The diamonds glitter no more

As night time approaches, the synchronised sounds of the tabla and the jingling ghunghroo reach a crescendo and the high-storey houses, with intricately carved balconies and awning windows, begin dazzling with bright lights. Their windows and doors remain ajar till the wee hours of the morning, offering potential customers a sneak peek of the revelry of music and dance going on inside.

Such was a typical night at the notorious Heera Mandi located in the heart of Old Lahore before the 1980s. Most continue to imagine the place as a wild alternative world of entertainment and debauchery. However, this perception of the Diamond Market starkly contrasts with its present reality. The landscape of Heera Mandi, where most businesses typically commenced past midnight, has drastically altered over the decades.

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Waning kothas and missing dancing girls

Abdul Sattar*, who is in his mid-twenties, hails from a gharana which historically organised mujras.  “We gave it up following threats by some unknown people to end this ‘business’,” says the young man, who is dressed in casual jeans and a blue t-shirt.

“We have friends in this area and we don’t want them to face any untoward incident because of us.”

While sitting on a wooden bench outside a roadside restaurant near his home in Heera Mandi, Sattar relays the bleak tale of the area’s demise.

His family — apparently one of the only two surviving families of Heera Mandi’s traditional entertainers — has now given up its profession.

The other gharana has now shifted to a posh locality in the city because it’s easier for them to organise mujras for the wealthy in lavish homes and spacious farmhouses, claims Sattar.

“Very few kothas are left here now and their former owners have relocated after renting them out.”

He is quick to draw a clear distinction between his ancestral business and sex work. “We have been musicians since generations but we don’t run brothels,” he says categorically.

“People often confuse Heera Mandi’s kothas with brothels,” he continues. “Although sex workers have operated and do still operate in Heera Mandi, typically a kotha was a place where girls danced.”

There are others who also attest to the idea that Heera Mandi was much more than just a hub for sex work.

“In the late 1970s the place used to be very vibrant,” says film critic Zahid Akkasi, who authored a book on Heera Mandi. “This place has given us some legendary musicians, singers and actors.”

The writer attributes Heera Mandi’s demise to Ziaul Haq’s drive to Islamise Pakistan during the 1980s. “How can a place like Heera Mandi survive with Ziaul Haq as the ruler?” he asks.

While many people still continue to think of Heera Mandi as the hub of the city’s brothels, there is strong factual evidence suggesting that this is no longer the case. Many brothel owners, faced with crackdowns and a changing clientele, simply pulled up their stakes and moved to other parts of the city. According to an investigative report prepared under the direction of the Lahore CCPO Pervaiz Rathore, there were 445 brothels operating in various parts of Lahore in 2009 — 128 in Model Town division, 96 in Saddar, 75 in city division, 52 in Iqbal Town, 52 in Civil Lines division, 42 in Cantt division and 19 are ‘mobile’ brothel houses. The report also alleged that these brothels survive due to the active patronisation of the area SHOs. What houses of prostitution remain in Heera Mandi are seamy, seedy and very low-rent.

Surviving the odds 

With the decline of kothas and traditional musical entertainment, the landscape of Heera Mandi has radically changed. Now most of the shops, which once catered to the area’s musicians, have been converted into shoe markets. The area surrounding Tibbi Gali — once famous for artisans with the amazing talent of repairing traditional musical instruments like the tabla and sitar — has become a hub of small factories manufacturing sodas and soft drinks injurious to health, according to a report by the Excise and Taxation Department.

However, there are still a few shops where artisans fix musical instruments, but their trade, which historically depended on the tradition of mujras in Heera Mandi, has waned. “Most of our customers come from other parts of Lahore,” says Yaqoob, who owns a shop for fixing musical instruments. “But we are mostly asked to fix guitars; classical singers and musicians seldom come to get their instruments fixed so business is not very good.”

Several new music bands and disc jockeys have opened up their offices in the area and are offering their services for weddings and other functions. “Most of the people running these businesses were formerly involved in Heera Mandi’s ‘traditional entertainment’,” explains a member of a local musical band. “A typical mujra involved technicians, musicians and even singers, and with its decline, these people have moved on to other professions.”

“Contrary to popular belief about Heera Mandi [that it was a centre for prostitution], it was actually a place where classical singers taught students at bethaks,” he asserts. “Once a courtesan at Heera Mandi told me that she didn’t need to learn singing if she only had to work as a prostitute.”

“Heera Mandi is not what it used to be; it’s become a place where sex workers — mostly transsexuals — can ‘entertain’ a customer for a sum as low as Rs200,” says Kulsoom*, a sex worker, wistfully. “Just seven years ago, the place had glamour and Basant celebrations here used to draw influential people.”

But as the time-honoured trades of Heera Mandi continue to slide into oblivion, there are still some who refuse to see the writing on the wall.

Abdul Sattar, for one, has the resources to set up his business in another part of Lahore but he refuses to abandon Heera Mandi.

“Look, I was born here and I grew up here and this is the place that I belong to,” he says in a sentimental tone. “I just wish, with all my heart, for this area to relive its glory days.”

* Names have been changed

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, December 25th,  2011 [Written By – Ali Usman]

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