Chaska Galiyon Ka: Kaurashi, Kolachi, Kurrachee
By Qamar Bharoocha Bana
Qamar and Almas Bana, Karachi
Mumbai-born Qamar Bharoocha Bana was raised all over the Subcontinent: India, Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan. But a “Karachi ki kashish” [Karachi’s magnetism] that eludes words led her to document this particular city for 30 years.
Ever since she moved here, it is as though she felt the need to explain the city. Her first book of photographs, Chaska Galiyon Ka, which she translates as ‘A Zest for Street Life’, feels as if we are trailing her, adventuring through the city on her favourite mode of transport: her feet. The work meanders with musings, facts and anecdotes as Bana immerses herself in Karachi. “By simply walking,” she says, she uncovers “‘khazaanas’ [treasures] tucked away in alleyways, narrow streets and even on main roads.”
Designed by Sabiha Imani, the bilingual book — subtitled Kaurashi, Kolachi, Kurrachee — contains as much as its title promises, unveiling the contradictory character of the city, its arteries and avenues, immense celebrations, mourning rituals and nooks and crannies.
The palette is unadulterated Karachi sky, sand and dust. This is no glamour photoshoot, for Bana loathes filters and the post-editing of today, even challenging herself to take limited photos of a subject. Here is Karachi, squinting in the sun, posters peeling, all activity and colour, dust and disorder.
Photographer Qamar Bharoocha Bana offers a personal lens on a complex city, helping document its many hidden cultural treasures
You feel the heat of the Saddar Town neighbourhood of Kharadar bursting at the seams, faces and merchandise jostling. Its stone facades speak of old empire and current political parties. It’s a place where you will find everything from fortune tellers to tea sellers, wedding attire, dentists and dyers.
The photographer plunges into what appears to be every space and alley. Her pictures are packed with unusual details, such as the lost maska [butter] bun Irani-style eateries of the 1950s and ’60s, the history of barbeque, taangas [horse-drawn carriages] and ‘Victorias’, truck art, the interiors of wedding halls and ceilings that look like cakes, festooned with chandeliers. For Bana, the history of Karachi’s architecture is incomplete without these ‘fantasy venues’.
Pages are devoted to Kharadar’s tazia makers, who were also the subject of a film, The Taziamakers of Kharadar, which Bana made around 2014. These artisans create miniature replicas of the tombs of Hazrat Ali and Hazrat Hussain — family members of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) — that are carried in Muharram processions. Bana captures the mix of reverence and excitement, handling her subject matter with quiet respect.
In her gentle, observational style, she shows the world of fisherfolk, cloudy piles of nets and date-leaf baskets laden with silver treasure. She finds poetry everywhere — in one image, three men pull a fishing net as though it is a billowing white wedding dress.
Chaska Galiyon Ka delivers characters with thoughtful care, attempting to answer the question ‘what does a Karachiite look like?’ One is reminded of Singaporean artist Alecia Neo’s work for the Karachi Biennale 2022, where she filled a floor in Saddar’s Hamid Market with a spaghetti of wires sprouting flowers of mirrors and lightbulbs. Titled ‘Power to the People’, the artwork honoured the various hands that keep the city running.
In the same vein, Bana showcases the doers and workers: the old-fashioned ear-cleaner of Saddar, a light on his head like a satellite dish; the incense burner who daily dispels ill fortune for Bohri Bazaar’s shop owners; the snake charmer; the distinguished seller of two-stringed musical instruments made of bamboo and paper; and Cantt Station’s porters waiting, waiting. The 12 images in the ‘Karachi Cantt Station’ section of Bana’s book encapsulate the 150-year-old stone building’s atmosphere, conveying a sense of anticipation and long silences.
In her images of various communities — the khwaja siras [transgendered people], the coolies or Lyari’s women footballers — you can feel how compassionately she has listened and watched. An activist herself (she travelled alone by train to join the lawyers’ movement in 2007, “how could I not?” she said in an interview), she cares deeply and it shows.
The section ‘Kaurashi, Kolachi, Kurrachee’ delivers in pictures what could be clichéd and nauseating were it in words: ‘multiculturalism’. Bana presents us with a shared humanity. In her photos of the pre-Partition temple Shri Naval Mandir, a rectangle of petals, diyas [oil lamps] and agarbatti [incense sticks] illuminates a young woman’s face and bangles as she ties wishing threads to a peepal tree during the Shivratri festival.
More photos remind us that this is Karachi: a couple ringing a bell for Hindu deity Hanuman’s attention, shimmering graves at the Gora Qabristan for All Souls’ Day, the backs of Sunday mass-goers returning from St Patrick’s Cathedral, lines of Ajrak-clad grooms in a mass wedding.
Then there are the feasts. Resplendent dastarkhwaans from Ramazan, an elegant Nauroz tablescape and, in an especially poetic black and white photo, a circle of bangled hands converging like a flower, picking food from a Bohri thaal [platter].
The book successfully shares Bana’s passion for the city; it’s hard to miss the adventurous and wide-eyed young Bana, who relocated from London’s Muswell Hill to Karachi’s Pakistan Chowk. One only wishes the images were labelled and dated to appreciate them fully.
Bana enchants with such details as the “gooey ball” fashioned into sweet diamonds by Salim, Kharadar’s chikki [peanut brittle] maker of 35 years. We are treated to film houses in the city, the tikkas in drive-in cinemas. She seems to say, ‘look, what is happening’.
At times reading like a tragic atlas, the book also documents the decline of heritage buildings, the impoverished Cantt station coolies and the difficulties of the khwaja siras as Bana oscillates between gesturing and angry proclamations. She fumes about the shrinking coastline and dubious land reclamation projects that will soon trade her tranquil images of water and sky, camels and horses for a relentless “concrete expansion, and the pursuit of commerce.”
The launch of Chaska Galiyon Ka was held out in the open, on a cool December evening, under Frere Hall’s grand trees, with members of the khwaja sira community and Lyari’s women footballers in attendance. Guests were entertained by a Leva fire dancer and musicians from Lyari.
The experience, whimsical and refreshing, was — like the book itself — a reminder that a positive future for Karachi’s people and the city’s soul is worth hoping and fighting for.
The reviewer is an artist and writer. Her Instagram handle is @zehrahamdanimirza and email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 2nd, 2023
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