Karachi, the pre-Partition bustling port city and the country’s first capital, features an illustrious history involving scores of architectural masterpieces.
Among the city’s many famed historical buildings is the Hindu Gymkhana.
Established in 1925 as a venue for social and religious celebrations of Hindus, the construction of the building — on plot number RB1/5 and spread over 47,000 square yards — was completed under the supervision of Seth Ram Gopal Goverdhandas Mohatta. The building was designed by Agha Ahmed Hussain who added a unique Mughal revival and European style architecture to the facade. Hussain also designed the city’s Mohatta Palace and the Karachi Chamber of Commerce building.
The building material was brought from Bijapur in south India whereas the carvings on the structure were of Jodhpur stones.
Like other historical buildings of the mega city, the Hindu Gymkhana too has suffered from government neglect and faced danger from land grabbers.
Just after Partition, the Pakistan Evacuee Trust Property Board — set up to oversee the properties of minorities left behind — took over the building under its control. In 1961, the office of the Federal Public Service Commission was established on the premises and in 1978, about 60% of its land was given to the police department. Similarly, around 3,400 square yards were allotted to the Aligarh Old Boys Association.
At present, Hindu Gymkhana comprises a total of 4,500 square yards — around one-tenth of its original holding. In 1990, Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto ordered the handing over of the building to the Sindh Government for conducting vocational training courses. After that, in 1993, the building was handed over to the Sindh Culture Department and around Rs3 million was spent on renovations.
As time passed, while no vocational training center could be set up in the building, some cultural shows were arranged on a small scale until 1994 when the Hindu Gymkhana was declared a Safe Heritage Site. In 2004, under a presidential directive, the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) was established and a year later, an agreement was signed between the provincial government and NAPA wherein the latter was provided the building for 30 years on a Rs50,000 monthly lease.
From the get-go, the academy, headed by prominent playwright and author Zia Mohyeddin, faced several challenges from the provincial government, as well as the Hindu Welfare Organisation which questioned the building’s use as NAPA’s headquarters. The construction of an auditorium later on was separately challenged and the case remains pending in court, along with over a dozen other legal disputes over the property by various parties.
In December 2018, during a hearing challenging the site’s present status, Supreme Court Justice Gulzar Ahmed had observed that a heritage site cannot be used for any other purpose and directed the provincial government to move the academy to a different site. Following the directives, the Sindh chief secretary formed a committee to examine other possible sites for NAPA but the place is yet to be finalised.
Members of the city’s Hindu community desire to regain control of the building used by their ancestors as a social and religious hub.
On the other hand, the academy’s administration feels the building is serving its purpose as far as being a centre of arts and culture is concerned.
NAPA Programmes and Administration Director Arshad Mehmood shared that NAPA has in fact preserved the site of the Hindu Gymkhana which was otherwise suffering in deplorable conditions for decades. He alleged that the claimants to the building appeared from every corner when they saw its commercial value following its handover to NAPA.
Faculty member and course coordinator Uzma Sabeen said NAPA does not belong to any one community or group and represents the rich cultural image of Pakistan by involving people based on their talents, not their caste or creed.