Daily Times: Sunday, February 18, 2007

Lahore Lahore Aye: Lahore’s street singers

By A Hamid

The inner city of Lahore and its streets are deeply integrated with our cultural traditions. Much has changed and much will change but the soul of the city of Lahore retains its old charm. It is true that modernity has infiltrated the streets of the Walled City in the form of computers, mobile phones, CD players and other electronic gadgetry, but Lahore is a moveable feast like Hemingway’s Paris and Manto’s Bombay. Nothing can change its essential élan. Cities have souls and great cities have great souls.

Many of the old residents of Lahore, especially the youth, have moved out from the old havelis and semi-lit houses to the city’s newly developed more fashionable areas, but they have never quite turned their back on the city’s old culture and values. Many of them have carried those values and some of that way of life with them, wherever they have gone. For example, one old Lahoria, Justice Khawaja Sharif, who lives in the tonier Defence Colony, a world away from his family home in the city’s backstreets, holds every year a special feast of honour for a revered Lahore saint where traditional food is prepared and served. He invites his friends to come and share that food which includes sweet, aromatic yellow rice, moong lentil and sour radishes. In Gulberg, Johar Town and Defence, the traditional Lahori food is sold and taken home or eaten on the premises by those who may never even have stepped into the old city. The traditional foods of Lahore – roghni naan, kulchay, harisa, fried fish and siri payay – can be had now almost anywhere. However, even today the best of the best is still to be found in the old quarter, which is where the true lovers of that cuisine go.

Old Lahore lives as it has lived for hundreds of years. Its culture is rooted in its old shops and their jutting wooden platforms on which people sit and chat, in barber shops where you can take a steaming hot bath, and in old houses with their forecourts and latticed windows. A part of this culture is street singers who perform while walking, reviving the memory of legendary lovers and ancient tales of heroism. Old Lahore is roving faqirs who wear colourful silken gowns, and who sometimes dance with jangling anklets in their feet. There was a time when any new-fangled thing would be made the subject of a versified folk tale or qissa that the street singers would memorise and sing. It could be some new European invention, a modern fashion that women or men had taken to or even a significant political happening. The street singers would walk through the city singing snatches of the new qissa. They would perform at a wrestling pit or in a public park or even at street intersections. The new qissa was also published as a booklet and sold. Badly printed but legible, these pamphlets would cost very little.

Sometimes, a young man whom God had gifted with a sweet voice, would be asked to perform by an admirer and he would oblige, singing the timeless stories of Heer Ranjha or Yusuf Zulekha. People would gather in a circle around him and even those out on some important errand would stop for a few minutes to join the crowed to hear the young man. A certain class of singers would always dress in black with iron bangles on their wrists and small black staffs in their hands. The iron bangles would be worked with great dexterousness to keep time with the help of the staff which was a foot or two in length. They would sing Dulla Bhatti or Mirza Sahiban as they walked through the bazaar. Sometimes, a shopkeeper with a romantic temperament would invite them to perform in front of his place of business. At the end of the performance, he would offer them money. Passers by and those who had gathered around them would also make what contribution they could. The singers never asked or begged for money.

In Ganj Shaheedaan Chowk’s Takiya Sadhuvaan, there would always be a musical mehfil or session. Such classical greats as Ustad Ashiq Ali Khan and Roshan Ara Begum were known to have performed at the Takiya. One of the most famous wandering singers of the city was named Moti Shah, who had an overpowering voice. He was dressed like a faqir and such power and outreach his voice had that if he were performing in the park adjoining Mochi Gate, he would be heard as far Delhi Darwaza and Texali Gate. He would often be invited to perform at people’s homes. Moti Shah was a true wandering minstrel who would never accept money. Few know that he was the brother of Dr Nazir Ahmed, who became principal of Government College, Lahore. He would meet his brother with great affection and if they ran into each other on the street and Moti Shah was singing, Dr Nazir Ahmed, who was also highly musical, would throw his arms around him and the two brothers would embrace, one a botanist, the other a faqir.

Another famous street singer of the city was Laloo Sain, who would always dress in red. He sold fruit juice from a wheel barrow but sometimes, when the spirit was over him, he would begin to sing Bulleh Shah or Allama Iqbal’s Shikwa or Jawab-i-Shikwa. He too had a powerful voice. Sometimes, while extracting juice from an orange for a waiting customer, he would stop and start singing.

In those days, older women living in the city generally went about in a white burqa, while the colour favoured by younger ones was black. Bobbed hair for women were just coming into fashion and an anonymous Punjabi poet from Lahore had written a qissa satirising the new craze. It sold quite well in Anarkali and the inner city till the novelty wore off. I remember another wandering singer whom everyone called Namana Sain. He was young and good looking and it was said that he had fallen in love with a girl and having failed to win her heart, had taken to the streets, wandering like a faqir. He used to sing Saif-ul-Muluk, the Punjabi epic, in a deeply moving voice. He was always to be found around the Lahore Fort, the Pani Wala Talab and the Shahi Mohalla area. He would not talk to anyone but when the mood came over him, he would begin to sing. He also knew Mian Mohammad’s mystical verse and so overcome would he be by the words he was singing that tears would begin to flow down his cheeks and there were few among his listeners who could keep their eyes dry at such moments.

Another street singer of Lahore was named Taji Shah. Such a sweet and poignant voice he had that when he would start singing, people would drop whatever they were doing to listen to him. He had learnt under the tutelage of Ali Bux Zahoor. All those sweet-voiced minstrels have since passed but I am sure their souls still roam the streets of the city that they loved.

A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan

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