The “Forgotten Society Painter”, Hal Bevan Petman

Pakistani society has a bad habit of forgetting its vanguards and pioneers, and over more than sixty years, there have been many instances where events and people that define national consciousness have been wiped clean from the nation’s memory. Henry Charles ‘Hal’ Bevan Petman is one of those people – but thanks to Romano Karim Yusuf, ‘Hal’ and his work was brought back to life at Kuch Khaas on 4th September 2012. Romano, in collaboration with Taqi Shaheen, developed a documentary on Hal Bevan Petman based on 25 years of research that uncovered the ‘forgotten society painter'; the documentary was produced by Dedachi & Keychain Films. This was made possible by timely and generous help from Kuch Khaas’ founder, Shayan Afzal Khan, and a small grant from the British Council.┬áMany of the ladies who have been painted by artist Hal Bevan Petman were present and viewed the short film prepared by Romano and Taqi.

Hal Bevan Petman was the most popular portrait and landscape painter in the Indian sub-continent during the twilight of the British Raj. Nawab’s, Maharaja’s and many notables solicited Hal for their portraiture, and also purchased his landscape depictions of various scenic locations of pre-Partition India. After 1947, Hal – who was 53 at the time of Partition – and his wife Berylle chose to settle down in Pakistan, where Hal continued his work till his death in 1980.

Little is known of Hal’s work – or of his importance to art and portraiture – in Pakistan today, even among the elite circles of Pakistani artists. Romano Yusuf Karim himself came to learn of Hal in 1989 – when he was 7 years old – when he saw Hal’s work at the Pindi Club. Thirty years on, Romano has found many more works by this illustrious painter – dispersed around the world, belonging to different people who came across (or purchased) Hal’s art and were either mesmerized by it, or were immediately enveloped by curiosity about the art, the painter, and the historical significance thereof.

Romano admitted that when Taqi wanted to interview him, and was interested in the idea of bringing Hal back to life, there was no data, biography, information, news articles, or even an autobiography or self-reflection available to begin with. Despite that, through 25 years of painstaking work and by establishing networks all around the world, Romano selected a specific series of Hal’s paintings and presented a documentary of various portraits and depictions of older Pakistani ladies who were painted by Romano in their prime more than fifty years ago; to make the evening even more interesting and interactive, the portrayed ladies were not only represented by the documentary, but were there in person. Though the documentary itself was a candid exploration of the artist behind the paintings, and what it was like to be painted in those times, the presence of the distinguished ladies portrayed by Hal made the ‘forgotten society painter’, as well as his work, come back to life.

Hal was the official painter of the Pakistan Army during Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s reign, and was perhaps despised by the liberal, free-thinking artists of Pakistan for being too right wing (a notion that Romano also believes may be true). Be that as it may, Henry Charles Bevan Petman represents a Pakistan that existed before major upheavals and distortions of history and culture; a beautiful past that has been forgotten in today’s troubled times.

For more pictures of the event, click here.

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