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Lahore’s lost spring

Lahore, a centre for the arts and learning in the early 20th century, has been the custodian of a plural, vibrant culture for decades. Its walled city, unlike several other old settlements, has continued to survive despite the expansion of the city. So have its peculiar features: its dialects, cuisine, community linkages and, of course, rich festivals such as Basant. As the capital of Punjab, Lahore used to celebrate Basant — the arrival of spring — in a colourful manner.

Since the medieval times, Basant was acknowledged and celebrated by the Chishti saints. Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi turned it into an act of devotion, and Amir Khusrau’s songs captured the multi-layered evolution of this festival.

Punjabi poets such as Shah Hussain gave a Sufi flavour to it. Hussain, in one of his kaafis, says: “The Beloved holds the string in his hand, and I am His kite.” The festival offered a meaning to all and sundry: from playful kids to lovers and Sufis; from profit-seekers who developed livelihoods around the festival to the community as a whole.

Basant was celebrated by all communities prior to Partition: Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs treated it as a Lahori festival with an identity linked to the city. In this milieu, Allama Iqbal was known to be an avid kite flier. But the post-1947 rise of clerics meant that inclusive cultural practices were to be treated with suspicion. For many decades, the Pakistani mullahs have ranted against Basant as an “unIslamic” festival and one that endangered public morality.

Unfazed by these fatwas, Lahoris continued with the festival. It even received state patronage on various occasions. A citizen of Lahore, Mian Yousaf Salahuddin (the grandson of Iqbal), turned his old Lahore haveli into a cultural hub and, over time, Basant celebrations became an international attraction. By the 1990s, proactive civil servants turned Basant into a great regional festival. Lahore’s then deputy commissioner, Kamran Lashari, provided full backing to the holding of this event in the 1990s. That was perhaps the time when Basant also became most controversial due to its scale and the increased hazards of unregulated kite-flying in which metallic or chemical-coated string was used.

The use of this string instead of the traditional dor caused many deaths each year and the local government was unable to enforce regulations on its usage. The metallic wire would get entangled in electricity cables in the old city, leading to electrocution. The courts intervened and asked the Punjab government to ban the festival in 2007.

Ironically, the banning of Basant did not take place in the name of religion but through a public interest litigation. However, the ideological opponents of Basant have been happy with the outcome and have created an uproar each time someone raised the question of reviving Basant after putting safety measures in place. But Lahore is a poorer place now. It is devoid of this public celebration, especially for thousands of impoverished workers in the old city and neighbouring towns where Basant was celebrated with great fervour. […]

March 22nd, 2012|Arts & Culture, Lahore, Pakistan, Published in Indian Express|8 Comments

Living Lohawarana – a Lahori rambling

My piece for Himal Magazine’s October issue

LahoreThere was a Lahore that I grew up in, and then there is the Lahore that I live in now. Recovering from an exile status for two decades, I find myself today turning into something of a clichéd grump, hanging desperately on to the past. Yet I resist that. Writing about Lahore is a sensation that lies beyond the folklore – Jine Lahore nai wakhaya o janmia nai (The one who has not seen Lahore has never lived). It has to do with an inexplicable bonding and oneness with the past, and yet a contradictory and not-so-glorious interface with the present.

Lahore is now the second largest city in Pakistan, with a population that has crossed the 10 million mark. It is turning into a monstropolis. Had it not been for Lahore’s intimacy with Pakistan’s power base – the Punjab-dominated national establishment – this would be just another massive, unmanageable city, regurgitating all the urban clichés of the Global South. But Lahore retains a definite soul; it is comfortable with modernity and globalisation, and continues to provide inspiration for visitors and residents alike.

Over the last millennium, Lahore has been the traditional capital of Punjab in its various permutations. A cultural centre of North India extending from Peshawar to New Delhi, it has historically been open to visitors, invaders and Sufi saints alike. Several accounts tell how Lahore emerged as a town between the 6th and 16th centuries BC. According to commonly accepted myth, Lahore’s ancient provenance, Lohawarana, was founded by the two sons of Lord Ram some 4000 years ago. One of these sons, Loh (or Luv), gave his name to this timeless city. A deserted temple in Lahore Fort is ostensibly a tribute to Loh, located near the Alamgiri gate, next to the fort’s old jails. Under the regime of Zia ul-Haq, Loh’s divine space was closed and used as a dungeon in which to punish political activists. […]

October 7th, 2008|History, Lahore, Published in Himal Magazine, SouthAsia|4 Comments