Fakir Syed Saifuddin is both an informed guide and a delightful storyteller Image Credit: Syed Hamad Ali

Fakir Syed Saifuddin remembers once sitting at a meeting with people who worked in museums. They were discussing plans to set up up a museum of the Punjab.

“People were introducing themselves saying: ‘I am director of so and so museum... I have been there for 12 or 13 years. All the museum directors were introducing themselves like this. I said I was born in a museum’,” he laughs.

Saifuddin wasn’t kidding. He has spent his entire life in one of the largest private museums in South Asia — the Fakir Khana museum. “I was born here,” he says. “I opened my eyes to these antiques.”

The Fakir Khana Museum is located inside the old Walled City of Lahore in the Bazaar-e-Hakeema. Getting there involves weaving through old narrow streets and alleys, passing small shops selling traditional foods and other wares. And there is a sense of walking back in time even before arriving at the museum.

Visitors are strongly recommended to book an appointment for an tour in advance with museum director Saifuddin whose family history is intertwined with the museum.

His ancestors settled in Lahore in 1730. While they were establishing themselves in the city, it was also the period of downfall of the Mughal empire. “The Iranian King Nadir Shah, followed by Ahmad Shah Abdali and their descendants, had been dominant on and off on Lahore for 70 years. They used to come to Lahore a bit before winter with an army of between 10,000 and 18,000.”

It was a difficult period for the locals. “The army that came with them used to abuse the citizens of Lahore,” he says, adding that there were also 12 misls [brigades] of Sikhs whose armies had also occupied Punjab and were fighting their own battles. In this turbulent period from Punjab’s history rose one Sikh leader, Maharajah Ranjit Singh.

“He had three qualities that people begin to discuss: that he kept his promise, he based his decisions on justice and he was very brave,” Saifuddin explains. “These were the three qualities. The citizens of Lahore thought, why don’t we make him our king? We will be able to get rid of the Bhangi sardars and the Afghans. So, the citizens of Lahore city wrote him a letter and invited him.”

At that time Ranjit Singh was only 19 years old.

In June 1790, Ranjit Singh came to Lahore and defeated the other Sikh leaders.

“After he became dominant on Lahore, neither the sardars nor Afghans were ever dominant over Lahore again,” Saifuddin says. “A new era began in Lahore. Unfortunately, in our [school] curriculum, this isn’t mentioned. Our historians have done injustice with this. Our children are not taught about this era. If you ask someone, they will only tell you about the oppression of the Sikhs... that the Sikhs tied horses in mosques, that Sikhs took off the pillars from buildings belonging to Muslims, they took them off to the Golden Temple. This is all lies and rubbish. It has no relationship with reality.”

Saifuddin expounds further on this misunderstood chapter in Punjab’s history. “In the era of Ranjit Singh, he established a government that was secular by character,” he says. “The need was for Muslim representation in his court. In that time my family, which was [already] established in Lahore, offered their services to Ranjit Singh’s court.”

Three brothers — Fakir Azizuddin, Imamuddin and Nooruddin — developed a close relationship with Ranjit Singh. Azizuddin became the right hand of Ranjit Singh.

“He was principle officer of Ranjit Singh as well as his foreign minister,” Saifuddin says. “No order, no act of Ranjit Singh was done without the pen of Fakir Azizuddin. He was a very influential and powerful person.”

The second brother, Imamuddin, held the keys to Ranjit Singh’s wealth in Govindgarh Fort. “After Lahore, the second-most important city was Amritsar.”

The third brother, Nuruddin, was the health minister of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. “He used to run his school and college. He ran his hospital as well.”

Saifuddin is a descendant of Nuruddin.

The Fakir Khana Museum has many old artefacts including priceless paintings and miniatures. “There is no doubt that from Mughal Emperor Akbar until Jaghangir and Shah Jahan, there was a lot of work done on miniatures,” Saifuddin says. “And in that time, it was a peak of miniature paintings. In Akbar’s darbar [court] more than 100 painters were gathered. He established the Mughal School of [Painting].”

The Fakir Khana has a 19th-century miniature of Nawab Mumtaz Ali Khan by Ghulam Ali, a famous painter in the court of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar. The portrait looks very life-like.

“He took 15 years to complete this one painting,” Saifuddin explains. “When Bahadur Shah Zafar went on exile, then Ghulam Ali made this painting of Nawab Mumtaz Ali Khan using a single-hair brush.”

There is a magnifying glass nearby for visitors to have a closer look at the very detailed work in the paintings on display.

“If you look at this picture closely, you will see the Nawab sahib’s eyebrows, eyelashes, the workmanship on his cap, the embroidery that is done. Nawab sahib is chewing pan, the pan’s peek is on his lips, look at the wrinkles on his clothes. A single hair!”

The art on displays incudes pieces on members of Sikh and Mughal royalty, birds, warriors on horses, women in rural settings and calligraphy. One notable painting is of the court of Sher Singh, the son of Ranjit Singh. The picture is said to have a hidden message.

“What they say is that Sher Singh’s murder was planned and the murderers are sitting in his darbar,” Saifuddin says. “The artist is sensitive. What is he feeling? He is giving Sher Singh a hidden message that this is about to happen… the two people sitting behind him are his killers.”

Five PhD students and many university students have completed research work at the Fakir Khana Museum.

“Art history is not taught here,” says Saifuddin. “Our history is not taught in any university. Unfortunately, somehow or the other, the people of this subcontinent — Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs – there has not been work on our own artists. In the time when Rembrandt was painting in Europe, over here we had Bichitr, Biyak, Gavardhan, Manohar, Nana, Bishandas, Abu Al Hasan, Farrukh Beg, Hashim, Mansur. In addition to these, there were countless other artists.”

And Rembrandt himself was inspired by Mughal miniatures.

They were doing such remarkable work that when Rembrandt found out that in India such brilliant work is done, he told them to get those masters’ works. So they took close to a 100 pictures to Rembrandt.”

The famous Dutch artist wanted to paint miniatures, Saifuddin says, but he did not know the technique. “But our artists did Rembrandt-like work. Unfortunately, in our universities when it comes to art, they neither know their masters’ work, nor are told about them.”

In one room, an old multi-coloured glass window lets in rays of sunlight. From the window is a view of the internal courtyard of the haveli — the traditional mansion — that houses the museum. The narrow room has a traditional carpet, chandelier and various old artefacts on display that includes statues and pottery along with Chinese, Japanese, Russian and French porcelain.

In one corner, there is a square-shaped stone object. Within it is a bowl-like space. “This is a water filter,” Saifuddin explains. “You place this in toxic water and drinking water will come inside it.”

There are also artefacts from the Gandhara era and Celadon crockery.

There is an 8th-century copy of the Quran written in Kufic script.

“This was the way that the Quran was written in the time of the Prophet (PBUH) and for 400 years by the Arabs,” he says.

There are also items belonging to Ranjit Singh. “This is his sash,” he points out. In this, lies his ribbon. Down here is his robe. Below is his shawl. These are all his personal belongings. This is the shawl of the wife of Maharajah Ranjit Singh. Maharajah Jinda, the mother of Duleep Singh.” Saifuddin also shows a ring belonging to Raja Porus, who famously fought Alexander the Great in the Battle of the Hydaspes.

A trip to Fakir Khana Museum is different to what most visitors would experience in a modern city museum. There are no high-tech displays and no crowds of photo-capturing tourists but a visit to the museum is well worth it. Saifuddin is both an informed guide and a delightful storyteller. With his words, he makes the old world — and Fakir Khana Museum — come to life.

Syed Hamad Ali is a writer based in London.