From Heera Mandi to Bazaar-i-Husn, Pakistan's red-light districts teeter on the cusp of extinction

EOS revisits four bustling cantonment areas the Raj patronised to discover a Mughal-era tradition on the decline.
Updated 04 May, 2017 10:36am

Despite the fall of the Mughals, red light areas and their court heritage found patronage from the Raj.

The British colonisers found these places exotic and exciting — dance, music, style and seduction from the Orient gave birth to tales that spread far and wide.

Over the years, red-light districts have been squeezed and suffocated.

EOS revisits four bustling cantonments that the Raj patronised to discover a Mughal-era tradition that is on the cusp of extinction.

Click on the tabs below to explore Pakistan's red light districts.

The diamond of Lahore has dulled

Old properties in Heera Mandi have been renovated and reused as restaurants and other shops. Photos by Xari Jalil and Murtaza Ali, M Arif / White Star
Old properties in Heera Mandi have been renovated and reused as restaurants and other shops. Photos by Xari Jalil and Murtaza Ali, M Arif / White Star

I still remember my first time,” says Jugnu*, her face pale under the white tubelight of her cramped room.

“I was only 13 but was dressed to the nines. I wore jewellery and makeup, and even though I was told I looked beautiful, I felt shy and embarrassed and did not want to go dance.”

Jugnu’s paternal aunt, who was a dancer like Jugnu but had retired by then, had a talk with her niece to settle her nerves.

“She said, this is our family profession and that our women had been doing it for ages. Why should I feel ashamed of it? As she spoke, something inside me began to melt. Slowly I felt much better.”

She remembers entering the small room called the ‘time-kamra’ or ‘office’. Two or three ‘tamashbeen’ [spectators] sat there, while her own troupe — the musicians and her aunt — accompanied her.

It was a small private baithak [gathering], and once Jugnu began her dance she forgot all her fears. “I don’t remember which song I danced to,” she grins, flashing paan-stained teeth under her dark lips.

“But I do remember it was Madam’s song.”

Aside from being a red-light area, Heera Mandi was once renowned for culture and courtship in the Mughal tradition

Like all dancing girls in the Shahi Mohallah, or specifically in the red light district called Heera Mandi, there is a money-throwing ritual at dance performances.

Back in those days, the going rate for a new dancer would have been around 400 to 500 rupees. But Jugnu danced so well that she herself got around 2,500 rupees.

“That means Rs25,000 each — for everyone in that room,” she says. “We always distribute equally after a baithak.”

Jugnu still retains her attraction but has become a little plump, after bearing two children with different men – which can be a downfall for dancing girls.

It is possible to think that this woman could have done better by making a living out of dancing. But after official sanction against red light districts, her family, like many others, moved away to another neighbouring area known as Baagh Munshi Ladda.

It is now also known as the ‘new Heera Mandi’ although nothing in the new locality is reminiscent of the old area.

To call it a baagh [garden] is an overstatement, however.

Jugnu’s own house is windowless and grotty. With four children and three adults as occupants, it is in a constant state of disarray.

Her room is cramped and empty but for a whirring pedestal fan, a very thin and stained mattress and pillow, and tiny oil lamps sitting in a row on a bare concrete shelf.

For Jugnu’s mother Zeba*, who is from Gujrat but was married to a man known only superficially to her father, it was a shock to discover that her in-laws were from a paisha [vocation] that was considered taboo.

“But in Kanjar families, daughters-in-law are not meant to carry on the tradition of singing and dancing,” says Zeba, now 47.

“So my other two daughters were trained in singing, but they both died. Now I only have Jugnu.”

There are two majority communities who reside and work in Heera Mandi. One of them is the Kanjars, whose women carry on the tradition of singing and dancing.

The other is Mirasis — musicians and trainers of the Kanjar women. Irrespective of whether they sell their bodies, however, Kanjar women are viewed as prostitutes even though that might not always be the case.

“A girl’s birth brings celebrations,” says Zeba. “When a boy is born, however, there is sorrow. Even today, it is Jugnu who is the breadwinner of this family.

She is taking care of her own children as well as her sisters. Her brother only earns daily wages.”

Like all Kanjar women, Jugnu too has been ‘married’ but without a nikahnama [certificate of marriage].

She has had a business contract with the three or four men she married, which she says lasts for a night in return for a large sum of money.

“My father arranged it with a gold businessman the first time, and he paid around 30,000 rupees for it. Even our servants were paid 5,000 rupees each.

I was only 13 and embarrassed, hurt and scared. But I got over it fast.”

Like all such men, that businessman too did not return.

“It was not easy for a man to come too close to a woman in a kotha back in those days,” she says. “We were surrounded by our tabla player, sheesha player, dhol wala, naika [a senior woman chaperone], and the flower man would come and so did the money seller,” she says.

“There was a courtship ritual in getting to know the woman first and then coming closer. The man could not just use and abuse. We were protected by our community.”

A regal fixation

Even today, the idea of Heera Mandi remains as exotic as ever to most.

Many believe that even now, they might catch a sight of some dancing girls or perhaps hear a mujra in the distance.

It seems thrilling and adventurous, tinged with the secrecy of illicit excitement.

Other old properties have been put up for sale.─Photos by Xari Jalil and Murtaza Ali, M Arif / White Star
Other old properties have been put up for sale.─Photos by Xari Jalil and Murtaza Ali, M Arif / White Star

But today, a trip down the lane opposite the regal Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort shows that the age-old culture of the bazaar has vanished.

In its place now are shoe shops and warehouses, many of them manufacturing set-ups.

All the buildings which once used to be kothas are now decrepit, dusty skeletons. The time-kamra is now just home to piles of sawdust and leather.

“Local culture and music are important for all civilisations,” says Mian Yousuf Salahuddin, better known as Yousuf Salli. “But the way ours was killed off, it is indeed a very tragic thing.”

Salli lives smack in the centre of the Taxali gate area.

His ancestral Haveli Barood Khana was originally built by the Sikhs during their rule in Punjab and was meant for storing gun-powder, weapons and ammunition, hence its name.

But after the first Muslim mayor of Lahore, Mian Amiruddin, bought it in 1870, the haveli has stayed in the family and has been passed down generation after generation.

If Salli’s paternal grandfather was the mayor, then his maternal grandfather was the great poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal.

And through the times, Salli has become renowned for being an unofficial patron of the arts and culture.

“Good singers are not easy to find anymore,” argues Salli. He talks of the great musicians who came out of this area, including Ustad Taafu, whose entire family still lives at Bhaati Gate — a place famous for musicians’ residences and music shops.

“There was Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Fateh Ali Khan, Amanat Ali Khan,” he says.

Besides there were some great gaikas (women singers) including Farida Khanum and Noor Jahan who received their training from the ustads here.

In the old days, kotha singing had a very particular style of ghazal singing. It was more experimental and flexible — a slight step further than that of ‘thumri’.

“If you really want to see that ghungroo dance or listen to that calibre of singing again, you cannot find it,” argues Salli.

After the Zia regime when all this was banned, there was obviously economic depression in the area,” says Dara Anjum, historian and Director of the Lahore Fort.

“Building owners who were charging, say 5,000 rupees in rent from a Kanjar family, were not being paid timely because business for the Kanjar community was slow. When other businessmen like the shoe manufacturers offered double the rent, the building owners were forced to evict their tenants.”

There was a third and worse option — dropping to the lowest of the low and selling sex for however much it took.

But because Kanjar girls knew the skill of performing arts, many were picked to go to the film industry.

Others became renowned singers. The ones who weren’t as talented simply moved out. Some including Jugnu even tried their luck at dancing in the Middle East.

Although most people refer to General Ziaul Haq’s Islamicisation drive for cracking down on prostitution in the area, Fouzia Saeed in her groundbreaking research book titled Taboo! The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area says that it was General Ayub Khan who placed severe restrictions on the activities in the Shahi Mohallah.

Later on, only the musicians and dancers were allowed back to perform for a restricted time.

Since Tibbi Gali, one of the major by-lanes housing brothels, did not offer any performing arts, it could never reopen for mere prostitution.

Saeed writes in her book that every regime since then has retained the policy but it was strictly enforced by the police under General Zia.

“Bazaar-i-Husn moved many times before it reached Heera Mandi here,” says Salli.

“Before this it used to be at Purani Anarkali and also Choona Mandi. The basic fact is that in those days, there was no radio or TV and obviously live singing was the only entertainment among all classes of people.”

In those times, singers were held in such high esteem that they were given associations from their place of birth.

From Akhtari Bai Faizabadi (later known as Begum Akhtar) to Khurshid Bai Hujrowali, who was Iqbal’s favourite and was known for singing Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa, these gaikas won the hearts of many.

But despite the cultural capital being provided by Heera Mandi, Salli remembers when the curtains began dropping in the baithak doorways during General Zia’s regime.

In the 1988 by-elections after the rise of the PML-N, several people working at the kothas were picked up overnight and held in custody.

“That was the turning point. I was an MPA at the time with Jahangir Badr was the MNA. Although our area was the Data Darbar, we both tried to explain to the police and authorities to let those poor people go.”

Was the government successful in its objectives?

“They talk about shutting down prostitution in Heera Mandi,” says Salli, “And I am not supporting sex work, but today half of Gulberg and Defence have become Heera Mandis in their own way.”

Death of an economy

Tablanawaz Tauqueer Hussain hails from the Mirasi community of Heera Mandi.

He began playing the tabla at the age of 13 and laughs out aloud when he is asked to remember the good old days.

“Thank heavens my father made me learn a different skill,” says the now 50-year-old. “Nowadays I fix musical instruments.”

Hussain owns a cramped shop outside Tibbi Market, and his son helps him too, along with studying and expanding into the DJ business.

But for Hussain, his soul and spirit were playing the tabla in an atmosphere where it was appreciated.

“At least 200 people were involved in every dancing session: the audience,” he claims. “These included the flower boy, the money seller, the musicians and the dancer.”

Tablanawaz Tauqeer Hussain's shop. ─Photos by M Arif / White Star
Tablanawaz Tauqeer Hussain's shop. ─Photos by M Arif / White Star

Indeed, the artists and musicians from Heera Mandi all lament the slow suffocation faced by the red light district.

While the trained lot found one opportunity or another, a newer generation of dancers and musicians also emerged. The older lot accuses them of having cheapened the art.

For instance, Jugnu’s voice drips of derision as she speaks of the new breed of dancing women. “We were taught by great musicians, and every sur and taal of their tabla was studied,” she says.

“We moved according to these beats. We earned with our feet. Today these dou-numberies [copycats] are doing vulgar dances.”

And what of the events she performs at?

“In private gatherings, we encounter the worst of the lot,” says Jugnu. “Most men behave with us as if we are ordinary whores.”

In the few brothels that have survived, much of the activity happens under the shadows. ─Photos by M Arif/White Star
In the few brothels that have survived, much of the activity happens under the shadows. ─Photos by M Arif/White Star

End of an era

It is often said that the women of the red light district are in command of their sexuality as well as their skills in art. But today, the demand for something crasser has come up and even they cannot do anything about it.

“Today men — who are our market — do not want art. They do not wish to woo the women here in the grand old tradition,” says Jugnu. “Today all they look for is instant sexual gratification, and that is what has resulted in a desolate Heera Mandi. [Our clients] used to come only to be in our company, to see an art being performed live.”

But the fact of the matter is that the market itself has changed. Nobody seems to want these women’s company any more. High culture left the area and was replaced by a crass demand for sexual services.

It is for this reason that the dark, shadowy area of Tibbi Gali is still dotted with girls as young as 15 and women as old as 60, toothless and wrinkled, standing in the doorways beckoning any man who passes by.

So desperate are they to make ends meet that some will have sex with strangers for as low as 100 rupees.

Others charge much less, as low as five rupees in some cases.

The exchange purposely happens in the dark, often behind a grimy curtain, so that the faces and bodies of the prostitutes are hidden and their age cannot be ascertained.

Zeba sums up the situation aptly: “Heeron ka bazaar aaj mochion ka bazaar ban gaya hay [The bazaar of diamonds has been relegated to a bazaar of cobblers].”

*Names changed to protect privacy.

The writer is a member of staff.

She tweets @XariJalil

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 30th, 2017

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Under the covers in Peshawar

It is broad day light. A middle-aged Nargis combs her thin, spiky hair as she gets ready for work. Her workplace isn’t far away; conveniently it is the upper storey of her 7-marla house in Peshawar’s Hayatabad township.

Her family members, including two young daughters, are not allowed to come upstairs.

None of her customers or workers are allowed to go downstairs to the residential quarters of the two-storey house.

This arrangement perhaps also has to do with nature of her work.

Her customers like to keep their privacy and her workers are also not ordinary — they are sex-workers.

There is no sign or indication to specify the quiet homely looking place is operating as a brothel.

Customers sneak in during the daytime, choose a woman of their liking, and hire her services for a few thousand rupees (usually between Rs3,000 and Rs10,000) and leave afterwards.

Nargis manages to work and live in the same tiny building by simply abiding by her strict rules.

Sex-workers who like to make some money in the daytime usually prefer working at Nargis’ place. The customers are quick and there is less hassle.

As night falls, the unregulated underground sex business picks up — especially at weekends — but it is an environment loaded against sex-workers.

Commercial sex work has scattered across the city

No specific red-light districts exist in Peshawar today.

There is, however, a brief mention of such a bazaar in Tareekh-i-Peshawar [History of Peshawar] that was penned by the famous historian Munshi Gopal Daas in 1869.

The book mentions a small bazaar or street called the Thatti Bazaar which was adjacent to the famous Qissa Khwani Bazaar.

“There is this bazaar called the Thatti Bazaar where singers , dancing girls and sex-workers live. This is a happening place,” wrote Munshi Gopal Daas.

Thatti Bazaar was renamed as Islamabad Bazaar after Partition, but today, it has none of its historic features as it is now crowded with Chitrali cap sellers and known for it.

Gone are the days when a mohalla (neighbourhood) in Peshawar’s main Saddar market was renowned for a particular “aunty” who was in the pleasure business and many elite customers benefited from her residential facility.

Only the flower shops in a corner of the street serve as a reminder of how people would buy fragrant flowers as they entered the red-light area.

The business has spread to various parts of the city despite its illegality.

Even women in their 40s roam around the streets and busy roads of Peshawar to lure customers day and night.

For the ordinary onlooker, it is unbelievable that a middle-aged woman wearing a dirty shuttle-cork burqa and dressed like a maid is actually a sex-worker.

But in truth, she serves low-income groups including gardeners, drivers and watchmen.

One such woman is known by her nick-name, Tandoor, to her regulars.

“As low as 500 rupees but can go up to 3,000,” says one customer on condition of anonymity about the rates charged by these mobile sex workers.

Older, uneducated women tend to end up on the street but educated and young women usually find employment at parties and gatherings held at night.

They also charge more than the mobile sex workers.

But customers have their own complaints against these women in the worlds’ oldest profession. They complain most of the time these girls just rip you off.

“Many times a woman who is hired for an evening or a party for sums as high as 20,000 to 40,000 rupees act unprofessionally,” claims Nadeem, who has been using the services of sex-workers every now and then.

“They come late for the evening. They are on their phones all the time. Instead of talking to their friends, they should be entertaining the client. But instead of them entertaining you, you have to entertain them (sex-workers).”

But what compels these women to adopt selling sex as a profession?

A family in some debt or crisis, such as a bread-winner’s untimely death, makes women of the family an easy prey for brothel ‘aunties’ in the neighbourhood.

They whisper to the mothers to send their daughters to work and no one has to know.

In other instances, married women are forced into profession by their lazy, unemployed husbands.

Since there is nowhere to go and they are stuck with the husband due to kids, they continue with the profession.

An element of coercion is always there but sex-workers who get involved in this illegal and unregulated business often find it hard to get out.

Some lucky ones may find a benefactor at times who provides them a handsome monthly payment in exchange for exclusivity.

I have told my family that I am working in a beauty parlour. But my mother knows what I am doing”, says Maryam, aged 20.

In the case of Hina, mother to two, it was her husband’s loss in business which pushed her into commercial sex work.

Although she is educated, she was forced to chuck away her degree and utilise her dancing skills to earn a livelihood.

She got lucky that she recently found a rich customer to provide her a monthly stipend in exchange for exclusivity.

She didn’t reveal how much she was charging but is relieved that she doesn’t have to work every night now.

Some women who were unlucky in love just continued to utilize sex as a source of income.

“I fell for a guy who abandoned me after using me, so Aunty Nargis encouraged me to make [selling sex] my profession,” says Irum*, a student and part-time sex-worker who still dreams of completing her education and finding a better job.

Her parents living in their village have no idea about the line of work their daughter has gotten into in the city.

Sex workers such as Irum hail from different far-flung areas and usually live with a pimp in the city. They either get paid by the pimp or get a share from the money she earns.

“I have told my family that I am working in a beauty parlour. But my mother knows what I am doing”, says Maryam, a 20-year old sex-worker and dancer living with an aunty.

She doesn’t have any education but she dreams of going to Dubai to earn more like other girls by working as a dancer at a club.

Even as she talks, exhaustion is visible on her face. It becomes clear that Maryam has been doing drugs to keep herself awake and make as much money as she can each night.

“Get me a pill [of ecstasy], then I will dance all night,” she insists.

Her tender age means that the type of clientele Maryam caters to is more high-end.

Women are often forced to have pleasure-enhancing drugs such as ecstasy, ice and cocaine if the customers are using them.

And sometimes, she is forced to mix many intoxicants and consume it — on occasion with injurious consequences.

In a few cases, sex-workers and dancers have ended up at Peshawar’s private rehab facilities after getting addicted to drugs such as ice.

With the easy availability of cheap and dangerously adulterated hard party drugs in Peshawar’s underground market, the dice is stacked against the sex worker.

They get addicted to drugs they can hardly afford, both physically and financially.

They get abused by rowdy customers and exploited by their pimps who take more of the share of their hard-earned income.

There have also been instances where over-worked sex-workers have collapsed after over-dosing. “One customer once died too at a party,” says Naz, a sex-worker based in Peshawar.

As with all other unregulated sectors of our socioeconomic milieu, sex business in Peshawar is loaded against the worker in terms of financial, physical and health-related risks.

From their fake names and excuses, sex-workers wearing heavy make-up and shiny outfits try to hide the unhappiness and exhaustion of their profession.

*Names changed to protect privacy and anonymity

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 30th, 2017

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In Hyderabad, Husn has left the bazar

One of the few brothels in Heera Mandi that has survived. ─Photos by Xari Jalil and Murtaza Ali, M Arif/White Star
One of the few brothels in Heera Mandi that has survived. ─Photos by Xari Jalil and Murtaza Ali, M Arif/White Star

Ab yahan pehlay wala koi nizam nahin [the old brothel system doesn’t exist anymore],” says a pimp in Hyderabad’s Bazaar-i-Husn [literally, the Beauty Bazaar], the historic red-light district of the city.

He looks down at the simmering hot cup of tea just served to him, before quickly searching for the contact number of a senior sex worker on his costly Note 5 mobile phone.

“Mobile phones have made things easier for everyone. People are no longer dependent on one madam or man,” says the pimp.

“The time has long gone when a man or woman would provide sex workers to a certain party. You can now get pictures of prostitutes on WhatsApp before striking a deal.”

Nostalgia is what remains of the city’s historic brothels

The pimp’s description of activities in today’s Bazaar-i-Husn is beautifully apt. The bazaar today can be described as a slum with a labyrinth of tiny lanes.

Children of prostitutes play in the lanes and men gather at a square near Khaki Shah’s shrine in the locality’s midst. Brand new cars of sex workers are parked wherever space is available.

But it is no longer a bazaar that was frequented by nawabs and other patrons of the arts.

A few blocks of multi-storeyed buildings and duplexes still exist to remind people of the heydays of the bazaar. But dance and melody have left, as have many whose artistic talent could not be restricted to the bazaar alone.

The brothel survives in some forms, however, as sex workers, young and old, maintain pace with the times to keep business going.

Many have turned to social media to broaden their customer base. And clientele, according to the pimp, is expanding.

“Look at these pictures,” the pimp gestures to his phone. “This is Sohail Manzil (1973). This is the old residence of another movie star, Khawar alias Chakori.”

Such structures would otherwise be indiscernible. But many of them are birthplaces of Sindhi and Pakistani film stars.

While some celebrities lived here before they emerged on the horizon of the big screen in the 1970s-1980s, nostalgia occasionally brings a few former residents back to the area, particularly during the month of Muharram.

Tabassum*, erstwhile stage artist and contemporary of Chakori (of the Maula Jatt fame) and Mahpara, laments the area’s lost charm and glamour. “Ab yahan kuch nahi hota [Nothing happens here anymore],” she cribs as she relates how sex workers have scattered to different areas and cities.

The bazaar lost its splendour sometime in the late 1970s.

In that bygone era, young women would loiter in the balconies and comb their hair while striking poses for onlookers. They would gesture and entice potential clients to venture inside. Such mannerisms had a certain attraction for the client.

While there were always those men who’d turn up to fulfil their lust, many others with a taste for aesthetics would gather at the bazaar for mujra (dance).

Dancing women would lay out clean, white sheets on their abodes’ upper storey rooms.

Musical instruments such as the tabla, dhol and harmonium would be arranged by musicians as would pillows of various shapes and sizes. These were gatherings for cultured men.

Then came a famous police raid in November, 1974 that put an end to raqs-o-suroor (dance and music) in the area.

It was carried out during the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto regime, after religious leaders objected to the red light district being in proximity with the popular Medina Mosque in Hyderabad’s oldest Seroghat area.

Hundreds of prostitutes and dancing girls were huddled into police trucks during the raid — this marked the beginning of the bazaar’s fateful demise.

Although dance and music had ended, prostitution continued. But another raid in the mid-1990s ended that practice too. Since then, the sex business of the bazaar has survived only in a clandestine manner.

The locality’s present inhabitants come from sub-class of the Punjabi community, the Nutt.

They used to either be associated with circus shows or were nomads, say neighbours who live in the brothel’s surroundings and know much about the area’s past and present.

“What makes Nutts different from the earlier residents is culture and mannerism, which was the former’s hallmark,” says Salamat Feroz, a resident of Wadhho Ka Pir.

Salamat’s father is Sindh’s top musician, late Feroz Gul, who also mentored the iconic Abida Parveen. Girls and women passionate about singing used to approach Gul to learn singing.

Meanwhile, among the top dance teachers of the locality was Mairaj Hussain alias Raju Samrat. He is 60 years old now.

“Kabhi ujrat nahi mangi in logon sey [I never charged them a penny],” says Raju as his youngest son helps him sip tea while he speaks.

The veteran choreographer has lost his eyesight due to cataract but not his art. He still trains dancers if hired. “Ab USB ka zamana hai,” he laughs and says prostitutes learn dance on their own.

“I remember one malka [brothel’s madam] protesting during the police raid, saying ‘tawaif or khan-gi ko alag karo’ [separate the dancing women from the prostitutes],” he says.

Sex workers are, indeed, keeping pace with present era and making fortunes. It is evident from their graceful demeanour and luxurious lifestyle.

Affluent men in many cases bear their monthly expenses —known as kharcha in brothel jargon — and they are under obligation not to sleep with anyone else.

Vo Nawabshah key heyn jinkey kharchey per hun main [The one who bears my expenses is from Nawabshah],” says Alishah, an adolescent prostitute, after extending a confident handshake.

Her face is slathered in makeup while she wears a resplendent dark blue embroidered shalwar kameez.

Using expensive iPhone-7 and Note-5 mobiles, she says, is her hobby. “Aik maango chhay de jaatay heyn [I ask for one but they offer six],” she says while alluding to her wealthy ‘friends’.

Alisha studied till seventh grade and also hinted at moving from the brothel to Autobhan Road, one of Hyderabad’s premiere real state locations.

Flat dhoondh rahay heyn Autobhan Road par [We are searching for an apartment on Autobhan Road],” she says as her mother keeps on giving tips to her on what to say during the conversation.

Back in 1993, 67-year-old Syed Sarwar Nadeem, Hyderabad’s noted stage drama writer and journalist, had written ‘Kala Bazaar’ on brothel life in Hyderabad. He explains that their prostitution is not sans principles.

“A daughter-in-law in a family will never be a prostitute but her own daughter will certainly be,” he says.

He claims that the son of a Balochistan tribal chief from the Bugti clan, a politician who served as Sindh’s chief minister and a present day PPP leader during his student’s life used to frequent the red light area.

But things have changed now. With distinguished personalities no longer frequenting the district as often, the locality is now dotted with mounds of garbage, broken civic infrastructure and overflowing gutters.

“This situation is in sharp contrast to the cleanliness we experienced in the 1970s-1980s,” says Tabassum.

Today, even the various approaches to the brothel have been shut down and the brothel’s territory has been greatly squeezed.

Bazaar-i-Husn now resembles a compound since walls were raised to segregate it from other nearby localities.

But while the walls have gone up, the sex trade has left the bazaar and made its way to other locales.

Many sex workers have now bought properties elsewhere while older properties in the bazaar have been sold.

Husn might have left the bazaar but it still resides in Hyderabad.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 30th, 2017

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The nightingales of Multan

Legend has it that there was a time when Multan city would go indoors as the sun set but the historic red-light district, Bazaar-i-Husn, would come alive.

At the time, the bazaar was all about the art of singing, playing South Asian classical musical instruments, and of course, dance.

The audience were not ordinary frolickers but fans of raag, saaz and dance.

And it is this culture of music appreciation that produced the likes of Iqbal Bano and Aziz Mian Qawwal.

“A sea of people would throng the streets of the red-light area after sunset,” says 72-year-old Mama Mirza Saeed, as his voice trembles with emotion.

“If someone slipped, they would get trampled under the feet of the crowd.”

Bazaar-i-Husn is situated on Nishat Road, outside the Harram Gate. A narrow, winding Bansaan Wali Gali used to be the downtown of the district.

“Until the 1960s, the area would echo with singing and dance performances from sunset till dawn,” says Mama.

“In the 1970s, curbs were imposed by the government. The bazaar could only open at 9pm and had to close at 11pm.”

Despite Iqbal Bano and Aziz Mian Qawwal becoming household names, others kept the bazaar buzzing

But the bazaar survived the restrictions.

“There were 150 kothas back then,” recalls Mama, who has lived in the locality since birth. “The 1970s to 1980s were the bazaar’s peak period.”

The canary in her pomp, Surraiya Multanikar. Her daughter, Rahar, is carrying her legacy forward.
The canary in her pomp, Surraiya Multanikar. Her daughter, Rahar, is carrying her legacy forward.

Indeed, the bazaar’s most famous children started coming to the limelight around the same time.

Although Mama has watched the performances of legendary singers Badru Multani, Surraiya Multanikar, Mina Lodhi, Badru Multani (Chhoti) and Mai Mauti at their houses located in the nearby streets of the main bazaar, there were other nightingales that rose to mainstream fame from the lanes of Bazaar-i-Husn.

And sometimes, the stories of their romantic lives travelled as far and wide as their melodious voices.

“Poet Qateel Shifai fell in love with Iqbal Bano after listening to her song Payal Mein Geet Hain Chham Chham Ke, which was penned by Saifuddin Saif,” explains poet and writer Shakir Hussain Shakir.

“After that, Qateel Sahib started writing songs while keeping Iqbal Bano’s voice in mind.”

Shifai’s attraction to Iqbal Bano continued to grow and during one of his trips to Multan, he invited her to visit Lahore and perform there.

Soon after, film director Syed Sibtain Fazli suggested that the couple get wedded.

“The nikahkhwan was called to Mr Fazli’s house and Iqbal Bano arrived at her wedding ceremony from Radio Pakistan where she had recorded a song in bridal dress,” says Shakir.

“Mr Fazli asked the couple to decide their terms and conditions before the nikah. Iqbal Bano said she has no prior condition other than Qateel Sahib letting her work for two years after their marriage. Qateel Sahib responded that since it was her singing which brought him close to her, he will not object to her singing, but refused to allow her to perform in peoples’ houses after they got married. Qateel Sahib left Mr Fazli’s house in a huff.”

“Aziz Mian Qawwal married Tasleem Malka who was from Tulamba but was living in Multan,” explains Qasim Raza, a historian with a research interest in the red-light district of Multan.

Among the tales that he discovered in the bazaar are the various relationships and romances of the bazaar’s nightingales. “Musarrat Bano was the auntie of Naheed Akhtar, for example. Manzooraan Bahawalpuri was the mother of Anjuman,” explains Raza.

“Ustad Ghulam Nabi Khan was the mentor of Surraiyya Multanikar while Ustad Bari Khan trained most of the female of artists of this bazaar. Ustad Koray Khan was the teacher of Mina Lodhi, who was the most beautiful artist of the bazaar. Ustad Karim Khan performed as a musician with Agha Hashar for theatre.”

Residents of the bazaar were so well-off that they would donate crowns made with 100 tolas gold for religious processions.

And these are not all the legends thrown up by Multan’s red-light area. Other prominent names include Kundan Lal Saigal, Badru Multani, Jamila Lodhi, Roshan Ara Begum, Mai Badali, Shamshad Bano, Ustad Mashoqay Khan, Master Inayat Hussain, Master Abdullah, and Ustad Bari Khan.

“The red-light district of Multan has remained the hub of artistic activities for centuries,” explains Raza. “The exact period of its establishment is not known. However, it existed when Muhammad Bin Qasim invaded Multan in 714.”

Through the times, the bazaar remained in business as kothas would host local nawabs and feudal lords. Commoners were supposed to stand outside the kotha to listen to singing performances.

Dance performances were usually a closed-door affair for the nobility of the area; they would be held only briefly for commoners.

“In the beginning, the name of bazaar was Trab Bazaar and it was located somewhere outside the Qila Kuhna Qasim Bagh,” claims renowned Seraiki poet Riffat Abbas.

“Only later on was it shifted to its current location.” Abbas adds that feudals of the surrounding localities would consider it a pride to own a house in and around the bazaar.

“The families residing here had strict codes and harsh practice regimens,” says Raza. “This was put in place so that practitioners of art would be at their supreme best before their audience.”

The better the exposition, the more remuneration they could earn. “Residents of the bazaar were so well-off that they would donate crowns made with 100 tolas gold for religious processions.”

According to the historian, the first superstar of the Indian film industry, Kundan Lal Saigal, often frequented the bazaar.

“Saigal was posted as a timekeeper in Samasatta’s railway department during the pre-Partition era. He’d often visit Multan’s bazaar and perform there too.”

Times started changing in the mid-1990s. Artists started moving to other areas and the bazaar was mostly turned into a commercial market. The streets where once singing and dance were held are now dotted with hotels and small shops. As for the nightingales, most have them have already flown away.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 30th, 2017

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