The ‘heart of Punjab’ was a very different place not long ago
Lahore retained the characteristics of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural city for a number of years after the creation of Pakistan. It started losing these in 1970s, particularly after the takeover by Zia-ul-Haq.
Besides the Muslim majority the city had a sizeable Anglo-Indian population in 1947. While some were employed in police, most worked in the railways. They lived in and around the railway colony where they had their clubs like the Burt Institute and Lady Griffin’s. Some of the Anglo-Indian families lived in the vicinity of Garhi Shahu. They had a peculiar sub-culture of their own.
Lahore also had a considerable population comprising native Punjabi Christians. Some of them belonged to the landowning and propertied families. There were professionals as well as government employees among them.
The community produced a number famous artists. Neelo, who was one of the outstanding film stars, belonged to the Christian community, as did playback singers Saleem Raza and Irene Perveen. Besides his several other unforgettable songs Raza became famous for the popular naat ‘Shah-e-Madina’. Irene Perveen is remembered for a number of songs besides ‘Tumhi ho mehboob meray mein kyon naa tumhain pyar karoon’.
Native Christians also served in police and military. There were dozens of Christian officer in Pakistan army including Julian Peter and Noel Israel Khokhar, who retired as major generals. Pakistan air force had at least seven Christian officers, among them the decorated 1965 war hero Squadron Leader Cecil Chaudhry, who was the son of FE Chaudhry, the legendary press photographer.
Justice AR Cornelius, another respected member of the community, started his career in Civil Service from Punjab before joining Lahore High Court in 1943. He retired as the CJ of Pakistan and practiced in the city till he died in 1991.
Lahore also had a considerable population comprising native Punjabi Christians. Some of them belonged to the landowning and propertied families. There were professionals as well as government employees among them
A number of prestigious colleges and schools in Punjab were run by the Christian missionaries.
Till the early 70’s there were also quite a number of Parsis in the city. Some of them were prominent businessmen, doctors, dentists and lawyers. Rustam S Sidhwa practiced law in the city before being raised to the higher judiciary. He retired as a judge of the Supreme Court. Kandawalla ran the largest car business — on the Mall. There were two Baruchas who practiced medicine in the city. Minocher Bhandara was both a parliamentarian and the man who ran Murree Brewery with success. He was also the brother of the novelist Bapsi Sidhwa. Both lived on Waris Road.
There was a sprinkling of the Chinese in the city too. Hopson and Kingson were famous shoe makers.
The presence of outstanding non-Muslim individuals, who made major contributions in various spheres of life, earned respect for their communities. What is more it encouraged the development of a pluralist outlook in society.
Where are all these people now?
Some are dead but thousands that included people like Salem Raza and Irene Perveen migrated to Canada, Britain, the US, Australia and other countries. With a wave of religious intolerance setting in after the separation of East Pakistan, there was no future for them in Lahore or elsewhere else in the country. Within years Pakistan lost its pluralist tradition.
Lahore also had a long tradition of music. The people in the city had a craze for classical music in particular. When Hayat Ahmad Khan set up the All Pakistan Music Conference in Lahore in 1959 its events at the Open Air Theatre attracted big crowds. What is more they listened to performers with rapt attention.
The pre ‘70s multiculturalism was reflected in the pulsating life of the city. Till the early sixties there was a dancing school right on the Mall on the second floor of Ghulam Rasul building and a first class dancing hall with a wooden floor at Burt Institute. There was also a skating hall on Abbot Road.
The city had over twenty cinema houses. Among these Regal, Plaza and Odeon specialised in latest Hollywood movies.
Lahore had numerous first class restaurants located on the Mall. Like the old British pubs some of these attracted people with similar tastes and professions. The Coffee House was the haunt of high-brow intellectuals. Pak Tea House attracted the literary community. The YMCA restaurant was the rendezvous for sportsmen. Cheney’s Lunch Home was patronised mostly by lawyers. The Lords on the Mall attracted an assorted variety of landlords and politicians. Shezan Continental on the Regal crossing was meant for the effete.
There is no restaurant left on the Mall now. The Mall which was a popular promenade with lush green grassy areas on both sides from the Tolinton Market to Lawrence Gardens has lost much of its beauty by the widening of the road which has deprived it of greenery that gave it the name “Thandi Sarak.” Whatever footpaths are left are no more safe for walkers.
Lahore had an exuberant intellectual life. The latest literary and intellectual trends in the world were discussed at Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq. Since 1942 the literary society had been meeting every week in a room inside the YMCA Hall. Here renowned writers like Manto, Ghulam Abbas, Intizar Hussain, Ibn-e-Insha, Qayyum Nazar, Anjum Roomani, Noon Meem Rashid, and Munir Niazi read out their latest writings and patiently listened to criticism from the audience.
The presence of outstanding non-Muslim individuals, who made major contributions in various spheres of life, earned respect for their communities. What is more it encouraged the development of a pluralist outlook in society
The city pulsated with life. Brimming with enthusiasm the Lahorites never missed an opportunity to enjoy themselves. The city was known for its “melas”. As a Punjabi proverb put it “Sat din te athh melay; kam karaan main kairay vailay” which means the week has only seven days but eight festivals to celebrate. Where does that leave time for one to work? The melas had seasonal characters and their popular appeal transcended differences of religion, class or age.
During the height of summer scores of families crossed over to the other side of the Ravi carrying food to beat the heat. They camped at Kamran’s Baradari and the gardens around the tomb of Emperor Jahangir. This was called Paar da Mela, or the festival across the river.
With the arrival of spring came Tarroo da Mela, Charyan da Mela and Qadman da Mela. Baisakhi Mela followed the harvesting of the wheat crop in April.
The most famous festival of Lahore which is still is celebrated is the Mela Chiraghan. The festival has lost much of its glamour after restrictions were put on its celebration inside Shalimar Gardens. People came dancing here, singing fertility related “Bolis” which were composed impromptu while the wooden “Galarh” many carried produced a peculiar “thak thak” sound as the carrier pulled the rope.
Mela Chiraghan coincides with the “Urs” or death anniversary of the Sufi poet Shah Hussain. It is now held around the shrine of the saint. It is the only anniversary of a Muslim saint that does not follow the traditional religious calendar but comes in the middle of spring.
The Basant was till recently the biggest festival of Punjab and was also associated with the arrival of spring and Shah Hussain’s Urs. The Basant has traditionally attracted every Punjabi irrespective of his religion, class or age. It was thus a real peoples’ festival. It brought together families and friends. Many Punjabis living abroad would return to Lahore to participate in the festivities. There was reunion along with food, music and a lot of fun.
The PML-N government in Punjab banned kite-flying through an official edict more under the pressure of those who want a puritanical version of Islam to be practiced in the name of religion than anything else.
There was no concept of enjoyment among the Puritans in Europe. In their zeal to promote extremism, rulers from Zia-ul-Haq to the PML-N have encouraged hypocrisy. They have discouraged cultural activities depriving people of a great source of enjoyment.