Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Art Deco Rhapsody, Khan of Kalat’s Residence, Kalat

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Once upon a time, the Khan of Kalat in Balochistan lived in a massive medieval fort that sprawled over the hills above the town. Today, only a vestige of it remains for it was severely damaged by the great earthquake of 1935.


Mir Ahmed Yar Khan, then on the throne, ordered the building of a new palace for himself after the earthquake, this time not across the hills but in the meadows and orchards a short way eastward of the clump of houses and bazaars that made up his capital city. Those were the heydays of Art Deco, though the style was not known by that name until 1966. And as in Europe and North America, buildings raised in the subcontinent during the period between the wars boasted the curvilinear, sensuous lines typical of this new stylistic movement.

Understandably, builders of the Raj in the subcontinent were not far behind. The now famous mistri of the country was busily assimilating the new building tradition, adding his own final touches to express artistic individuality.

Now, Kalat lay way out in the wilds of Balochistan and could only be reached after two days of hard riding on horseback from the nearest railhead or, if one had the means, a bone-jarring day-long journey by car. While his peers in the nobility based in accessible parts of the country had reputed architects at hand, the Khan of Kalat could not acquire such services. So he made do with what he had at hand.

As the laying of the railway line through Balochistan brought a large population of Punjabi craftsmen, most masonry and brick-laying work was done by them. In Kalat, these experts, so the lore goes, were all Sikhs.

When he summoned the most renowned among them for the new construction, the Khan was well acquainted with the fine buildings of Quetta and Karachi. Like the rich in other parts of the country, the Khan too would have desired a palace that was more ‘imported’ than local. The Sikh builder, trained by no school but years of experience and aware of modern trends, would have assured the Khan he would own a building that was a first of its kind in Balochistan.

And a first the palace in Kalat indeed turned out to be with classic art deco styling. As one regards it from a distance, the structure gives a vague impression of similarity with a pre-World War II ocean liner or American car. The stairs leading to the plinth and their banister are worked in brick and plaster to imitate the radiator grill and bonnet of a Chrysler or an Oldsmobile down to the scutiform that sometimes topped the bonnet.

But this was as far as the fancy of the Sikh builder was permitted. The railings on the first and second floors, though following art deco curves, suddenly assume an indigenous form complete with the upturned crescent and star that is part of the Kalat coat of arms.

The mansion is laid out with each side duplicating the façade and one side flowing into the other without turning a corner. Going around it one is all but overcome by the sensuous curves that wrap around without a sharp edge anywhere in full consonance with art deco styling. The builder had clearly acquired mastery of his craft and was able to use it to full advantage to produce an absolute rhapsody.

Note: This story first appeared in Stones of Empire - Pakistan Petroleum Limited (PPL) book of days 2013.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 10:31 AM,

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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand


Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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