Visualise a sunset over a 16th century Mughal fort and a 17th century royal mosque. Under this view people in the courtyard of these monuments gather to participate in renditions of one of the most profound and timeless works of Punjabi poetry.
This scene is not a page recreated from Arabian Nights but a distinct feature from the culture and heritage of 'Lahore, Lahore Hai!'
Until the early 1980s, gardens and open spaces in Lahore’s Walled City, served as places where people frequented to break the monotony of their lives as well as take part in cultural activities. Discussion forums, get-togethers and literary renditions by singers and poets in these spaces were a part of their being and life.
Popular folklore like Heer Ranjha was delivered in poetical colours known as Heer Khawani.
Khurshid Ahmed, who spent most of his lifetime in the Walled City, fondly recalls “there were only two books which people had memorized by heart – the Holy Quran and Heer Waris Shah.”
Khurshid, now 63, remembers that the most popular venues for such activities of cultural bondage were Hazoori and Ali Bagh, within the confines of the Lahore Fort.
“Every evening, people would bring chaadars along and sit in groups at Hazoori. The poets would take turns and there was a permanent revered place for them in the courtyard,” he says.
Waris Shah’s version of Heer Ranjha, penned in 1766, earned unrivaled popularity and illuminates the tragedy of two lovers in Punjabi culture. The affinity to this folklore was such that “to forget couplets from Heer was considered a cardinal sin and when singers forgot or made mistakes the listeners were quick to respond and correct them,” laughs Khurshid.
Khurshid also recalls his long gone memories of visiting the abode of another famous Punjabi poet, Ustad Daman, renowned for his political critiques. Daman today is famously recalled as the poet of the Walled City.
“In addition to sharp wit and tongue, Daman was also an accomplished cook,” Khurshid exclaims.
Daman, a tailor by profession, had taken a small room behind the Fort, near Taxali Gate. Renowned poets and artists like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Abdul Rahman Chughtai frequently visited him at his humble abode.
After Daman’s death, a number of his students decided to keep the legacy of Daman and Punjabi poetry alive and converted his abode into the Daman Academy.
Advocate Iqbal Muhammad Iqbal, one of the disciples of Daman, manages this academy today. “Modernisation has made Lahore’s Walled City lose its charm and heritage as the vanishing gardens have confined the activities of its literary society to almost nil.” he says sadly.
“Taxali Bagh has been commercialised. The trees in Nasir Bagh and around Minar-e-Pakistan were destroyed during Zia’s era.”
“Hazoori Bagh, the last remaining gathering place also met a similar fate and thus the literary mehfils came to an end,” he says.
Iqbal's sadness makes sense. Hazoori Bagh is fenced with barbed wire nowadays. While half a dozen gardeners work all day to prepare the lawn for the next Independence Day ceremony or a foreign delegation, the fact of the matter is that it remains closed to the literary circles of the Walled City.
Deputy Director Punjab Archaeology, Maqsood Malik, asserts another perspective: “Times and lives of ordinary people have changed.” This may be a major factor for literary activities vanishing from the cultural fabric of Lahore's Walled City.
“Television, cinema and other activities have replaced the literary sources of entertainment for which Lahore was famous for,” says Malik
Malik views the loss of public places and gardens in the Walled City to 1970s and 80s, which ushered in rapid urbanisation.
All said and done, Lahore still resists changes in its cultural fabric. On Sunday afternoons in a corner of the Lahore Fort, a small group of people gather to recite Heer. However the audience is lacking, indicative of the fact that people of the Walled City no longer consider these activities as a source of cultural bonding.
Perhaps nothing is of permanence – the law of nature remains cardinal.
Taimoor Farouk is a freelance journalist.