On the famous The Mall of Lahore, Opposite (south) of Kim's Gun and framed by the foliage of enormous trees is one of the most important institutions that the Punjab has to offer—the National College of Arts or NCA, rated by some as the finest art institution in Pakistan.
The art school was named Mayo School of Industrial Art, since the cost of its construction was met by subscriptions to the Mayo Memorial in memory of Viceroy Lord Mayo (1869-72), who was stabbed to death by a prisoner in the Andaman Islands.
The school was established as part of the policy of the Government to promote education in arts and crafts in the subcontinent, the first art schools having been established in the presidency capitals of Calcutta, Madras and Bombay. Lockwood Kipling, father of the famous author Rudyard, had taught architectural sculpture at Bombay School of Art for ten years before arriving as principal of the Lahore School in April 1875. Kipling, considered the father of Indian arts and crafts, was followed by Bhai Ram Singh, another eminent personality.
The flooding of the Punjab market with British manufactures from Manchester drove the local industry out of business by the turn of the century. Popular taste was weaned from its cultural roots, which resulted directly in the decline of art and craft. Nearly 40,000 cotton workers and 900 weavers in Lahore were rendered jobless. Cotton printing being done in the city and once prized in such far-off places as Switzerland and Holland, was badly hit by the shoddy machine-made variants that came in from Manchester. Cottage industry in woolen and silk doth was virtually wiped out. The Mayo School became a haven for representative professionals from all the industries thus affected. European designs in building and furniture and the rise of the furniture firms brought bad times for the Punjabi carpenter reputed one of the cleverest in the world. The vogue received by photography and printing produced a great demand for lithographers and the school set up a process department for the production of line, half tone and color blocks for illustrating purposes.
The original courses followed the general art curriculum of European art schools with the inclusion of examples of oriental architecture, and 'principles of the Indian design'. Within a decade the school earned a well-deserved reputation for the promotion and training of local craft persons. In the Gazetteer of 1884 Kipling noted, "The Mayo School has had a decided influence on the carpentry as well as on other branches of manufacture, such as cotton prints, metal work etc. This is partly due to objects actually made in the school, to designs and suggestions given to bazaar craftsmen, and to its connection with exhibitions held in Paris, Melbourne, Lahore and Calcutta, for which it has acted as an agent. Its aim is to recur as much as possible to the best types of indigenous design, and to make more widely known the actual state and capabilities of the arts of the province."
The foundation stone of the Kipling Block (now the administration block) was laid on January 3,1880 by Prince Albert Victor, and presents an early example of the utilization of Mughal imagery. Referred to as 'late Mughal' style in contemporary accounts, its construction was supervised by a famous engineer of Lahore, Khan Bahadur Ganga Ram, who later became well known for his philanthropy. Initially, the building consisted of six rooms. Temporary additions were made to it in 1881 to house an exhibition of the Punjab Crafts. In 1891, these temporary structures were made permanent in accordance with a design prepared by the Principal. Now the school had proper workshops equipped with tools and machines. In 1902 four large machine workshops and photolithographic studio were already functioning. The fountain in the front of the main entrance was designed by Sirdar Bahadur Bhai Ram Singh, much admired as a designer and craftsman when selected to decorate a section of Queen Victoria's Osborne House. Kipling utilized his crafts and sculpture background to construct a comparatively simple but elegantly detailed structure. The beautifully laid brick masonry of the walls is terminated at the roof with an outer cornice of red sand- stone, which, historian Latif informs, had been obtained from Delhi.
By 1911, nearly a lakh of rupees worth of machinery and tools were being operated in the school for such diverse crafts as jewellery, cotton-printing, book-binding, cabinet making, light-metal work, carpentry and blacksmithy. By 1915, the work done at the school was recognized all over India and also in England. The principal works executed by its craftsmen were thus located: Wood-carving, plaster-work and interior in Barnes Court, Simla; Government House, Lahore; Circuit House, designs for amphitheatre at the Delhi Durbar; execution of decorative work including carpets and shamianas of gold thread and repusse metal work and designs for the Law and Oriental Colleges, Lahore; design and decorative work in plaster for the new Railway Theatre, Lahore; a carved console table for Government House, Lahore; Punjab carving for the Billiard Room of Bagshot Park, England for the Duke of Connaught; an eight canon stall for the Lefroy Memorial in Lahore Cantonment’s Church.
If you wish to experience a magical world, you will need to enter the lofty aiwan-like Mughal portal of the college. Worth the experience are the administration block, Zahoorul Akhlaq Gallery, (named after one of the most brilliant sons of the college), the printmaking studio, workshops and the architectural block. Some of the early works of architect Nayyar Ali Dada, another famous alumnus of the college, are also located in the campus and are worth visiting
The interlinked spaces of the college create a world of their own, a world of charm and creativity, as if Kipling had achieved his goal of insulating the creative urges of the future artists from the harsh reality of the outer world. The ambiance of the internal courts with their red brick arched facades transports you to a bygone era, hard to replicate anywhere else.
Photos: Shiraz Hassan