Tuesday, July 20

Diamonds that were not forever

Heera Mandi of Lahore is no longer the same. Nirupama Dutt writes about the forbidden yet most sought-after bazaars where women sold their many talents then and now

(Photograph by Noor Mohammad Khan)

Come evening and they would be out in their balconies in the finest of silks and jewels. Their eyes would be lined with kohl and their lops red with dandasa, bark of the walnut there and the most fragrant of eastern perfumes or itars would fill the air. They were known as diamonds and such was their glitter that the whole street would seem studded with stars. These were the courte sans of Heera Mandi of Lahore in the years before Partition in 1947.

Heera mandi was to Lahore what Chowk was to lukcknow, Sonagachi to Calcutta and Bhaindi Bazar to Bombay. These forbidden yet most sought-after bazaars where women sold their many talents were known as kothas. In these abodes lived women, many of them very talented artists, who were nevertheless social outcasts living on the fringes of the society. Interestingly, this place was first known as Tibbi Bazar. And this name is recorded in a Punjabi tappa : Tibbi waliye la de paan ni Teri Tibbi de vich dukan ni

Next it came to be known as Shahi Mohalla and only later did it get the name which lasts till date--heera mandi.

Not all the women on the street traded in flesh. There were three distinct categories: the singers, the dancers and then the most unfortunate ones who sold their bodies for a living.

Selling their produce in Lahore happened to stray into Heera Mandi on their way back. Looking at the beautifully turned out belles, one said to the other: Je rab dhian deve tann aithe deve. Kinj ranian ban baithian ne (if God is to bless one with daughters it should be here. Seen how they sit like queens).

The tale is touching for it reflected the paradox of the society. No one would wish their daughters to reach Heera mandi, yet the lives of daughters of respectable homes were not so evidable either. It was a restricted dumb existence. In some ways the women on the street were more liberated-- they could dress well, dance, sing and live. The patriarchal society divided women thus.
There are still a few old-timers of West Punjab who remember heera mandi in its days of splendour and recall tales which they had heard. Bhag Singh, a Punjab writer and man of culture, goes nostalgic recalling that famous bazaar. He says: "I belonged to Peshawar but when in Lahore for hockey matches with my college students, a few of us would sneak into Heera mandi. It could not be told then for I may have been thrown out of the house in disgrace. I remember having seen the dance of Jaana Mashooq’’.

M.L. Koser, founder of the Pracheen Kala Kendra, also recounts a secret visit or two to the marketplace of diamonds. Men would put cotton buds soaked in itar behind their ears, wear a bracelet of fresh jasmine flowers and go to the kotha allowed to them by their status. I was young and attracted to the arts, being a dancer in the making myself, I never had the courage to enter a kotha. But the cinema halls in these areas used to present the dances of nautch girls during night shows’’, recalls Koser.
An advertisement for the special film shows which would include live song and dance performances, by cinema houses like Minerva, Grown and Rose would read thus: "Adhai aane mein teen maze’’. The performers would be from the lower rungs because the high class tawaifs never played to the gallery. Their mujra was only for the royalty, nobility and rich business class.

The well-known tawaifs were women of learning, culture and dignity. Many of them were trained in music by the best ustads of the time. In turn these women made great contribution to music and dance. Sardar Bai of Lahore was a famous singer who had learnt music from Ustad fateh Ali Khan. Pointing out their dignity as women, Bhag Singh says: "They were queens of etiquette or saleeka as we call it. If a customer passed out after having one too many while listening to ghazals, they would put him in a giest room and the lady of the house would keep his purse with her, lest the servants took away some money and it would be returned to him the next day.’’

Tawaif was a word in Persian synonymous with ganika in Sanskrit. The oriental system was one of codification and the world’s oldest profession was no exception even here there was an order of merit and excellence. A ganika was a woman who had achieved excellence in arts, intellect and etiquette. The fames Amrapali, the nagar-badhu of Vaishali, was a ganika at her best.
A ganika came from the Hindu tradition and a tawaif from the Muslim tradition with patronage coming from Mughal courts. It was Aurangzeb who tried to bury forever the arts of music and dance. In Punjab the religious reformist movements lent a harsh blow to the dignity and profession of singers and dancers. The Arya Samaj and the Singh Sabha lehar condemned them. And so even Hindu and Sikh women who joined this profession took up muslim names. The decline of princedom and withdrawal of royal patronage was responsible for royal patronage was responsible for many of these artists being forced to sell their bodies.
Heera Mandi of Lahore was the cultural centre of Punjab, the very hub of performing arts in their glory, but other cities and towns top had tawaifs. Patiala, Amritsar, Malerkotla, Ludhiana, Jagraon, Ambala and even the small town of Balachaur had some of the legendary tawaifs.

With partition, most of these women migrated. Flesh trade continues in Punjab but kothas are no longer there. A low-level of entertainment continues by disco dancers of orchestra groups but these artists have no roots in the classical traditions of dance and music.

These women from different parts of the country were pioneering artistes on the radio, the stage and films. Among them were Begum Akhtar, Noorjehan, Malika pukhraj, Zohrabai Ambalewali, Amirbai Kamataki, Kamla Jharia, Shamshad Begum, Khurshid and even the greatly acclaimed Girija Devi.

A sarangi player of Chandigarh, Ismail Bechain, had the privilege of playing sarangi in his early youth with some of the well-known bais of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Among them was the great singer Mushtari bai of Agra Gharana. She could sing the three saptaks and play magnificently the harmonium and the tabla. And such was her status that if an ordinary man tried to get to her, she would waive him off by saying "pehale meri baal banana wali se baar karo aur phir mujh tak aao" (first talk to my hair dresser and then come to me).
At barimam, near Rawalpindi, there used to be an annual cultural festival of tawaifs for which preparations would be made all year round. The best of music and dance would be available to all as these performances were not restricted to nobility.
Prof yashpal, Reader, Department of Music, panjab University, Chandigarh, Says: "The kotha tradition made the most significant contribution to contemporary Hindustani music and dance. There were patrons of great musicians-Munnijan bai of Heera mandi, Lahore, financed and supported ustad Amir Khan in his early career. Ustad Amir khan is known as the famous exponent of the Kirana Gharana of Indore. He later married Raeena, daughter of Mushtari bai. In the entire music world if anyone is asked who was the woman behind his success, the answer is : Munnija of course."

Then and Now
Heera mandi still exists in Lahore but the glory of the old world is gone. The diamonds that were traded here were not forever but the legends remain.

From a cultural hub that nurtured many an artiste, Heera Mandi has changed into a ghetto that thwarts the spirit of women.

For centuries, Heera Mandi in Lahore nurtured some outstanding performing artistes, including the famous Noorejahan, Khurshid, Shamshad Begum, Mumtaz Shanti and many others. Most of the early film actresses for pre-Partition Lahore cinema came from the kothas of Heera Mandi. The art of music in Punjab was confined to the streets of the courtesans with Heera Mandi taking the lead as the largest settlement in the cultural capital of the state in undivided Punjab.

Looking back and recalling a well-known courtesan Tamancha Jaan, Pran Nevile, a chronicler of Lahore, says, "My maiden visit to Tamancha Jaan’s salon at Heera Mandi was in 1945 with my friend Saeed Ahmed. We were seated on white sheets spread out on carpets with gaav takias (bolster pillows) supporting our backs. The room was fragrant with fresh flowers and incense sticks. The music played and Tamancha Jaan sang in her sonorous voice enchanting our young hearts."

However, those days are gone by for classical arts are no longer to be found in the kothas of Heera Mandi. It is a leg shake and more to popular music and flesh trade that have become the hallmarks of these streets in the shadow of the imposing dome and minarets of the pink stone of the Badshahi Masjid.

The only reason for the elite to visit the area unabashed is the restaurant that painter Iqbal Hussain has made in the haveli, which was the salon of his mother, aunts and elder sisters. Called the ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’, it is decorated with the paintings of the Heera Mandi done by Hussain and also quaint arty knick-knacks as well as statuettes of Virgin Mary, Buddha and Hanuman.
During a recent visit to Pakistan, we visited one of the salons in the company of some Lahoris. No longer are the white sheets, gaav takias nor incense sticks to be found there, neither the melodious unfolding of the ghazal. What one finds is very different and sad.

In the first salon behind the ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’, we find four girls with painted faces sitting on a sofa facing the outer door vacant eyed. Our escort says in embarrassment, "These ladies have come from Hindustan and want to talk to you." We are quickly pushed in and the door banged shut. The four young girls with made up faces spring and line themselves against the wall. The oldest of them must be just 25 and the youngest is barely 14. The musicians sitting on the floor start singing a loud pop-Punjabi number and the oldest joins them in the not-so-melodious singing. The second oldest quickly wears anklets on her feet and starts doing a cabaret number of sorts in her back body-clinging synthetic shirt and straight pajama. The two younger ones with garishly made-up faces stand glued to the wall, afraid and awkward. It is a moment of relief that the song ends and the haggling for money ends and a toughie opens the door. Outside a crowd of the street boys have gathered to see the strange women coming to watch mujra.

Little wonder that sadness marks the paintings of Hussain even when his subjects are wearing red and gold. A set of paintings under the title of "Silent Fears" have been made into cards by a Lahore-based NGO that is doing work against AIDS. In another very telling painting "Privacy", two women in rose-pink nightgowns lie in repose on a rumbled blue bed-spread. "Reflection" is another sad painting in which girls are shown against a mirror, depicting a perpetual wait for better times. Many of these women are called out to dance parties where they do a striptease and are often raped and even their earnings are stolen from them.

Hussain paints the plight of these women with despair and despondency. "Many land here from rural areas because their parents couldn’t marry them off for the reason that they didn’t have money to give them customary dowry," the painter says, "Some try to break out of their vicious lives of poverty to make more money as sex workers only to find a stark and harsh reality of such an existence."

Hussain’s own mother Nawab and aunts migrated from the Nimmanwali Haveli in the Dharampura Bazaar of Patiala to Heera Mandi. He would have been yet another street boy of the notorious colony if he did not have a talent for drawing. Now he looks after all the women of his family and his own children are getting good education. But such breakthroughs are rare. Hussain says, "I think if I hadn’t been painting, I would have committed suicide."

Hussain has been active in getting women to escape these environments if they can. He also plans to open a food street like the one in Gwalmandi that women have options to start other business.

His paintings at first created controversy but now these are appreciated and one of his works fetched phenomenal amount at an auction at Sotheby’s. At the ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ hangs a portrait of a local woman with her wrists and ankles bound in penitence at Muharram. Hussain says that his subjects always break into tears as he paints them.

Deprived of support from other men, they often turn to him for help because he is the one who flew over the ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’. Iqbal Hussain has done for this red light area in visuals what Saadat Hasan Manto had done in words.

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