A NIGHT OUT IN (GREATER) LAHORE

Despite the bloody bombings and attacks, the magical liberation of Sufi shrines is irrepressible
Virinder S Kalra Manchester (UK)
 
The bloody bombing at the shrine of Data Sahib in Lahore in 2010 dampened — but only for a few days — the enthusiasm of the worshippers who congregate in thousands there on a typical Thursday afternoon. From 2:30pm onwards, the cacophony of the crowd is disciplined by the tuneful, rhythmic sounds of Qawaali performers who play in the large hall under the main shrine. All of Pakistan’s well-known and not-so-well-known Qawaals have played here, often to crowds in their tens of thousands. As the sounds of the azaan call out to signal the time of the Maghrib Namaaz, the Qawaali stops. But this is not the end of the sounds of the harmonium and tabla in the city, but rather the start of a long evening which spans not only the urban expanse of Lahore, but also different periods in history and multiple musical forms. 
 
At the shrine, you feel the pulse of working class Lahoris, visiting traders passing through the city, rural folk on weekly pilgrimage to their favourite baba, and above all, in a street culture dominated by men, a space where women can perform and socialise. In the shrine hall on the level above the formal stage of the Qawaali, a group of women surround a lone woman singer, not accompanied by any musicians, singing a song in praise of the giver, Data Sahib. 
 
As the evening approaches, heading out of Data Sahib, the discerning connoisseur of Qawaali need only move five miles down the road, travelling along the British colonial road, The Mall, still resplendent with grand imperial architecture, into the south of Lahore and the Cantonment area. Named after the shrine of Mian Mir, this area used to be known as Mian Mir Chownee, but is now just the dry — Cant. 
 
The Qawaali starts here after the Maghrib Namaaz, and is played in open air with garish speakers and broken down harmoniums. Mian Mir’s shrine is a large complex with many graves of the saint’s followers and their families. In oral history, it is Mian Mir who laid the foundation stone of the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar (the Golden Temple) — a point which brings the odd East Punjabi pilgrim to the shrine. 
 
This is not of much concern to those who come to Mian Mir looking for respite from their troubles or seeking the blessings of the spiritual power of the Pir. A refuge for the poor and dispossessed, shrines are spaces where shelter and food can be found, especially on a Thursday evening. Those whose wishes have been fulfilled come to distribute langar, and those receiving a meal have their needs fulfilled. 
 
As the evening approaches and the intensity of the music picks up, the matted hair malangs start swaying and dancing, an occasional woman malangi will also join in, and as the Qawaali reaches its peak, the whole of the crowd is swaying as the dancers step dance with their fingers pointing to the sky. A prayer of blessing is read, calling on the blessings of the saint, and the Ishaa Namaaz ends proceedings. 
 
Ears ringing with the sound of the Qawaals, the cool of the late evening is a good time to embark on the hour-long journey along the Ferozepur Road to Kasur. In its own right, a city of historical forts and peoples, it is now almost part of a great urban sprawl that has Lahore at its hub. Famed for its fried fish and andrassas, it is also home to the shrine of the great, legendary Punjabi poet-philosopher, Bulleh Shah. 
 
The shrine is located on the outskirts of the old walled city, as was befitting the ex-communicated heretic. Under the architectural mismanagement of the State, the shrine is now a garish, large marbled structure, with a huge courtyard. Overshadowing it is a minaret twice the height of any nearby building, guarding over a large mosque. Yet, these changes in the landscape of the graveyard that has the privilege of being Bulleh Shah’s final resting place, only serve to sharpen the contrast to the joyful music and dance of the bodies that breathe life into the tombs. 
 
Approaching the shrine, a dhol player or two may be seen beating out a simple kherva, or an old man with a tumba/king, dressed in green from turban to chappal, singing a line or two from Bulleh Shah’s repertoire. There is music of all sorts and hue, in various parts of the shrine complex, children with dholkis, lone wailers and those simply moved to sing to their “Beloved Bulleh”.
 
Sitting opposite the tomb of the saint are a family of singers who trace their lineage back to the 18th century, as the musicians who accompanied Bulleh Shah from the house of a courtesan where he learnt to dance, in Gwalior, to Kasur. With a steel water pot and dholki for percussion and a harmonium, there are no speakers or microphones, just the powerful voice of the lead singer, Shehzad, and his family. 
 
Kanjari baniyaan meri izzat na ghat di
Mainu nach ke yaar manaawan de 
(Becoming a courtesan is not shameful / Let me dance and woo my love)
 
Appropriate words, for the performers that accompany the singers. Under the tree, on the marble floor, men dressed in swirling skirts and ankles in the style of courtesans, kathak dancers of the mughal courts, accompany the singers and musicians. These men belong to the dhamaal akharas of Kasur. 
 
Wage labourers by day, their nights are given over to the shrine. Castigated by their families and looked upon as outcastes, they are in many ways untouched by any sense of conservative propriety. Drawing inspiration from the lyrics of their baba, their dance for them is at one and the same time, a prayer, a homage, an exit from the world of the mundane to that of magical ecstasy. 
 
The intensity of the performance parallels the lyrical foundations that Shehzad weaves into his performance. As the midnight hour nears, the crackle of the microphone and the slap of the tabla are heard from the far side of the courtyard. A Qawaali group, relatives of Shehzad, are setting up base near the entrance of the shrine complex. A few harmoniums, with a group of boys clapping, sit behind the two main singers, who begin to render those Kafis of Bulleh Shah made popular through the extensive and brilliant repertoire of the late ‘Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Qawaal and Party’. These immensely popular lyrics from Bulleh Shah close the night:
 
Nee main janha jogee de naal
Kanni mundran pa ke mathe tilak laga ke
(I am going to leave with the jogi / With his ears pierced and a tilak on his forehead)
 
By now it is post midnight, 1am, and the crowds in the shrine are thinning, though there are still those praying and singing. Following the wave of genocidal attacks on Sufi shrines in 2010, the district collector of Kasur passed an order — the shrine of Bulleh Shah must be shut at 8pm. Though the gates of the complex now have a padlock on at this time, the music and dancing has shifted to the unkempt, rough land that is at the front of the shrine. Fear of death has no place for those dedicated to their murshid!
 
The more weary may find this a satisfactory end to an evening of spectacle and aural delight, but Lahore is not a city that sleeps early. Heading back along the Ferozepur Road, the traffic is less, but the roadside dhabas are still open and the occasional fruit seller 
may be seen providing nourishment to the passing traveller. 
 
As the Ferozepur Road hits the Canal Ring Road, the shrine of Shah Jamal is calling. Located in one of the exclusive suburbs of Lahore, opposite the Foreman Christian College, the shrine is a two-storeyed complex, with the tombs located on the upper level. Shah Jamal, the ‘Dancing Saint’, who is often depicted in poster art wearing ankle bells in a swirling stance, plays host to the dhol and dhammal every Thursday evening. 
 
Two worlds rub against each other at Shah Jamal. The large kothis and middle-class sensibilities of their residents, with refined Urdu and conservative outlooks, face the world of the malangs: matted hair, hashish-smoking, straight-talking. The link between them are the middle-class youth who come to Shah Jamal to engage in the illicit world of charas (hashish), ‘loaded’ cigarettes, bhang pappad and music. The open air courtyard, where the famous dhol player Pappu Sain plays, is crowded. A dense fog of smoke hangs over the mostly male, youngish spectators. Before Pappu Sain begins, the amazing sounds of his relative, ‘Gunga’ Sain Dhol, can be heard coming from the upper floor of the shrine. When ‘Gunga’ (the mute) ends his performance, usually after 1am, the ground floor begins yet another mind-blowing musical epic. 
 
Pappu Sain is a dhol superstar, he has toured all over the subcontinent and is one of the favourites in the European world music circuit. His videos fill YouTube and the event at Shah Jamal is frequented by the South Asian diaspora and other tourists. The Regency Hotel brings its residents to the show, where they sit alongwith the smattering of other women under the large tree which overshadows one corner of the courtyard. Despite this insertion into the world of commodity musical form and consumerist voyeurism, no ticket is charged for this event and no donations solicited. 
 
A tall imposing figure, with his dark beard and flowing black hair adding to his stature, Pappu Sain carries his dhol around his neck and begins to play in a slow, deep pulsating manner. The climax of his performance occurs when he takes to the centre of the yard and starts to slowly spin, the dhol rising due to the centrigual forces and spinning off his body, all the time beating out a fast and furious rhythm. As he slows and returns to his normal playing, the dhamaals take to the stage, beginning in a slow manner, spinning or stepping from foot to foot. 
 
Dressed in the red of Shahbaz Qalandar or the green of the Qadiris or in the black of the malangs, these men, often over ten in number, sway and dance to the thumping dhols. As the tempo rises, the movements become faster, then the swirling begins, some turbans start unravelling and the shoulder-length hair of the dancers whips the faces as the spinning accelerates. This is an open jam; sometime a horn player, other times a trumpeter, indeed anyone who feels moved to play with Pappu and Mittu Sain, can join in. On the periphery of the dhamaalis, young men break into spontaneous bhangra. The music and dance carry on until the azaan for the Fajar Namaaz. 
 
In 2009, the sounds of the dhol fell silent at Shah Jamal, and many stories circulated about why this happened; some said due to complaints from the neighbourhood; for others it was security concerns; others alleged it was due to the ongoing dispute between Pappu and Gunga Sain about who should legitimately play at the shrine. Yet, only a few weeks after the closure, the same event appeared in a more lower-middle-class neighbourhood near Moghulpura. 
 
Shah Kamal’s shrine became a new venue for an old set of practices, with Gunga Sain taking centrestage with the dhol. Despite the tractions and difficulties, the popular culture of Punjabi shrines is irrepressible. 
 
Intoxicated by the music and dancing of the day and night, the last ritual is to head towards Garhi Shahu and indulge in Lahore’s other great passion: food. A tikka or kebab from a road side hatti is a perfect way to welcome the dawn and to welcome a day of sleep on the day of rest.   
 
Virinder S Kalra teaches Sociology at the University of Manchester, UK. He was in Lahore in 2007-09, doing research on Sufi shrines. For details, see http://www.saanjhpunjab.info

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This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2011

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