‘Come evening and they would be out in their balconies in the finest of silks and jewels. Their eyes would be lined with kohl and their lips red with dandasa, bark of the walnut tree and the most fragrant of eastern perfumes or itars would fill the air. They were known as diamonds and such was their glitter that the whole street would seem studded with stars. These were the courtesans of Heera Mandi of Lahore in the years before Partition in 1947.’
Contrary to the common perception the word Heera in Heera mandi is not attributed to the dancing girls but Heera Singh, the prime minister of the kingdom of Punjab after Ranjit Singh’s death. When the British took over Punjab they sought to impose their catholic values and ban the courtesan culture. The courtesans were banished to one corner of the city, Ghalla mandi Heera Singh. From there began a culture, that was to have a profound effect in the realm of performing arts of the sub-continent.
There was a time when haunting this bazaar-e-husn was considered a status symbol among the elite of the city and beyond. Being a patron of the most sought after tawaif was an even bigger medal to sport. But the bazaar was not known for sex trade as it is today. Though sex trade was an inevitable by product, it wasn’t the predominant feature and the bazaar was a paradise for the performing arts connoisseur. A kotha was considered an abode of learning and culture while a tawaif was a living embodiment of the same. They were women of learning, culture and dignity. Many of them were trained in music by the best ustads of the time. They were queens of etiquette or ‘saleeka’ as we call it. Presence of these women at weddings was considered a statement of class and sophistication and not everyone could enter the bazaar and it was reserved solely for those with social and financial standing.
With the advent of Britishers a new class of elite came to the fore who continued to patronize the bazaar for their pleasure. With this patronage the bazaar reached a peak never seen before. Come evening and the bazaar would come alive in all its glitter, pomp and splendor to provide relief and recreation to those who had a taste for finer things and could afford it. The tangas would gather outside taverns and bars all over the city ready to transport the eager to their destination at Taxali gate. The illumination rising from the bazaar could be seen from afar. The moment you entered the street, smell of jasmine flowers and ittar overpowered the sense of smell and you could hear the distant sounds of tabla emanating from the kothas lined up on the either side of the street. The balconies on either side would sport a curtain behind which the performers charmed their customers. Every kotha had its own front desk of sorts where every customer had to buy and wear a ‘gajra’ (jasmine flower bracelet) around the wrist and fix an ‘itar’ soaked cotton ball behind their ears before entering. On the other side of the curtain awaited a night of merriment full of music, poetry and dancing that continued till the break of dawn. If a customer passed out after having one drink too many while listening to ghazals, they would put him in a guest room and the lady of the house would keep his purse with her, lest the servants took away some money and it would be returned to him the next day.
The families of the bazaar were a special breed and had a culture and life of their own. A very special occasion in the life of the denizens of the bazaar was ‘nath khulai’ of a dancing girl. Nath (nose ring) khulai meant initiation of dancing girl into the world of performing arts. Those who had yet to undergo nath khulai were called ‘nathal’ and were considered to be virgins. Girls born in the kothas were pampered, cared for and showered with the best life could offer till the time they reached the age 16. That’s when their nath khulai was performed. The nath was installed by the lady of the house. The richest and the most influential were invited to participate in an auction like event and the most deserving had the privilege to take off the nath. For the families this occasion was a reason to celebrate. It was a like a modern day wedding spanning days and various functions were held to celebrate the initiation. Influential people from all walks of life were invited and special foods were cooked. Excessive charity was given and poor were fed in large numbers. The older women passed on the tricks of the trade to new entrants and thus continued the cycle where older generation passed on the mantle to younger ones. And just like this, the performing arts culture remained in monopoly of Heera mandi families for decades.
The advent of the 20th century witnessed a boom in broadcasting culture and many performers found a voice through radio. A famous singer of 30’s Umrah Zia became an overnight hit due to her song ‘Mera salam le Jaa’. The rise of theater and cinema opened a new avenue for the performers and provided them an opportunity to venture out of the bazaar and showcase their talent to those not empowered enough to visit the bazaar. An advertisement for the special film shows which would include live song and dance performances by cinema houses would read thus: “Adhay aaney mein teen mazey”. The performers would be from the lower rungs because the high class “tawaifs” never played to the gallery. Their performances were only for the royalty, nobility and rich business class. The advent of cinema elevated the status of Heera mandi as well for it became a recruiting ground for filmmakers and most of the artists from pre-partition Lahore came from the Heera mandi. Heera Mandi in Lahore has nurtured some outstanding performing artistes, including the famous Noorejahan, Khurshid begum, Shamshad Begum, Mumtaz Shanti and many others.
But the talents of Heera mandi were not reserved for female performers alone. The bazaar was home to the greatest music ustaads of yesteryears. The kotha tradition of Lahore has made the most significant contribution to contemporary Hindustani music and dance. There were patrons of great musicians therein- For example Munnijan Bai of Heera mandi, Lahore, financed and supported Ustad Amir Khan in his early career. Ustad Amir Khan is known as the famous exponent of the Kirana Gharana of Indore. The thriving music culture of the bazaar that consisted of ‘baithak’ ‘dangal’ ‘mehfil’ and ‘shagirdi’ as its cornerstone are now on the brink of extinction if not outright extinct.
Baithaks were musical gatherings hosted by musicians. These were prestigious institutions where musicians, musicologists and scholars contributed to the annals of our musical heritage. The baithaks were held regularly, almost on a daily basis, and used for riyaaz (practice), taalim (teaching) and performance. Ustad Sardar Khan Dilli Wale ki baithak, held near Taxali Gate, was one of the most respected baithaks. Ustad Barkat Ali Khan’s baithak, held in Heera Mandi chowk, was known for thumri and ghazal singing while baithak of Ustaad Chotey Ashiq Ali Khan was a great exponent of khayal singing.
Then there were Dangals that were duels organized by music lovers that afforded musicians a public forum to compete with each other. Musicians – especially those from Lahore – have always been a competitive lot and relished participating in such events. These events were highly celebrated and conducted with much fanfare. They were announced several months in advance to allow time for competing musicians to prepare, for audiences to make travel plans and for organizers to promote the events. Not all dangals ended amicably though; in fact, the results were often contentious. The famous dangal between Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and Ustad Umeed Ali Khan, held in Heera Mandi, produced no winner but fueled a rivalry that is still discussed today. Now dangals are held mostly between tabla players in Heera Mandi and are no longer the grand events they used to be.
Then there is this small abandoned room next to a few unassembled tangas and buggies, belying its rich intellectual legacy. This room was known for its literary activities and public discourse. This is the famous Punjabi poet Ustad Daaman ki baithak and regulars to this baithak included the likes of Faiz and Jalib. Earlier this baithak was known as Hujra-e Shah Hussain for it served as retreat for the great sufi poet. Much of his poetry was fashioned here.
It is no wonder that the biggest names of Indian film industry of that time, from actors to singers to music directors and poets, came from Lahore. And if Lahore was the cultural center of north Indian circuit, Heera mandi was the cultural center of Lahore.
The same Heera Mandi still exists in Lahore but the glory of the old world is gone. The splendor and glitter of the bazaar that never slept is only to be found in history books. The sounds of beats that resonated across the Indian sub-continent are silenced forever. The lights and brightness of the curved bazaar are forever dim. The diamonds that were traded here were not forever and remain alive only in legends. From a cultural center that nurtured many an artist, Heera Mandi has changed into a ghetto that thwarts the spirit of women. Today Heera mandi is a dreaded name a woman wouldn’t be caught dead even walking through. You no more see the entire street lit up with the faces of beautiful and fashionable girls. Girls who were much more than traders of the flesh. In a society where majority of women stayed indoors, these women were far ahead of their times. In times when most women were illiterate, these women were poets and authors. If they had professional aspirations, especially in artistic field, they had virtual monopoly. They were far more empowered than most. And with their mastery over literature, mannerisms and social graces, they were often a prized catch for marriage for the wealthiest.
In the times gone by, in the literary circles, famously narrated was a tale about two men wandering about in Lahore who managed to stray into Heera Mandi. Looking at the beautifully turned out belles, one could not help himself but instinctively say to the other: “Je Rab dhiyan deve tay aithey deve. Kinj raanian ban bethiyan ne” (if God is to bless one with daughters it should be here. See how they sit like queens).
This haunting tale was always profound in an unfortunate way for such is the paradox of society. No one would wish their daughters to reach Heera Mandi and be reduced to an object of desire, yet the lives of daughters of respectable homes were not so enviable either. It was a restrained and controlled existence. In an unfortunate way the women on the street were more liberated for they could dress well, live as they wanted and reach their potential.
Heera mandi; a culture deeply buried under the debris of time, apathy and moral bigotry.
Tibbi may chal kay jalwa-e-parwardigaar dekh; Arey yeh dekhnay ki cheez hai issey baar baar dekh