Daily Times: Sunday, March 04, 2007

Lahore Lahore Aye: The city of lamp-lighters

By A Hamid

There was a time when Lahore did not have electric power. In the evening, people would light up lanterns and clay lamps and in their homes. The streets were illuminated with kerosene lamps mounted on steel poles. Lamp-lighters employed by the municipal committee would arrive before dark to get the lights going. These men would clean the glass chimney, trim the wick and top up the oil. These men carried a bamboo ladder which they used to climb the ten feet or so in order to complete their task. These overhead lamps were never vandalised and never stolen.

The mosques had no loudspeakers but the azan, the call to prayer, could be heard loud and clear, even in adjoining neighbourhoods. Those were quieter times, there being no wagons, rickshaws or motorcycles creating the racket that they do today. The population of Lahore was also small. If you lived in Mochi Gate and were placidly lying on your cot under the open sky on the top storey of your house, you could always hear the sound of the shunting of railway engines all the way from the station. One of my Kashmiri ancestors had settled in Lahore. His family had bought a house in a street somewhere between Bhaati Gate and Mori Darwaza. I remember that house distinctly although I was very young. In summers, we would lie awake in our beds under the open night sky and we heard people on the street outside returning home from the last cinema shows. Most of the city cinemas were located outside Bhaati Gate

During the annual celebrations at the mausoleum of Lahore’s patron saint, Data Ganj Baksh, a popular theatre company would install its tent in the area. Everyone called it Phajji Shah’s Theatre. The actors would deliver their lines in voices so high that we children could hear them lying awake in our beds miles away. The cinema houses of those times were called “mandvas” or biscope. Most of the movies used to be in English and they were invariably full of fights and acts of physical courage. The hero was popularly known as Bahadur and the heroine the Lady Bahadur. As children, we would play games pretending to be fighters. Three or four boys would take away the Lady Bahadur, played by the best looking boy among us, and some of us would set out to fight them to get the prisoner free. These encounters were quite spirited but no one would ever get hurt.

One of the Bhaati cinemas ran Urdu movies. The most famous movie of those days was Hatam Tai. It was a serial and it ran in four parts, beginning very early in the evening and ending just before the call for the night prayer, Isha, was sounded. The cinema facing the Lahore railway station, that was later renamed Rivoli used to be called Munawwar Theatre. Raj Kapoor and Nargis’s Barsaat was released here in 1949 and it broke all previous box office records. The cinema was owned by cricketer Aga Saadat Ali’s family and his mother supervised its operation. Even after the name was changed to Rivoli, the original Urdu name could still be read. At one time, it was called Naulakha Talkies. It used to specialise in exhibiting horror movies. One of the most frightening movies I remember watching there was The Ghost of Frankenstein, with Boris Karloff playing the lead role. I had bought a two-anna ticket and watched it sitting on a bench close the screen. It was said that it took four hours to apply the right makeup to Karloff’s face. Many years later, I read that the movie was based on a novel by Mary Shelley, wife of my favourite English romantic poet, Shelley.

It was AR Kardar from Bhaati Gate who truly was the pioneer of Urdu film production in Lahore. The famous character actor M Ismail was also from Bhaati Gate. Much before my time, the elders of the family told me, there used to be just one cinema house outside Bhaati Gate where English silent movies used to run. On either side of the road there were makeshift shops with tin roofs selling clay utensils of all kinds. The visiting theatre companies, such as the Phajji Shah’s Theatre, used to stage plays based on the lives of legendary lovers like Laila and Majnum, Sassi and Punnu, Heer and Ranjha and Sohni and Manhiwal. Also popular were dramas such as Puran Bhagat, Ram Sita and Sur Das. The neighbourhood inside Bhaati Gate was quiet and peaceful. These mohallas and residential areas lying between Tehsil Bazaar and Bhaati Gate were hundreds of years old. There was the main bazaar and than there were the adjacent neighbourhoods or mohallas, some of which were: Mohalla Sathaan, Mohalla Samian, Mohalla Patrangaan, Mohalla Chohala, Bazaar Hakimaan, Uchhi Masjid, Noor Mohalla, Mohalla Jogian and Thathi Malahaan. These neighbourhoods still exist but gone is the peace and quiet of the old days, Most of the residential housing has been turned over to sweatshops that make all kinds of things for different manufacturers. Scooters and rickshaws run pell mell through the streets, emitting vile smoke and polluting the air with noise and noxious fumes.

I have seen as a child cold, clean water flowing through the canal that flowed outside the city wall. There were flower beds along the road that ran in front of Bhaati Gate. The roads used to be sprinkled with water by committee vans morning and evening. Outside Bhaati, there used to be a tonga stand where you could hire a real Lahori tonga. Bhaati Gate was truly the heart of Lahore, spiritually because of Data Sahib, and in terms of entertainment because of its cinemas and travelling theatre companies. I recall Anwar Jalal Shamza, Saleem Shahid and I coming here at least once a year to watch a drama. One show I can never forget was Laila Majnun. In the last act, after Laila is married off to someone else, Majnun cries out her name three times, then plunges a dagger through his heart, circles around like a top three times and dies with blood gushing out of his chest, thanks to a plastic sack of red water hidden under his shirt which the dagger punctures. So much did the audience love this scene that some of the fans wanted the scene to be played one more time. “Once more, once more,” a few kept shouting. Finally, the dead Majnun rose to his feet, executed a bow to express his gratitude to the audience, committed suicide once again – though there was no blood this time – circled the stage three times before falling to the floor and dying finally and once for all.

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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