Pakistan cultural center struggles with its history
When asked why he paints mostly prostitutes, Iqbal Hussain replies matter-of-factly: "I paint the women of my community."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.
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.