Karachi is a diverse mix of cultures and religions, its history eternally and inextricably woven together with pluralism and interfaith harmony, of which one proof is the praise worthy and resilient existence of the Theosophical Society. Inspired by Dr. Annie Besant, who was the president of the International Theosophical Society, Jamshed Nusserwanjee Mehta founded the Theosophical Society of Karachi in 1896.
A theosophical society is one where the members discuss philosophy and religion to seek answers to fundamental questions of our existence by cultivating spiritual knowledge. Their motto is: ‘There is no religion higher than truth.’
Jamshed Nusserwanjee was Karachi’s first elected mayor, theosophist, philanthropist and architect whose developmental contributions earned him the title of ‘Builder of Modern Karachi’. He ordered the construction of Jamshed Memorial Hall in 1910, which is where the society used to meet. In 1956, the wood and stone building was demolished and reconstructed. Parsis, Hindus, Christians, Muslims and more gathered here, leaving their race, creed, sex, caste and color behind, to study comparative religion, philosophy, and science.
Today, Jamshed Memorial Hall stands in Old Karachi, a visual reminder of peaceful and tolerant times in the hustle and bustle of Saddar. Inside the Hall, there is an auditorium, two libraries and a lecture room. The auditorium can accommodate up to 400 people, but has remained mostly inactive over the years. The last activity that took place here, was a theatre performance in December 2016. The library has some 10,000 titles stocked on philosophy, mysticism, theosophy, comparative religion etc. The second floor library contains many antiques and the bust of Dr. Annie Besant. The lecture room is where classes on metaphysical and philosophical subjects were held.
On the third floor is the Jamshed Memorial Montessori School, the first Montessori school established in Karachi by Goon Minwalla. She also established the Theosophical Order of Service, which is the welfare arm of the Theosophical Society, in mid 1960s. It is still operational and heads different educational programs, relief and rehabilitation projects and animal welfare projects.
From the exterior, Jamshed Memorial Hall doesn’t look very grand, but it’s quite spacious inside, especially the auditorium with its high ceilings and a wide overhead balcony. The ground floor library has been turned into an office, however the books still remain. Upon inquiring about any future events for the auditorium, I’m told that there are none planned, even though it was revived around a year back to cater for the needs of the local people, and bring back affordable theatre.
The Hall is usually closed to the public now for security reasons, but just until recently the doors were opened when it was selected as one of the heritage sites to exhibit art for the Karachi Biennale. For this event the outward appearance of the façade was changed as a pattern of red insects was painted on it by Tazeen Qayyum. In her work, Façade, she explored the ideology of a society based on universal brotherhood, thus taking benefit from the history of the building. Another conspicuous installation was Where Lies My Soul by Munawaar Ali Syed, placed in the middle of the auditorium. A huge tree-like structure was made out of books, easels, drawings and carvings wrapped in black plastic sheets, forcing the viewers to imagine what’s inside. A total of 10 artists displayed their creations at the hall.
Jamshed Memorial Hall evokes the spirit of old Karachi, a reminder of the loss of the pioneering individuals who transformed this city into a metropolis, and of the minority communities who have been pushed to the borders of the city. It takes you back in time, a poignant reminder of a city that was known for its inclusive and diverse communities that lived in harmony, enriching its cultural life.
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