Daily Times: Sunday, March 11, 2007

Lahore Lahore Aye: Nights of joy in old Lahore

By A Hamid

Whereas science and technology have brought us conveniences that were unknown in earlier times, they have also taken away from us many of the innocent joys that were associated with our old culture and way of life. The many-hued canvas that was Lahore has lost much of its colour for some of us and many of its distinct features have simply disappeared. There was a time – I must have been six or seven years old – when small groups of folk minstrels would come to the old city to sing lullabies to infants. They would generally come in parties of three about the time of the Charriyan wala Mela, a yearly festival that is now not even remembered.

These musicians came from adjoining villages. I remember them wearing starched white turbans and traditional Punjabi tehmads. In a party of three, one would play the sarangi, another would beat the drum strung across his neck and the third, who was always the oldest, would sing. He would take the infant into his arms and sing gently to him. One lullaby I remember went: Lori dewaan baal noon; Jeevay sonhay laal noon. (I sing a lullaby to the lovely child and may he have a long life.) The babies’ mothers would present the singers, who were called Dharis, with copper paisas, uncooked rice and flour.

On auspicious occasions, these Dharis were sent for by the celebrating family. The area in front of the house where a marriage or birth had taken place, was swept and cotton spreads called darris placed on the cobbled street after late evening prayers. A few petromax lights were hung by bamboo staves that had been thrown across a canopy and strung firmly in place. Large wooden outsize tables called takhtposh were brought out for the guests to sit on and for the performers to use. The Dharis would always take care not to be seen by their audience before the start of the performance. Women’s roles were played by young, good-looking boys who would look stunning in their elaborate makeup and finery.

The Dharis performed either Heer Ranjha or the Legend of Dil Khurshid, a love story popular at the time. They would request the celebrating family to place one of the rooms of the house – always the baithak or the drawing room – at their disposal where they would change into their costumes and make what other preparations they considered necessary. The women of the house would watch the performance through their street-level windows or from behind slightly parted curtains. The performance would begin with the entry of the musicians who would take their places on the low wooden platform set aside for them. The performance would not begin until all the instruments, including the tablas, had been properly tuned. The man on the harmonium would just have one finger pressing a single key which would continue to sound the same note. The performance would begin when two men would appear from behind a makeshift curtain carrying the chimta and the toti, both traditional Punjabi folk instruments. They would begin to play them, establishing a rollicking rhythm. Then they would bow to the audience and wait for the harmonium and table player would join them.

After three or four minutes, the two men with the chimta and the toti would disappear to make way for a tall man in a long green shirt and a red loincloth, playing ek-tara, a single string instrument. He would take a bow and announce that the company would now begin a performance of the immortal love tale of Heer Ranjha. He would recite some of Warris Shah’s couplets and then declaim: O kind and appreciative audience, we bring to you now a story from a bygone age as we have brought you stories from more recent times. Watch the play, watch the true love of Ranjha. Just behold that handsome youth from Takht Hazara, who having lost his patience with the sharp-tongued women of his family, sets out one day to look for the fabled beauty, Heer Syal.

The man would continue to play his instrument as he talked before making away for the handsome youth from Takht Hazara, who would enter playing his flute and the audience would burst out in applause. Ranjha with shoulder-length hair would be wearing a long green silk shirt and a black-bordered red loincloth or laacha. He would circle around the stage and then sing the famous lines from the Warris Shah epic in praise of Heer’s beauty. As soon as he would finish, Heer would emerge from among the audience, where she had been hiding all along with her face and body covered with a sheet. Her appearance would be so dramatic and she would look so stunning that it would make everyone sit up. Later, people would proudly recall how Heer was sitting right next to them, only they did not realise it was she because she was all covered up. The Heer Ranjha performance would most of the night but the people would stay up to enjoy it. We children would also be allowed to hang around.

After the show was over, the actors would disappear in the baithak that they had used as their changing room. We children, dying to see them in their ordinary clothes, would glue our eyes to the windows to catch a glimpse of what was going on inside, but we would never be able to see anything. The Dhari party would leave as the call for morning prayers would rise from the minarets of neighbourhood mosques. For days afterwards, we would dream about the resplendent Heer in her magnificent makeup and shimmering clothes. At the time, we did not know that Heer was not a girl but a boy. Today, these things may sound rustic, if not childish, because of their simplicity, but the joy that they brought to those who would stay up all night to watch them in utter fascination, no modern form of entertainment can match.

Those Dharis exist no longer and even in the most remote of villages, modern forms of entertainment have replaced those old simplicities. They may have been small pleasures in a simpler time for simpler people, but they had a charm that has gone out of modern life. I would say that those joys have been snatched from us. Where are the Heers of yesteryears who would shut themselves in a room, powder their faces, colour their lips, sprinkle henna perfume over their gold and silver clothes and wait to be called out. Today’s Heers goes to a beauty parlour where they make her up so that she can be a bride, but what has evaporated is the old magical aroma of henna and red roses. It is only in dreams that one is sometimes transported to those simpler times with their simple pleasures when people may not have had much in material terms but when they were far happier than they are today. But that is life, a passing show.

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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