Slow Burn Lahore III: “This is My Culture”

in homistan

In Cairo, I thought I met Khizr. More likely, I found a new way of walking. Following hints, barely visible pathways, I try only to keep my sense of direction overpowered by my desire to get lost. Cairo, around Tahrir Square, looks a lot like the late colonial city abutting Old Lahore – the architecture of 20s and 30s behind Shah Alami Market, around Lakshmi Chowk, near Mayo Gardens. Unlike Cairo, Lahore seemed swallowed up by the destructive, unregulated building which happened mostly over the last decade or more. Where previously I could still find livable traces of the past, it seems impossible to contemplate now. Something has clicked over – some fatal blow. Maybe, it is the Ring Road, built to encircle Lahore – a tribute to the millions of infrastructure dollars and euros poured into Lahore. More roads.

II.

I was nearly to Rang Mahal when I discovered that I was going the wrong way. Turning around seemed impossible, but going forward was out of question. I managed – crossing in front of a large group of merchants who were amassing to begin their protest against the debilitating 16-18 hours of load shedding. In every city – from Karachi to Lahore to Faisalabad to Multan to Pak Pattan, people were burning tires, burning cars, destroying shops. In Lahore, there had been massive protests and destruction a few nights ago – in Walton (that big empty lot where Partition Refugees first sat down). I thought that it would be best to put some distance between myself and the merchants (a quick look had made me think that they weren’t the burning types but …). I stopped to ask a Rickshaw-wallah for directions.

The back of his rickshaw had a relief of Lahori Pehlwans (wrestlers) – eyes fixed, arms held out as if an onion was strapped in their armpits, and chests gleaming in oil. The ad was for a dangal (meet). I laughed, remembering the conversation about old Masters. I asked the Rickshaw where he got the screen from. He told me that by Bhatti Gate there are many Rickshaws parked and maybe someone there would know. Bhatti Gate would be retracing my steps (here is a map of Old Lahore, if you care). The clock was ticking. I had an appointment elsewhere. Yet, I couldn’t pass this hint. I had to follow.

I reached Bhatti Gate, my eyes and mouth full of smoke and dirt, I was confronted by a giant silk-screen poster extending across an empty Ghee shop. A white clad, handlebar-mustachioed young man with a warm smile walked up to me, seeing me fixated on the poster. You want to attend the dangal? No, actually, I just wanted to know who was painting these. The wrestlers were drawn and painted over, their bodies given shades of brown and black, their short lungis embroidered with pearls and tassels, wide sashes across wide chests and often other touches: a full Punjabi male dress, a tiger, a flute-playing bard. He shrugs. Whoever paints them, someone else pays for it, and hangs it here. He turned away. I looked again. There at the bottom was a name: Jahangir and a mobile number. Standing there, I dialed. I had no idea if the name belonged to the printer, the organizer of the tourney or the artist.

The man who answered asked me to come to him – in Lakshmi Chowk. This was the heart of Lahore’s famous film industry – a twin to Bombay as talkies began to reign across India in the 1930s. Lahore’s studios attracted most of the writers, poets, singers, and actors who went on to define Indian cinema of 40s through 70s. Lakshmi Chowk, now, is either an insulting reminder of that glory, or I don’t know. It is not fair to keep seeing it from a lens of the 40s, is it?

Behind the chowk, is a large gathering of businesses which cater to printing oversized materials. The shops are nestled up and down plazas which have no facade, no railing on steps and often no formal entrances. Everything seems to have been constructed recently and fifty years ago. Cement with a caking of smoked dirt.

Up and down, asking for Mansoor Tailor. The man on the phone had said to meet at the Tailor. You mean the dude with the long beard? I am asked. I have never seen Mansoor Tailor and I have no idea if he has a beard. So I say yes. I am told to follow the road (pathway?) to the curve and take the third alley on the left. Slowly, unsurely, I make my way, looking at the political rally posters, giant signs for Summer Lawns, doting the way.

Outside Mansoor Tailor is a man, who hesitates when he sees me. You here for Jahangir Sahib? I nod. Come. He walks briskly. He is clean shaven (I never saw what Mansoor looked like) and his pants are really clean. I note this because I see the streaks of smoke on my jeans. I catch up. He pauses in front of a half-built plaza/condo. All the way to the top. I look at the unfinished steps and start up. The first three floors are some kind of paper-mill. The fourth is empty, I think. I come up at the roof and am pleasantly surprised to see a nice, clean finished floor. There is no one in sight.

I walk down towards the rooms – there is an old man, in white wife-beater, a dhoti, and two fistfuls of shockingly white beard. He is sitting in front of a canvas on which is a bucolic village scene with a tube-well and a date palm. He looks up, and smiles, and kinda springs off the chair. He is wearing hipster glasses and he has only one tooth in his mouth, which is stained with nicotine or with paan.

I am Jahangir, you wanted to talk about the posters?

I have been working here, in Lakshmi Chowk, since 1963. At first, it was only filmi work – painted artist promos, film posters, title boards, whatever they wanted. Then I started, I don’t know when, to paint wrestlers and their meets. I started getting loads of business as people who want me to paint their pre-fight bodies. His fingers bustle through a stack of photographs. Some 12, some 15, some 40, men in tights. Oiled. Posing in studio, or on the street. Look at this poster. I take this photograph and then I paint it. I add touches from our culture, to make them stand out. The great wrestlers of yesterday are gone but we always include them in the line-up. They must live and stand next to these young ones. The punjabi wrestlers never die.

However, the movies are dead. There is no money. Everyone just wants to do it on Computers. My son, he is also a computer-wallah. So he does it too. But sometimes, I get an older patron who wants the way things were. So I paint the posters. You want to see some of my old movie ones – what a time that used to be in Lahore. He goes back into the room and comes out with a roll of posters. Slowly he unspools. Edges are torn. Big chunks of paper missing. Just what I salvaged over forty years of painting. Look at Waheed Murad. Here is Naheed. And Sultan Rahi. I would paint them from photograph and then when I would meet them and talk to them, I would quickly sketch them. I learned lighting, shading, depth, everything on my own. No teacher, you know. I saw some girls painting on the wall, while I was going to pray the other day. I asked them about if they thought of where the sun is, when the shade of the character comes into the art. They laughed at this old man who cannot stop spitting when he talks. My art – this is all I have left and some other torn posters – is here, though. Look at it.

The colors were rich. The lips red. The smiles white. The eyes locked between the Chocolati Hero and his One True Love.

But this is not what I do anymore. I just keep them for my record. There is no exhibition of my art. There is no one who knows. I die, maybe someone will come asking. Probably not. Nowadays, I just paint something for my own HEAD. He taps his skull. Come see.

The canvases are all cardboard. There is a beautiful PunjabaaN, holding a muTka, her hip jutting to the left, her nath gleaming. She is lovely. There is a meeting of Hir and Ranjha. There is a child and mother walking down a village path. There is a tube-well scene.

This is my culture, you know. My Punjab. My Lahore. I am an artist of my culture.

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