Asimicus, we will miss you

Metropole corridor: Imtiaz Mughal, Noman Ahmed, Arif Hasan and Asim Butt (red shirt)

Just got back from the Tribute to Asim Butt event at T2F, which was packed to capacity with those who knew and loved Asim, others who knew his work and were inspired by him, and some who happened to be at the café and joined in the Tribute. Sabeen introduced the event, and told the story of how Asim painted that wonderful mural on the walls of T2F.01.

Several people spoke movingly about Asim, providing ancedotes, photos and video that helped bring pieces of Asim the person together with pieces of Asim the artist, the intellectual, the activist and the rebel to form a more complete picture. I had to leave early as it’s a school night, but was there for most of it. Speakers included George Fulton who read out a lovely poem;  artist Ahmed Ali sent an email from Lahore that Mazhar Zaidi read out, Khurram talked about the LUMS days and how Asim was a trailblazer in so many ways even there (thanks to him, the BA in Social Studies is called that, and not ‘Universal Education’; the time he took on the mullah who began giving an azan outside the room where they were studying for their final exams). Naiza Khan talked about Asim as a student at the Indus Valley School, and Sabina Ansari talked about the Asim she’s known since childhood, who kept her company at school when the other kids wouldn’t talk to her – and the legacy he has left, evident in all those who filled the room.

Gul Jafri spoke about her relationship with Asim as an ‘aunty’ (and provided insights into his innocence, typified in his indignation and incredulity at having his things filched from public places – ‘but those were my things’…), Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy talked about Asim’s involvement with Citizens’ Archives of Pakistan (CAP) and showed a video clip of him painting for CAP which I hope they’ll put on the FB group wall. In fact I hope everyone puts whatever they said on a blog or website for Asim. Below, something I wrote today, which I referred to in my comments:

Asimicus, we will miss you

Karachi will not be the same without ‘Asimicus’ (his email id), his generous spirit, creative passion and love for the city, for democratic values and peace.

It is never easy to come to terms with death. It’s more difficult when the departed person was young, bright, committed and beloved by so many. Asim had his dark, tormented side, evident even to a total stranger through many of his paintings. He had struggled against this dark side and overcome it to an extent, which is why his leaving us as he did came as such a shock. We may never know why. We can only hope that he is at peace where ever he is.

I knew Asim somewhat from his days at the Herald. It was only recently that I learnt he had also studied at LUMS. Faiza Mushtaq, who was a Teaching Assistant at LUMS then, told me at his funeral that “he was easily the most brilliant student” she ever had. I also learnt then that Asim had gone to study for a PhD in Davis, California, but left it to return to Pakistan and study art, his real passion, at the Indus Valley School for Arts.

Creative subversiveness, Nov 2007. Photo by K.B. Abro

I got to know Asim better when he joined in the struggle against Musharraf’s imposition of martial law in the name of ‘Emergency’ in November 2007. His “STOP” signs on burnt vehicles in the aftermath of Benazir’s assassination were a strong symbol of protest against the senseless violence engulfing our society.

He plunged into making posters for the anti-Emergency rallies, using stencils and spray paint, raising the aesthetic level of these posters. His stencils allowed everyone to pitch in and participate in the creative process – and make many more posters. He got into these symbols- the ‘eject’ sign, the ‘circle’ – with great enthusiasm. Once he even missed a rally to which he was bringing posters – got so involved making them he lost track of time. But that was Asim.

The idea to engage more people in this struggle led to a situation when police, suspicious of the crowds that these activities were attracting, pounced upon Asim and other members of the group at Sea View beach. We managed to prevent them from being carted off in the police mobile.

Asim’s level of commitment and engagement is clear in the email he later sent out to the group: “Before yesterday’s event is inscribed into our movement as a failure I would like to suggest that getting in trouble with the police was perhaps a step in the right direction. There is no point in doing what we are doing if we don’t ruffle some feathers. The throng we drew to ourselves making art collectively kept growing till the police arrived and it was attentive by all accounts.”

He added, “Although we had gone to Sea View to engage people, I think we were not prepared in terms of the content we were meant to disseminate. The need for teach-ins within is clearly urgent. As we have also come up against the snag of schools and colleges wrapping up their term, and therefore not having a place to take our teach-ins to, I suggest we literally preach to the choir for starters.”

The old portico/foyer area: view from first floor corridor

In October last year, I was working late into the night when Asim popped up on chat. He was concerned about the ongoing demolition of Hotel Metropole. I had heard they were knocking it down but keeping the old facade – not ideal but better than tearing the whole building down. It was late and I was tired, but energized by his passion, I wrote to some concerned citizens about this, copying Asim on the email. He wrote back with an update: “the concerned contractors erected scaffolding around the facade last week. On Saturday they draped it with tarpaulin and since Monday they have been going at it with pick axes. I spoke to the contractors who say that the facade must come down this month. I would like to be able to get a stay on its demolition and am wondering how I can go about this.”

Arif Hasan responded that he had suggested in writing that the entrance hall and a small part of the courtyard behind it should be preserved and turned into a Metropole museum, with photographs of the building (perhaps a model) and photographs of the social and political activity that took place on display along with a history of the hotel and its surroundings.

Asim meanwhile started a Facebook Group, “Stay on Metropole Demolition”. This came to the attention of the Metropole owners, and the manager, Imtiaz Mughal contacted us for a meeting. Asim and I, along with Arif Hasan and Noman Ahmed (head of architecture & planning at NED) went, but unfortunately, it was too late for the portico that Arif Hasan had suggested should be preserved. Imtiaz Mughal told us that they don’t want to knock the facade down, but were being pressurized by the KCBA to do that.

Metropole lawn – still popular as a wedding reception venue

Asim then confessed that he had been prowling around in the dead of night trying to paint a mural on one of the walls being demolished (facing Sindh Club), and asked Imtiaz Mughal to tell the chowkidars not to pelt stones at him. “With things the way they are, you’re lucky they didn’t take a pot shot at you,” came the response. But Imtiaz was a good sport about it. He told the guards to allow Asim to carry out his nocturnal activities — which I suspect took some of the fun out of it for Asim.

Asim was excited about Arif Hasan’s proposed talk with a slide show on Karachi’s historic sites and buildings – Noorjehan Bilgrami offered the use of Koel for that purpose anytime – but we never did manage to get it together.

I hope that we can still at some point have that lecture, dedicated to Asim.

Beena Sarwar

One Response

  1. I hope the lecture does take place. It sounds like an awesome idea.


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