins with his blood-pressure medication! Then it’s reading Dawn and its competition over his morning tea on the balcony with its magnificent Thatta-tiled archway.

For most, the stresses of heading and running one of the largest publishing houses in the country for the last 20 years would be enough of an achievement — but it’s fairly obvious that, as Hameed himself aptly puts it, he’s “not just another publisher with a fancy surname who uses that to get things done. Actually it’s a lot of hard work, most of it done on my own time.” Hameed’s efforts outside the Dawn building in promoting art, culture, music, restoration, preserving Sindh’s environment and wildlife and supporting organ transplants are perhaps the achievements closest to his heart.

While others would work on one project at a time, Hameed works on three or four. The Sadequain book, due to be launched in mid-August, took one year of working through the night, almost every night, and left even the seemingly invincible Hameed on the verge of collapse. But today, five months and a serious car accident later, Hameed has already moved on to his next three projects: creating a photo archive and exhibition of Lt. Col. Robert Southey’s images of Balochistan from 1880-1911; the Nurjehan project which entails compiling around 10 volumes with a total of 60 CDs, accompanied by song books, translations, images and biographies of the songwriters and directors who influenced a whole generation. The CDs will include some extremely rare recordings, including Sindhi kafis. “The idea is to improve recording quality and preserve the history of the music of the era,” says Hameed. “Dawn and the Times of India have both expressed an interest to jointly sponsor this production.” Following on from ‘The Holy Sinner’ exhibition and book, is a series of educational documentaries about Sadequain’s art vision in Urdu and English as well as a documentary on Sadequain, “which I would like to enter at the Cannes Film Festival.” Also, in the pipeline is a project to take the State Bank’s Sadequain paintings and murals, restored to their pristine glory, with Sadequain’s other Paris period work to exhibit in Paris. Hameed is also working with State Bank Governor, Ishrat Hussain, to turn the old wing of the State Bank building into an art gallery, to house Sadequain’s work along with the bank’s other art treasures.

Hameed’s favourite time of the day is the “first solitude of the night after dinner.” He either reads or listens to music in his library with its amazing 200-year-old carved beams and doors and painted ceiling, juxtaposed with a Frank Lloyd Wright inspired blue stained glass window set in his ruby-red dining area that is home to some of his vast collection of subcontinental and Tibetan art and antique religious statues from the Phillipines. Often, the library is darkened and as the moonlight streams in through the high Florentine-inspired blue stained glass ucelli, Hameed listens to live performances by Sindh’s maestros of music into the early hours of the morning.

Most nights, however, are spent reading, and needless to say, it’s never just one book. “I have a pile at my bedside and I read from four or five every night. I don’t want to assimilate all of Ottoman history in one go! Living in Pakistan I have developed a book-famine mentality and when I see a book that I think I might want to read, I buy it. I probably won’t get around to reading it for two years, but at least I know I have it.”

Though Hameed’s library is his haven in Karachi, his heart belongs to Gedrosia. “Sunset in Gedrosia on a Saturday always seems better than one on a Sunday,” says Hameed. “I still haven’t shaken off the school-boy fear of Mondays!” And it is when he stands on the cliffs with the monsoon waves beating and dancing on the rocks, or perhaps listening to Sufi musicians, that he is most at peace with himself. But like everything else Hameed does, Gedrosia too is not just his weekend retreat alone. It has it’s own deeper reason. The Makran coast was known as Gedrosia when Alexander marched through Gwadar. Determined to preserve the cultural heritage of the area, Hameed plans on bringing back its Greek spirit and Gedrosia’s symbol is the winged griffin, the legendary Greek counterpart to the urial. And by the 67-foot-square pool will eventually stand two bronze statues of Alexander and Niarchos commissioned from Shahid Sajjad.

The other leit-motif that runs through Gedrosia is the euphorbia lactea, the Gadani cactus, and its link with Sadequain’s art in which the Gadani cactus was used to symbolise an entirely new religious and artistic vocabulary. “For Sadequain, the myriad forms of the Gadani cactus became the vocabulary and sinews of a new vision which provided Pakistani art with its most dynamic form.” With his deep commitment to the conservation of the wildlife of the Kirthar range, Hameed’s dream is to set up an animal sanctuary at Gedrosia. “Wherever I may be in the world, spiritually, my day begins and ends at Gedrosia.” The end view is to perhaps live there and write and build a heritage site dedicated to Sadequain and the aftermath of the Greek invasion.

There are none of the expected trappings of luxury in Hameed’s life. He drives a Suzuki pick-up, wears a simple latha shalwar kameez, but surrounds himself with beautiful and rare objects and paintings, making him one of Pakistan’s most important art collectors. One day his treasures will be housed in a museum dedicated to his parents. “I don’t want my collection to be turned into heirlooms, which one day, someone might sell to buy Armani suits, diamonds and Mercedes. I want them to survive towards a meaningful purpose.”

Certain events have touched Hameed and changed him in very significant ways. The first was a traumatic one-and-a-half-year span around 10 years ago, when he lost three of his dearest friends. “Their deaths left me impoverished and changed how I thought about so many things. As one grows older, one sees death and fears it for the ones we love, and accepts it as the inevitable for oneself.” His mother’s stroke was another turning point in his life and the third was his car accident earlier this year.

“When I was young I thought I would make it at 30 and be dead by 50. As it happens, I almost did die in that car accident. And that was when I asked myself what did I have to show for how I had lived my life. And the answer was, very little. I have contributed a lot of footnotes, but it would have been nice to have been part of the mainstream,” says a man who has already accomplished more than most. But Hameed still has many promises to keep.