IVS: The Beginning
By Noorjehan Bilgrami

The year was 1988, the place, Seoul, Korea, where the Asian Congress of Architects was taking place. Attending the Congress were a delegation of architects and their spouses from Pakistan.

As the deliberations went on, another vision was taking shape, that of an Art and Architecture School for Karachi.

Two separate groups had been thinking about the need for an institution of excellence, one in the field of architecture, the other in art and design. Ideas, thoughts, ideals were shared, the common thread being the urgent need of the city for such an institution.

Architects Arshad Abdulla and Javaid Haider had earlier worked on the feasibility for an architecture school, to go beyond what the existing institutions had to offer.

At the same time, a group of the alumni of the Central Institute of Art and Crafts (CIAC), who had been engaged in an effort to revitalize the ailing institute, had been frustrated by resistance from the CIAC Board of Governors. It was Professors Zahoor Ul Akhlaque and Iqbal Hassan who advised the group to abandon its futile attempts to save the CIAC and divert its energies towards creating a new institution of Art.

Whilst in Korea, the news of a fresh wave of violent ethnic strife in Karachi reached the group. A visit to a vibrant architecture college provided the inspiration and further reiterated the urgent need to introduce positive energy to the strife-torn city. Architects Arshad and Shahid Abdulla, Zaigham Jaffery, Shahab Ghani, Shama Usman, Akeel Bilgrami and I talked till the early hours of the morning. Two different schools were conceptually merged into one institution. The three disciplines of Fine Art, Design and Architecture were to blend harmoniously, and in effect support each other, as they did at the National College of Arts. While NCA had been around for almost a century, Karachi still did not have an institution of that nature. Everyone felt that Karachi sorely needed a place of learning where art, architecture, culture as we perceived it, would flourish, where lost values could be instilled. An institution which could provide an environment to nurture the young, become an oasis in the parched city and help reduce the fragmentation of society.

Four of the Founders returned with the beginning of an idea and reached out to renowned sculptor Shahid Sajjad, CIAC alumnus Imran Mir and NCA alumnus Shehnaz Ismail. Soon Inayat Ismail and Nighat Mir became an integral part of the core group. The Ismail residence became the meeting place after the day’s work. Idealism soared high, creativity surged forth. Ideas clashed, there were heated debates over cups of tea. Many joined in, Javed Ibrahim, Mian Saghir, friends from NCA – Zahoor, Sheherezade, Salima Hashmi, Naazish Atta-Ullah, Iqbal Hassan – and many, many more encouraged us, gave us direction and confidence to pursue this mad dream.

Dream impossible! We had no space, no financial backing, no experience of running an educational institution; we did not know where to begin, how to begin. A warehouse at Keamari, the Beach, Mohatta Palace (at that time lying in disrepair, termite eaten, and a hideout for heroin addicts); these were wild thoughts for possible venues. We landed at Shahid Aziz Siddiqui’s then Commissioner of Karachi, to ask if Mohatta Palace could be handed over! Shahid was to join the Indus Valley School years later as Executive Director. From classes under a tree, to a makeshift tent every Friday at Frere Hall, somewhere, somehow, positivism never waned.

A year passed, the dream was beginning to seem like a dream not to be realized. We had begun to lose some confidence in ourselves when one evening Shahid Abdulla excitedly reported that a venue was available “as of NOW”. On Shahra-e-Faisal, amidst badam and coconut trees was the most perfect house. The space had been used as temporary premises for Murshid Hospital‘s Nursing School which had just moved to its own premises. Philanthropist Haamid Jaffer, the 10 th Founder Member, had offered the large family house for a period of three years for a monthly rent of one rupee! His sagacity and wisdom guided us in the formative years of the School.

It was unbelievable; suddenly we were woken up from a lull to step into frenzied activity – we did not wish to lose any time in starting. We took a decision to begin by conducting an eight-week workshop to understand each other in the new working conditions and to generate seed money for launching of the institution; we had to balance our fulltime professional pursuits with this new emerging reality. So many designers together, we divided our tasks; whilst some of us worked on the detail of the curriculum for the classes and the hiring of the faculty, others looked into the re-planning of the premises, yet others at the legalities required for setting up a new institution. We had a temporary home, but other important aspects had to be planned. Our meetings, now more frequent and regular, moved to the new premises and became more formalized. The target for commencing formal classes was fixed for September 20, 1990, nine months away.

There were discussions, among the founders and among the larger group that was involved, to set out a philosophy for the School. To pen down a mission statement and put the lofty ideas into words was a daunting task, one that I took on. Planning for the School was done in the minutest detail, care was taken at every step. Inayat Ismail prepared the financial feasibility. From the first print material including flyers and brochures to the design of the furniture, the philosophy of the School was kept in mind, extreme simplicity was ensured; ordinary materials were used most creatively. Imran Mir designed all printed and promotional material for the School. Shahid Abdulla took upon the task of converting the available space. A drawing studio was designed outdoors under a wooden trellis (now installed at the new campus) and looms set up, a makeshift lecture hall built with a tin roof on the second floor. A printmaking studio was constructed in the garden. There was a ceramic studio under the porch, whilst the textile design studio was the servant quarter over the garage, reached by climbing a spiral staircase. David Alesworth, who taught sculpture, held his classes in the garage, and the kitchen sufficed as the Executive Director’s office.

Selecting a name for the institution was a challenging task. The criteria were demanding…the name had to be recognizable, easily identifiable geographically, culturally, and historically; yet be non-political, non-parochial. Within the first week of getting our new home, amongst the many suggestions, the name Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Shahid Sajjad’s idea, was unanimously popular.

Amongst the first faculty members, some of whom are still teaching, inducted for the Foundation Year were Meher Afroz, David Alesworth, Dr. Akbar Naqvi, Shahab Ghani, Tariq Hassan, Shakeel Asghar Ali, Samina Mansuri, Naheed Yahya and Ishrat Suharwardy.

The academics, being the spine of an institution, needed undivided attention. To me, personally, this was the most critical task – to set the direction of the School as envisaged by the group. We consulted innumerable people and institutions both within and outside the country, especially those who shared the same concerns. Initially we began with National College of Arts as a role model whose faculty generously shared their teaching experiences with us.

Later, a visit from Ashoke Chatterjee, Professor Emeritus and a pioneer of National Institute of Design, (NID), in Ahmedabad, India – one of the leading Design schools of the world – inspired us to form linkages with it. Along with David Alesworth, Shahid Rajput (Head of Communication Design) and Khalid Omari (Coordinator of Architecture), and I visited NID to closely look at their curriculum, its implementation and the teaching methodology. At the same time we explored Doshi’s Centre for Environmental and Planning Technology (CEPT), also in Ahmedabad, and then proceeded to Baroda to study the Fine Art College there. NID was truly inspirational. The meditative environment at the campus, the excellence of design sensibilities both in concepts and skills were of the highest caliber and above all the simplicity and humility that pervaded on the campus was exceptional. Soon, the visit was reciprocated by three teachers from NID who came to share with our faculty their teaching experience.

We adopted their block system in the Foundation Year and attempted to do away with the system of grades and instead have qualitative reports from the relevant faculty. This system encouraged each student to expand his/her own strengths rather than compete with each other. Like NID, we decided to lay emphasis on the Liberal Art program as an integral part of the curriculum. Subsequently, Aditi Ranjan from NID, with the guidance of the illustrious educationist, Helena Perheentupa of Finland, helped Shehnaz Ismail formulate the curriculum for the Textile Design Department. Helena had initially developed the Textile Design curriculum at NID, where she continued to teach for 20 years.

Cho Padamsee, an Architect and former Dean at London University, read a paper at a conference in Manila on the need for a different architectural education system in the Asian region. At the end of the talk I asked him if there was any school he could point out, that represented his theory. He said there was none! A challenge was thrown at him to look at IVS’s curriculum, afresh. Cho spent a month at Indus Valley and after many sessions with the founders and the faculty, designed the Architecture program in collaboration with Shahid Khan, Head of Architecture. The idea was to have a regular review of the implementation of the program and accordingly evolve for the future. Cho returned the following year for a review.

On a visit to Sri Lanka, I discovered the most enigmatic architect Anjalendran, who readily accepted the invitation to come and teach at IVS. Over the years he returned several times to conduct workshops at the Architecture Department bringing in a holistic approach and vitality to the design studio.

Another guest who made a lasting impression was the well-known painter, Prof. Mahmood ul Haq from Dhaka University who critically reviewed the Fine Art curriculum and conducted painting workshops in the Fine Art Department.

Going down memory lane, I am getting caught up in details, but it was the details that were so important; the larger picture was clear enough. With stringent budgets, everything acquired for the School was donated by friends and well wishers. We got incredible support from everyone. The contractors would not charge; materials like wood for the donkeys (drawing stools), drafting tables etc., were given with such generosity. While other institutions in the country were being eroded, we were helped at every step to build.

In September 1990, the first batch of students was admitted after having sat for the entrance test and interview; the test was most carefully designed and the interviewing procedures planned in detail. The entrants included some who took the eight-week workshop earlier, others who had responded to the advertisements. Then there were the parents who reposed their trust in the faculty and founders, entrusting their children’s education to an institution that was at the time an unknown entity. At the outset, the founders had made a conscious decision that merit would be the sole criteria for admission. Students unable to pay the tuition fee would be supported through the Qarz-e-Hasna scheme, that is, the interest-free loan. Therefore, no student would be denied admission on the basis of inability to pay the fees.

Inayat Ismail, Akeel Bilgrami and Arshad Abdulla painstakingly drafted the Memorandum and Articles of Association, and registered The Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture Society. The first Board of Governors was formulated with Professor Karrar Hussain as the Chairman and the first Executive Committee formed under the chairmanship of Arshad Abdulla.

I was appointed in January 1991 as the Executive Director in place of Dr. Rhoda Wania who was earlier inducted as the first Executive Director for a brief period. With the blessing of luminaries like Karrar Sahab, Ali Imam Sahab – my mentor – and under the able guidance of management consultant Shamim Zafar, who laid out the administrative structure, I received all the support by the very able Board of Governors and Executive Committee to carry out the momentous task of steering the School. Amongst the first members of the Executive Committee were Saleem Thariani, Zaigham Jaffery, F. H. Punthakey and Iqbal Bengali who spent innumerable hours working on the School’s policies with the Founders.

We also had to think quickly in terms of a permanent abode for the School. After searching for many months, Arshad, Akeel and Shahid managed to secure, through incredible strokes of luck, the present campus site. The KDA officials were initially insistent on offering land to Indus Valley in the far-flung scheme, but later relented after much persuasion. Soon after taking possession of the land, we invited twelve prominent architects from the city to a brainstorming session to define the design philosophy of the new campus. The exhaustive day-long session ended with reminiscences of old stone buildings with high ceilings, lingering visions for the most ideal campus for an art school.

Within a fortnight, Shahid Abdulla discovered an imposing, Victorian style warehouse in Kharadar, built about a hundred years ago by Nusserwanjee Mehta, father of Jamshed Nusserwanjee, philanthropist, social worker and outstanding citizen, the first Mayor of Karachi. The four-storey stone structure was to be demolished to make way for a concrete high riser. Incidentally, it housed one of the first elevators installed in the sub-continent. ‘It seems that the vacant warehouse is waiting for us,’ were Shahid’s words, ‘if we cannot move in here, we’ll carry it to Clifton’. Slowly the dream had begun to take a more tangible shape. The owners were so skeptical of Shahid’s proposal that that they offered to return the agreed amount of Rs.1.5 million to Indus Valley if the relocation was accomplished! I am told the School recently received this amount.

The Nusserwanjee relocation project required extensive fund-raising, a task that Shahid Abdulla took on with great enthusiasm. The citizens of Karachi opened up their hearts to the cause and funds were raised entirely through voluntary contributions and the institution at no stage depended on the government’s funds for its survival. This helped forge a symbiotic relationship with the city which continues till this day.

The relocation of the Nusserwanjee Building to the Clifton campus, a feat unique in the subcontinent, is a tribute to our craftsmen’s skills. Architects Yadullah Haider and Ashiq Usmani helped in carrying out detailed documentation through drawings, photographs and video. Each of the 26000 stones and hundreds of pieces of timber were numbered and carefully removed, cautiously transferred and stored before being re-erected at the site. I clearly recall the first time we all went to see the warehouse in Kharadar; cobwebs made our entry difficult. Rotting scraps of paper, letter-heads and old photographs covered with pigeon droppings were mementos that we found. It then seemed to us quite impossible that this building could actually be transported to a new location.

As Nusserwanjee would cover just about 30 percent of the School’s spatial requirements, the new campus was designed to accommodate the balance area. Again, the design philosophy was clearly discussed amongst the architects and designers. We all felt that the new campus should be both contemporary and simple enough to give respect to the timeless building that was to be placed in front. Arshad and Shahid took on the responsibility of designing the campus and integrating the Nusserwanjee building into the site.

Zahoor Ul Akhlaque, one of our country’s foremost artists, designed the School’s symbol and Javed Ibrahim, working through nights with his team, fabricated and erected it on the site in a record fifteen days, just in time for the Foundation Laying Ceremony. Standing proudly at the entrance of the campus, the symbol heralds all who enter the portals.

On May 14, 1992, at the Foundation Laying Ceremony, Chief Minister Muzaffar Hussain Shah, promised to help secure a Charter for the School, in time for the first batch to graduate. He kept his promise and facilitated in the process throughout. Obtaining the charter itself was a milestone, so very critical at that time. The parents, perhaps more nervous than the students, were waiting anxiously. Akeel, Arshad and I spent endless frustrating hours at the Education Department, Law Department and the Chief Minister’s Secretariat, patiently pursuing the case, step by step.

On the last day of the Provincial Assembly Session, when the Indus Valley School Bill was finally tabled, Zaigham Jaffery, Shahid and I sat on the edge, listening to the proceedings. It was again by a stroke of luck that despite a heavy agenda, our bill could be tabled and passed, with the full support of a very volatile opposition. With thumping accolades, it was the only bill that was passed unanimously in the assembly in that particular summer session.

The School moved in January 1994 to its new under construction campus in Clifton and the first convocation was subsequently held there in December 1994.

It was with great confidence we held the first convocation. Our keynote speaker was Karrar Sahab, the first Chairman of the Board of Governors. Dr. Akhtar Hamid Khan, who succeeded Karrar Sahab as Chairman, presided. The whole ceremony was very special and we wanted everything to be memorable. Sitar Nawaz Ustad Imdad Hussain and his son, Ikhlaque, composed the theme music for the Convocation in Raag Malhaar and with Ustad Bashir Khan on tabla, played live at the first Convocation. Recording of the theme music is played at the Convocation each year.

Based on the Moghul chogha, I designed the Convocation gown in cotton susi, a traditional cloth exclusively woven in Sindh whilst the design of the cap was evolved from the Hunza cap. The special canopy cover for the Convocation ceremony was designed by Shahid Abdulla, using the waves of the nearby sea as a metaphor. The logo with the symbol and lettering on the stage backdrop was designed by Imran Mir. The invitation cards were actually hand-painted. From the degree folder designed by Raana Shamim Zafar, to the menu, to the parking lot signage, every iota was carefully planned and handled. The grounds were magically transformed by Zameer Qureishi and Anjum Pervez.

When it appeared that all the painstaking arrangements for the Convocation were under control a raging storm threatened the evening before the event. We panicked and imagined the worst that could happen. But His blessings showered as the morning brought the most beautiful, clear and crisp weather. That morning of the Convocation was a spiritual experience for me. The light captured in the canopy was almost ethereal. The whole ambience was charged with a special feeling, the reward of team effort; so many worked at different levels, yet towards the same goal, with the same concerns and the same cause. The contentment on the parents’ faces and the glow of accomplishment on the faces of the students, the first ambassadors of the School was most rewarding.

The circle seemed complete
The dream, dreamt by a few
The dream was realized by many
The seeds sprouted into young shoots
The roots firmly in the ground are now spreading out the branches.

The above article was published in the Advertisement Supplement of daily DAWN on Saturday, December 13, 2003, on the occasion of the 10th Convocation of the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture