Pakistan cultural center struggles with its history

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

When asked why he paints mostly prostitutes, Iqbal Hussain replies matter-of-factly: "I paint the women of my community."

One of Pakistan's master artists, Mr. Hussain still lives in the area where he grew up: Lahore's famous red-light district, popularly known as the Heera Mandi, or diamond market. "When I first started out many years ago, all the women here just thought I was this crazy man who didn't want to work," says Hussain with a wry smile, recounting his early days roaming the neighborhood with his brushes and paints. Even now, he says, "I still have to coax them to sit for me."

The Heera Mandi is not a typical red-light district but one renowned for its dancing girls and classical music traditions. It is nestled in the shadow of Pakistan's famous Badshahi Mosque, behind the walls of the old medieval city. The district's narrow, byzantine streets and alleys date back to the time of the Mughal emperors. And for centuries, young courtesans, learning the family trade, received rigorous training in the performing arts from professional musicians.

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In recent years, the area has fallen on hard times, but it is still the place from which many of Pakistan's top singers, musicians, dancers, and film starlets come.

A strong nexus between the performing arts and prostitution has long existed in South Asian culture and society. Lahore - one of the great imperial Mughal cities, and the most sophisticated in British India - boasted one of the most elegant red-light districts on the subcontinent. After independence, Lahore remained the cultural capital of Pakistan, and the Heera Mandi became an important scouting ground for the film industry.

"The contribution of this area to the performing arts of Pakistan has been tremendous," says Yousuf Salahuddin, a landlord who owns substantial property in the Heera Mandi. The grandson of Mohammed Iqbal, Pakistan's poet laureate and a prominent Islamic philosopher, Mr. Salahuddin has lived full time in the area since 1988. He restored the family haveli, a traditional-style home comprising many open-air courtyards linking multilevel rooms, the largest of its kind in the city and a favorite stomping ground for its elite.

Salahuddin names an impressive list of Pakistan's singers, actresses, and musicians whose origins are in this area. But "things have changed now," he says. "Previously people could go and watch classical dance performances and singing. Now many of those people are gone and new people have come in, and the area is overrun with just common prostitution."

The dominant position that the Heera Mandi enjoyed for nurturing performing artists, he notes, has eroded in recent years, as it has become more socially acceptable for young women from middle and upper class families to become actresses or singers.

Crumbling buildings mirror culture

The physical decline of the area also mirrors the Heera Mandi's cultural decline. Poverty, suffocating pollution, crumbling buildings, and clogged streets are a common feature of the old city, of which the Heera Mandi is one district.

Despite the conditions, a number of the old families of this district continue to live and struggle here.

"I started dance and music training when I was 6 and continued for 10 years with an ustad [master teacher]", says Naila, a zaftig 34-year-old courtesan whose family of "Punjabi geishas" has lived in the Heera Mandi for generations - and who is also a frequent subject of Hussain's striking portraits.

In this community, unlike the rest of Pakistan, the birth of a daughter is celebrated whereas the birth of a son is mourned. "I started dance performances for customers when I was 10 and had my 'shaadi' [marriage] a few years later," Naila says, using the local euphemism for her initiation into the work of prostitution.

A mother of six, she sends all four of her daughters for music and dance training. Her two older teenage girls have already begun their work as dancers and prostitutes. The family inhabits a floor in one of the typical four-story structures of the old city with decaying wooden latticework shutters adorning the outside. The customers who come to the area are not very well mannered, she says, referring to them as "cheapsters." But she sees little alternative for her family.

Less demand for traditional dance

"Times have changed. Before, people wanted to watch the old-style classical dancers and singers. Now people see satellite TV and watch videos, and the pace is much faster," Naila says. She rarely uses live musicians in her work unless called to perform outside the Heera Mandi, and instead plays CDs from Indian movies or by local pop stars to entertain her customers.

Naila hopes her oldest daughter, Hina, an exceptionally beautiful 15-year-old, can break into films. While the quality of singing and dancing that the Heera Mandi produces has declined, talent scouts from the film industry still come here to recruit.

Once a woman from this area achieves fame as a film starlet or singer, however, her family background is camouflaged, as this is not a connection that mainstream society is willing to acknowledge openly.

"We are a society of hypocrites. The morality of the privileged prohibits any recognition of the importance of this area to the arts," says I.A. Rehman, a prominent lawyer in Pakistan and director of the country's Human Rights Commission. "Iqbal Hussain is extraordinary because he says, 'I come from there and I don't care,' " he adds.

Yet the tradition of the dancing girl is still very much evident in South Asian society. It is still common practice for families to hire these women for a mujra, a dance performance with erotic overtones usually for a male audience, performed in celebrations of weddings or local festivals. During Basant, Lahore's famous annual kite-flying festival, a top dancing girl can earn more than $12,000 for a private mujra performance.

Call to establish a heritage site

Hussain, an art professor at the National College of Arts, the nation's foremost art school, bemoans the decline of his community and would like to see his neighborhood revitalized and established as a heritage site.

Born in Heera Mandi and the son and brother of courtesans, he chronicles the lives of the dancing girls who remain and never make it as stars. His life-size portraits of these women in poignant poses have been auctioned at Sotheby's and regularly command prices of more than $10,000 on international markets.

For Hussain, restoring some measure of dignity and respect to this neighborhood and its inhabitants is essential.

"I will never leave this area. This is my home and these are my people. If you try to leave this area and people find out where you are from, they point and say things and make your life very difficult," he says. "We are people like anybody else."

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