I still remember my first time,” says Jugnu*, her face pale under the white tubelight of her cramped room. “I was only 13 but was dressed to the nines. I wore jewellery and makeup, and even though I was told I looked beautiful, I felt shy and embarrassed and did not want to go dance.”

Jugnu’s paternal aunt, who was a dancer like Jugnu but had retired by then, had a talk with her niece to settle her nerves. “She said, this is our family profession and that our women had been doing it for ages. Why should I feel ashamed of it? As she spoke, something inside me began to melt. Slowly I felt much better.”

She remembers entering the small room called the ‘time-kamra’ or ‘office’. Two or three ‘tamashbeen’ [spectators] sat there, while her own troupe — the musicians and her aunt — accompanied her. It was a small private baithak [gathering], and once Jugnu began her dance she forgot all her fears. “I don’t remember which song I danced to,” she grins, flashing paan-stained teeth under her dark lips. “But I do remember it was Madam’s song.”


Aside from being a red-light area, Heera Mandi was once renowned for culture and courtship in the Mughal tradition


Like all dancing girls in the Shahi Mohallah, or specifically in the red light district called Heera Mandi, there is a money-throwing ritual at dance performances. Back in those days, the going rate for a new dancer would have been around 400 to 500 rupees. But Jugnu danced so well that she herself got around 2,500 rupees. “That means 2,500 rupees each — for everyone in that room,” she says. “We always distribute equally after a baithak.”

Jugnu still retains her attraction but has become a little plump, after bearing two children with different men – which can be a downfall for dancing girls. It is possible to think that this woman could have done better by making a living out of dancing. But after official sanction against red light districts, her family, like many others, moved away to another neighbouring area known as Baagh Munshi Ladda. It is now also known as the ‘new Heera Mandi’ although nothing in the new locality is reminiscent of the old area.

Old properties in Heera Mandi have been renovated and reused as restaurants (top) and other shops. Some others are up for sale (below). In the few brothels that have survived (left and bottom), much of the activity happens under the shadows
Old properties in Heera Mandi have been renovated and reused as restaurants (top) and other shops. Some others are up for sale (below). In the few brothels that have survived (left and bottom), much of the activity happens under the shadows

 

To call it a baagh [garden] is an overstatement, however.

Jugnu’s own house is windowless and grotty. With four children and three adults as occupants, it is in a constant state of disarray. Her room is cramped and empty but for a whirring pedestal fan, a very thin and stained mattress and pillow, and tiny oil lamps sitting in a row on a bare concrete shelf.

For Jugnu’s mother Zeba*, who is from Gujrat but was married to a man known only superficially to her father, it was a shock to discover that her in-laws were from a paisha [vocation] that was considered taboo.

“But in Kanjar families, daughters-in-law are not meant to carry on the tradition of singing and dancing,” says Zeba, now 47. “So my other two daughters were trained in singing, but they both died. Now I only have Jugnu.”

There are two majority communities who reside and work in Heera Mandi. One of them is the Kanjars, whose women carry on the tradition of singing and dancing. The other is Mirasis — musicians and trainers of the Kanjar women. Irrespective of whether they sell their bodies, however, Kanjar women are viewed as prostitutes even though that might not always be the case.

“A girl’s birth brings celebrations,” says Zeba. “When a boy is born, however, there is sorrow. Even today, it is Jugnu who is the breadwinner of this family. She is taking care of her own children as well as her sisters. Her brother only earns daily wages.”

 

Like all Kanjar women, Jugnu too has been ‘married’ but without a nikahnama [certificate of marriage]. She has had a business contract with the three or four men she married, which she says lasts for a night in return for a large sum of money. “My father arranged it with a gold businessman the first time, and he paid around 30,000 rupees for it. Even our servants were paid 5,000 rupees each. I was only 13 and embarrassed, hurt and scared. But I got over it fast.”

Like all such men, that businessman too did not return.

“It was not easy for a man to come too close to a woman in a kotha back in those days,” she says. “We were surrounded by our tabla player, sheesha player, dhol wala, naika [a senior woman chaperone], and the flower man would come and so did the money seller,” she says. “There was a courtship ritual in getting to know the woman first and then coming closer. The man could not just use and abuse. We were protected by our community.”

A REGAL FIXATION

Even today, the idea of Heera Mandi remains as exotic as ever to most. Many believe that even now, they might catch a sight of some dancing girls or perhaps hear a mujra in the distance. It seems thrilling and adventurous, tinged with the secrecy of illicit excitement.

 

But today, a trip down the lane opposite the regal Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort shows that the age-old culture of the bazaar has vanished. In its place now are shoe shops and warehouses, many of them manufacturing set-ups. All the buildings which once used to be kothas are now decrepit, dusty skeletons. The time-kamra is now just home to piles of sawdust and leather.

“Local culture and music are important for all civilizations,” says Mian Yousuf Salahuddin, better known as Yousuf Salli. “But the way ours was killed off, it is indeed a very tragic thing.”

Salli lives smack in the centre of the Taxali gate area. His ancestral Haveli Barood Khana was originally built by the Sikhs during their rule in Punjab and was meant for storing gun-powder, weapons and ammunition, hence its name. But after the first Muslim mayor of Lahore, Mian Amiruddin, bought it in 1870, the haveli has stayed in the family and has been passed down generation after generation. If Salli’s paternal grandfather was the mayor, then his maternal grandfather was the great poet Sir Muhammad Iqbal. And through the times, Salli has become renowned for being an unofficial patron of the arts and culture.

“Good singers are not easy to find anymore,” argues Salli. He talks of the great musicians who came out of this area, including Ustad Taafu, whose entire family still lives at Bhaati Gate — a place famous for musicians’ residences and music shops. “There was Ustad Barkat Ali Khan, Fateh Ali Khan, Amanat Ali Khan,” he says. Besides there were some great gaikas (women singers) including Farida Khanum and Noor Jahan who received their training from the ustads here.

In the old days, kotha singing had a very particular style of ghazal singing. It was more experimental and flexible — a slight step further than that of ‘thumri’.

Photos by Xari Jalil and Murtaza Ali,  M Arif / White Star
Photos by Xari Jalil and Murtaza Ali, M Arif / White Star

 

“If you really want to see that ghungroo dance or listen to that calibre of singing again, you cannot find it,” argues Salli.

After the Zia regime when all this was banned, there was obviously economic depression in the area,” says Dara Anjum, historian and Director of the Lahore Fort. “Building owners who were charging, say 5,000 rupees in rent from a Kanjar family, were not being paid timely because business for the Kanjar community was slow. When other businessmen like the shoe manufacturers offered double the rent, the building owners were forced to evict their tenants.”

There was a third and worse option — dropping to the lowest of the low and selling sex for however much it took. But because Kanjar girls knew the skill of performing arts, many were picked to go to the film industry. Others became renowned singers. The ones who weren’t as talented simply moved out. Some including Jugnu even tried their luck at dancing in the Middle East.

Although most people refer to General Ziaul Haq’s Islamicisation drive for cracking down on prostitution in the area, Fouzia Saeed in her groundbreaking research book titled Taboo! The Hidden Culture of a Red Light Area says that it was General Ayub Khan who placed severe restrictions on the activities in the Shahi Mohallah.

Later on, only the musicians and dancers were allowed back to perform for a restricted time. Since Tibbi Gali, one of the major by-lanes housing brothels, did not offer any performing arts, it could never reopen for mere prostitution. Saeed writes in her book that every regime since then has retained the policy but it was strictly enforced by the police under General Zia.

“Bazaar-i-Husn moved many times before it reached Heera Mandi here,” says Salli. “Before this it used to be at Purani Anarkali and also Choona Mandi. The basic fact is that in those days, there was no radio or TV and obviously live singing was the only entertainment among all classes of people.”

Photos by M Arif / White Star
Photos by M Arif / White Star

 

In those times, singers were held in such high esteem that they were given associations from their place of birth. From Akhtari Bai Faizabadi (later known as Begum Akhtar) to Khurshid Bai Hujrowali, who was Iqbal’s favourite and was known for singing Shikwa and Jawab-i-Shikwa, these gaikas won the hearts of many.

But despite the cultural capital being provided by Heera Mandi, Salli remembers when the curtains began dropping in the baithak doorways during General Zia’s regime. In the 1988 by-elections after the rise of the PML-N, several people working at the kothas were picked up overnight and held in custody. “That was the turning point. I was an MPA at the time with Jahangir Badr was the MNA. Although our area was the Data Darbar, we both tried to explain to the police and authorities to let those poor people go.”

Was the government successful in its objectives?

“They talk about shutting down prostitution in Heera Mandi,” says Salli, “And I am not supporting sex work, but today half of Gulberg and Defence have become Heera Mandis in their own way.”

DEATH OF AN ECONOMY

Tablanawaz Tauqueer Hussain hails from the Mirasi community of Heera Mandi. He began playing the tabla at the age of 13 and laughs out aloud when he is asked to remember the good old days. “Thank heavens my father made me learn a different skill,” says the now 50-year-old. “Nowadays I fix musical instruments.”

Hussain owns a cramped shop outside Tibbi Market, and his son helps him too, along with studying and expanding into the DJ business. But for Hussain, his soul and spirit were playing the tabla in an atmosphere where it was appreciated.

 

“At least 200 people were involved in every dancing session: the audience,” he claims. “These included the flower boy, the money seller, the musicians and the dancer.”

Indeed, the artists and musicians from Heera Mandi all lament the slow suffocation faced by the red light district. While the trained lot found one opportunity or another, a newer generation of dancers and musicians also emerged. The older lot accuses them of having cheapened the art.

For instance, Jugnu’s voice drips of derision as she speaks of the new breed of dancing women. “We were taught by great musicians, and every sur and taal of their tabla was studied,” she says. “We moved according to these beats. We earned with our feet. Today these dou-numberies [copycats] are doing vulgar dances.”

And what of the events she performs at?

“In private gatherings, we encounter the worst of the lot,” says Jugnu. “Most men behave with us as if we are ordinary whores.”

END OF AN ERA

It is often said that the women of the red light district are in command of their sexuality as well as their skills in art. But today, the demand for something crasser has come up and even they cannot do anything about it.

“Today men — who are our market — do not want art. They do not wish to woo the women here in the grand old tradition,” says Jugnu. “Today all they look for is instant sexual gratification, and that is what has resulted in a desolate Heera Mandi. [Our clients] used to come only to be in our company, to see an art being performed live.”

But the fact of the matter is that the market itself has changed. Nobody seems to want these women’s company any more. High culture left the area and was replaced by a crass demand for sexual services.

It is for this reason that the dark, shadowy area of Tibbi Gali is still dotted with girls as young as 15 and women as old as 60, toothless and wrinkled, standing in the doorways beckoning any man who passes by. So desperate are they to make ends meet that some will have sex with strangers for as low as 100 rupees. Others charge much less, as low as five rupees in some cases. The exchange purposely happens in the dark, often behind a grimy curtain, so that the faces and bodies of the prostitutes are hidden and their age cannot be ascertained.

Zeba sums up the situation aptly: “Heeron ka bazaar aaj mochion ka bazaar ban gaya hay [The bazaar of diamonds has been relegated to a bazaar of cobblers].”

*Names changed to protect privacy.

The writer is a member of staff.

She tweets @XariJalil

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 30th, 2017