The larger than life Rakhshanda Khattak

By Roland Borges

No fashion model of the 1970s got paid in the thousands, except for the larger-than-life Rakhshanda Khattak, who had to travel a rough road to make a name for herself in the still fledgling Pakistani fashion industry.

Once, her husband Husain Javeri, a jeweller who hardly ever skipped work, decided to accompany her to a modeling gig. After watching his wife having to bend, stretch and contort her body for the perfect pose, and that too for the pittance she was being paid, he approached the advertisement director and demanded his wife be paid ten times the amount to make it worth her time. That was the amount of money someone would have to pay him to be away from his wife, he said. The director was shocked but since he could not afford to lose her, he agreed. Following this incident, Rakhshanda went on to become the highest-paid and yet the most sought after young model of her time.

The Burmese-Pathan woman had her photos splashed across fashion layouts in various English and Urdu magazines. She did commercials ranging from products such as paints and toothpaste. She boasted a height many envied, and could drape her curvaceous figure — a far cry from the anorexic waif look of the New York and Paris fashion world that has caught up with Pakistani models — in a classical sari or sashay about in casual bell bottoms, and still look desirable. When she entered a room, heads turned as men stealthily gazed at her while women inspected her style.

Besides being gifted by exotic looks, she was a woman of many talents. Rakhshanda was fluent in five languages. She was the first Pakistani woman to earn a black belt in karate and the second black belt in Jiu-jitsu. This helped her execute her own stunts in an action-packed feature film named Jane Bond 008 in 1971. While her stunts awed audiences, something else captured the attention of the women: The black-and-white Pakistan-Iran collaboration (that included an Iranian producer and male lead actor) featured the young actress wearing a low-waist sari. And such was the impact of her fashion statement that it became a rage with young women to drape saris closer to their hips.

Rakhshanda forayed into the show business when a family friend offered to cast her in a marketing campaign for his products. She did a few projects with him, and when she got noticed by other agencies she exploded into the limelight. She was not represented by a management company or fashion house because such entities did not exist at the time. Advertising agencies were shady and models had to monitor their photo shoots on their own to make sure they were not being used without permission and due payment. Since there were no modeling agencies or styling salons, most models did their own hair, makeup and wardrobe. The typical fees for a modeling photo shoot was somewhere around Rs300, and that too was often delayed or worse, pocketed by the agencies.

That was until her husband, the man who managed to steal her heart from her elite group of admirers, got her more. They were married in 1970. Husain owned a famous jewelry store on Victoria Road, which later became Abdullah Haroon Road, and he designed some of the jewellery that Rakhshanda wore at the posh social gatherings. He would sometimes sell the jewellery by the end of the party, and this never pleased Rakhshanda. He would pacify by her saying, “Don’t worry I’ll make you something much better!” Which he would, but then when these fine pieces of jewelry were displayed on Rakhshanda and the opportunity came to sell, he probably did so.

Rakhshanda and Husain, along with their son Chengis, migrated to Alberta, Canada, at the end of 1979 to be closer to one of Husain’s brothers. Later in 1983, the Javeri family became naturalised Canadian citizens.

The fame and spotlight that Rakhshanda left behind in order to begin life in her new homeland left a vacuum that she filled by turning to designing her own clothes and cooking. She attended the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology and got her red seal in cooking and baking. Usually people specialise in being a chef or a baker, but she mastered both and topped both her classes. Her love for clothes got her working in designer stores. She would go on to become a manager at every store she worked.

Rakhshanda’s love for Pakistan never died and, according to her son Chengis, she came back to Pakistan 22 times in the 30 years since she migrated. She missed the sense of community that came with friends and family. She also missed the Karachi night life, which pretty much waned over the years as political change of the 1980s spread conservatism in society.

Rakhshanda died in her Alberta condo in December 2011. She is survived by her son, who is an artist and actor in Alberta, and her five sisters, four of whom live in Pakistan while the other lives in Texas. Rakhshanda ruled the hearts of millions during her prime, and her departure from the industry left her fans wistful for more. Now that she has taken a final bow from this world, fans like me celebrate the legacy she has left behind. Rakhshanda Khattak, no doubt, was Pakistan’s first super model.

The Express Tribune

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