The monument as carnival

In ARCHITECTURE, FESTIVALS on August 12, 2013 at 9:17 pm


This man (with the awesome mustache, and lunch in one hand) will weigh you for a small fee. He wants to weigh you before you get on with the business of tourism.

What’s the point of weighing someone here? I ask, to which he replies, “you weigh yourself today, and the next time you visit, you weigh yourself again and you’ll know how much weight you’ve lost or put on.” It’s almost as if he’s enticing visitors to come and see him, instead of seeing the buildings (visitors, who don’t have a scale at home that is). For tourists coming from remote parts of the country some of the weighing business could be fun I imagine. In communities where the method of knowledge dispersal is often hearsay, a fact such as the number of kilograms one is made up of could be a novel curiosity.


Hoping to entice young customers, a vendor sits with fluffy cotton candy right at the entrance to the Lahore Fort.


Even after the disastrous events of April, 1912, the “Titanic” continues to be a popular choice of name for waterborne objects such as the one pictured above. The toy boats are readily available for sale at the entrance to the monuments, and delight many.


Kite flying, then and now

In ART, FESTIVALS on February 25, 2013 at 10:03 pm


(Photo from the Times of Pakistan)

No account of Lahore’s inner city can be made complete without a mention of kite flying. Although the heyday of kite flying from crowded rooftops of the city is long over, the love of kite flying, an acknowledgement of the skill and craftsmanship required in kite-making and the joy of participating in kite wars still excites the passions of Punjab’s young and old alike. Due to safety concerns over the use of glass coated string used in kite flying, the activity was banned in the city several years ago. As a result kite makers have been forced to change professions. Many of them are in dire straits after the collapse of a once-booming industry, both in terms of economics and in terms of the volume of craft and design being produced in Lahore. These are some of the things my friend, the artist, Imran Ahmad Khan was also mulling around in his head in preparation for a recent art show, Crossing Over held in New Delhi, India.

Having grown up in the inner city, Khan’s fascination with kites began at an early age as he was attracted to the vivid colours of the flying objects and to the sense of freedom bestowed upon the kite flier and upon the onlooker. Talking of his childhood he relates, “Even when I was at school my thoughts would be tied to the fate of kites being flown outside the school gates.” Instead of buying kites, a lot of people in Khan’s neighbourhood made kites of their own to fly.

Watercolour renditions of Lahori cityscapes depict kite flying as a smattering of confetti against a pale blue sky.


With the ban on kite flying and on Basant (the annual springtime festival of kites, usually held in the last week of February) what remains is nostalgia and the blue of the sky. Hinting towards the now empty sky devoid of kites, Khan creates a kite using only the blue of the sky which forms one of the pieces in the New Delhi group show. Other pieces employ kite strings and often make use of the more traditional reds and yellows popular in the Punjab.

Below is a working model of one such colourful piece, entitled one is not without the other, 2013.


And here is a snapshot of a local reaction to the work in progress:


This photo was taken in the Faiz Bagh area of the city. The boys were on their way home from school. It wasn’t I who stopped them, but the kite that did it (one is not without the other).

The boys were compelled to stop at the sight of the ordinary made extraordinary. With the kite in their midst their daily walk was changed from routine to magical. The kite was like the ones they’d seen flying around, yet it wasn’t simply a kite. This kite had not two but three dimensions. The boys recognised it as a colourful object, its transformational qualities akin to that of a butterfly, but unlike a butterfly this kite in metal was incapable of flight. The boys questioned how the kite was made, but not WHY it was made so. It held their attention captive immediately. Is it two kites or one? they tried to guess among themselves.

I couldn’t get their names. I didn’t attempt to coax the shyness out of them or to ask them to step inside the workshop we were working in but I did get to capture pure excitement and a shared pleasure taken in a conspiratorial viewing. Does this moment speak to the love of an object the boys recognised? The staying power of contemporary art? Or simply to an unlimited sense of curiosity?


Structures that bind

In BOLLYWOOD, HISTORY on December 28, 2012 at 9:23 pm

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For hundreds of years, Lahore’s very own pomegranate blossom, Anarkali, has been the subject of speculation and intrigue:

“No incident in the history of Mughal India enjoys as much popularity as the royal    romance of Prince Salim (later Jahangir) and Anarkali. It is believed that the original name of Anarkali was Nadira or Sharfunnisa and that she received the name or the title of Anarkali (literally meaning pomegranate bud) for her beauty. Anarkali was a dancer at the court of Emperor Akbar (consult the MUGHAL FAMILY TREE). The emperor’s eldest son and heir apparent, Salim, fell in love with her. Akbar did not approve of the relation as the dancer was of lowly birth and hence considered not fit to be the queen of the would-be emperor of Hindustan. But the lovers did not pay heed to the emperor’s disapproval. Anarkali was sentenced to death—she was bricked alive in a wall. This basic story-line is often told with minor variations. However, one may be surprised to note that the name of Anarkali is not mentioned in the historical details of the period of Akbar or in the memoirs of Jahangir.”
—Subhash Parihar, online source

It is thought that Anarkali debuted at the court of Akbar sometime between 1542–1605. As noted above, there are varying accounts of her life, possibly all fictional (as history sometimes tends to be). In the stories passed down, Anarkali is said to have been a slave girl, a concubine, a lover of Akbar and possibly of Salim. She is said to have been of Persian or Russian descent. In one version, she escapes death in the palace; in other versions she is entombed in a fort or buried alive within four walls.

In the various accounts of her life, what’s interesting to me is the mention of Anarkali’s entombment, her being buried alive. The proprietor of the Lahore Heritage Club, Tahir Yazdani, described the process of immurement as such: a woman would be placed in a room that had a ceiling and three constructed walls. The fourth wall would be built once the woman was placed inside the partially constructed room. As the last wall would go up, the woman would slowly suffocate to death for lack of oxygen.

Mr. Yazdani remarked that until the workers constructed the final wall, the process would have been “quite comfortable.” I think he made that remark in a comparative sense. In all the ways that violent acts can be carried out against women’s bodies, this method bypassed touching the body to cause harm. Apparently, the standing burial was not only given to Anarkali, but also to other women of the period. Whether fictional or real, Anarkali was a woman without a home and without a family. No one was awaiting her return: she could be done away with such that her body was entirely removed from the sight/site of the powerful.

It seems horrific that remains of bodies may be lingering in buildings I have walked around and about. Along with constructions of (and/or additions to) buildings, one could also do away with the unwanted. Could a woman have been made to vanish in the time it took to put up a brick wall?

However uncertain the facts of her life and apparently brutal death, it is clear that Anarkali has had a lasting impact. Two Lahori bazaars are named after her, including the Old Anarkali bazaar, more than two-hundred-years old (see for more). Anarkali’s story, with its requisite elements of love, loss and power, was also made into the historical drama, Mughal-e-Azam which successfully captured the collective Indian imagination of the 1960s.

I have yet to read what Gulbadan Begum (daughter of the emperor Babar, and sister to successor of the throne, Humayun) says of empire in texts thought to be penned by her, and in entries from Rumer Godden’s book Gulbadan: Portrait of a Rose Princess at the Mughal Court. There has certainly been scholarship on the dancing girls of the period but perhaps Begum sheds more light on the business of being a woman in the Mughal Empire.


The photo below is not of Anarkali’s final resting place. It is of a separate site near the Badshahi Mosque. Once boastful in marble relief, the structure now stands with all of its orifices shut. The imposition upon the structure below is not unlike impositions carried upon the bodies of Mughal era women.

all its vacant mouths stuffed with brick