You may find it shocking, but back in the day, Heera Mandi (Diamond Market) was not all about prostitution. A humongous number of ultra-talented musicians, singers and dancers, among many others, lived in the neighborhood, also known as the Shahi Mohalla (The Royal Neighborhood). Times began changing slowly and gradually after the British Raj and the partition that brought in Islamization. People associated with culltural professions that the Mughal emperors used to be great patrons of were forced to make a living by adopting anything they could easily learn to put food on their tables.
People still look down upon anyone who has been or is associated with Heera Mandi, in any capacity.
However, there is one entity inside the diamond market that struggles to retain itself and the art taught inside it – the Star Capricorn dance academy of Heera Mandi.
“The building was of a yellowish color, with a small white open doorway. The doors opened towards the inside. The walls inside were painted light pink, and we could see open wires and uncountable spider webs everywhere. It was extremely dirty, as if one has opened up the doors of a century old building, which hasn’t been cleaned yet. There were absolutely no lights, and the natural light coming in from the doorway just helped us look at the first 2-3 steps of the stairs. The rest of the staircase was lost in the darkness. Moreover, it was so narrow that only one person could stand on a stair at one time. The steps were also at least 18 inches in height, demanding a lot of exercise while climbing them,” Sarah Hayat Malik, one of the students whose research project became the inspiration for this piece, viewed, while describing the outer appearance of the Star Capricorn academy of Heera Mandi.
The walls of this place reverberate with the sounds of tabla, harmonium and ghunghroo, everyday.
One of the ustaads (teachers), Ustaad Zafar Dilawar,-used to work as a choreographer at one of the most venerable music programs of PTV called the ‘Firdous-e-Ghosh’; the show was hosted by Fariha Pervaiz and Faheem Mazhar and featured some of the most remarkable dance artists including Nighat Chaudhry. The worn-out walls of the dance academy are still adorned by some of the certificates ustaad Zafar and others have earned for their services during more prosperous times.
“The trend of learning has declined to a significant degree. There used to be 25-30 girls in this room but now they don’t come here anymore. Some have gone abroad, some have left this area. On top of that, they (the Punjab govt.) have broken all the roads It’s not easy to travel all the way to Heera Mandi. Even rickshaw costs Rs. 400-500. Then there is this trend of keeping tutors at home. But the work, however, hasn’t stopped. Please remember, whenever you grow grass somewhere, no matter what you put on top of it – the chips, or cement the floor, the grass will always grow. Just like that, this is a ‘kanjar-khana’ now, no matter how much you stop it, it will come out from somewhere,” says ustaad Zafar Dilawar.
Everybody at the dance academy is immensely welcoming, from the ustaads to the tabla and harmonium artists. At the end of the day, it is just so unfortunate that our own self inflicted morality prevents us from appreciating art that we have been indigenously blessed with.
Acknowledgment: Research for this article has been extracted from a project carried out by four LUMS students, Sarah Hayat Malik, Natasha Khan, Muneera Millwala and Maha S. Khan.