Lahore is a mural, every inch of which exudes the rich details of a miniature. History, culture, geographic features and people confer upon certain cities a distinct character that enchants and captivates generations. Paris, London, Rome, Vienna, New York, Saint Petersburg, Delhi, Berlin, there is a long inventory of cities which continue to enthrall their inhabitants as well as visitors.
The city of Lahore has all these ingredients with an additional quality. Metropolitan in expanse, this bustling city throbs like any other city with a population of nearly 10 million would; it is singularly languid, as well. While its skyline testifies to its magnificence, its streets whisper like a lover overawed by the sublime elation of one’s own passion. Above all, Lahore is characterized by its people; a combination of creative flair and a gregarious spontaneity has produced an unending vista of extraordinary characters over the centuries.
Once perched on an elevated plain on the left bank of River Ravi, Lahore remained a touchdown point for invaders from the North for over a thousand years. Hailing from the mountains of Central Asia, the Mongols, Turks and Afghans would stop at Lahore to consolidate their military and political flanks before making a decisive foray toward Delhi, the capital of India. Lahore, thus, had the unsolicited distinction of being a battlefield for soldiers of fortune.
Fertile alluvial fields spanning the lands around the city yielded agrarian produce while an array of craftsmen toiled in the city to create works of dazzling refinement. However, legions of warriors descended upon the city with ominous regularity to rampage the city and plunder its wealth. This historical recurrence, however, bestowed two unintended features upon Lahore. Its architecture blossomed with dozens of monuments, gardens and mausoleums spangled across the cityscape.
More importantly, the citizens of Lahore learnt valuable lessons in adaptability. They would lie low in the face of adversity, only to rise again and grab newfound opportunities with the relish of an impatient child. Imperial activity also attracted a range of outstanding characters; mystics, poets, soldiers, administrators, scholars and craftsmen would flock the city, adding to its diversity, grandeur and accompanying expansion of economic and civic patterns. The citizens of Lahore developed a knack for learning languages, skills, manners and a deft alacrity to grasp the changing panorama of situations. Armed with the confidence of a youthful ambition, Lahoris developed a unique combination of equanimity and festivity. Lahore retains its flair for celebration despite the vicissitudes of history.
The arrival of the British in 1849 to substitute Sikh rule in the Punjab was soon followed by the mutiny of 1857. Punjab stood on the right side of history and Lahore expected to gain from the outcome of the larger scramble for power in the subcontinent. The assumption of the rule over India by the Crown ushered in a new era for Lahore. Just as previously Lahore had been an important middle point for invaders from the North, it continued to be the center point of the new administration in the trans-Sutlej parts of the British government.
Led by discerning civil administrators like the Lawrence brothers, a large number of British officers set to turn Lahore into the political, social and cultural center of the newly acquired vast riverine province of Punjab. It heralded the onset of an educational, cultural and political resurgence for the city of Lahore. It was on April 4, 1874, that a historical meeting of the Anjuman-e-Punjab in Lahore decided to launch what came to be loosely known as the movement for “Natural poetry” in Urdu.
The meeting was attended by a large number of European officers along with a galaxy of Oriental scholars, prominent among who was Maulana Muhammed Hussain Azad. The idea was to replace the traditional subject matter of Urdu poetry with a range of topics along the lines of 18th-century Romantic poetry in Europe. The form of poetic recitals was shifted from the traditional rhyme scheme of Ghazal to topic-based poetry, wherein the poets were free to choose the meter and form of their poetic endeavors.
Interestingly, Delhi and Lucknow (the traditional schools of Urdu poetry) opposed this rather naïve reformist agenda in poetry, but Punjabi-speaking Lahore not only embraced Urdu as the formal language of literary expression but also agreed to the experimentation advocated by individuals like Azad, Hali, and later Tajwar Najibabadi—all of whom came to Lahore from the Urdu-speaking parts of central India after 1857.
Quratulain Haider was to famously marvel later that Lahore was so eager to embrace the new forms of artistic expression that while central India still wrangled over the idea of Sir Syed’s Aligarh educational movement, Lahore had moved on to produce Allama Iqbal, a defining voice in Urdu poetry in the coming century. At the turn of the century, Sir Abdul Qadir founded the literary journal Makhzan from Lahore. This initiated the tradition of Urdu-language literary magazines which continued to thrive until the last decades of the 20th century through periodicals like Alamgir, Adabi Dunya, Adab-e-Latif, Svera, Naqoosh, Funoon, and Auraq. Close on the heels of Qadir came Maulvi Mumtaz Ali, whose Punjab Book Deport proved instrumental in making Lahore the publishing center of Urdu language.
The establishment of educational institutions like Government College, Forman Christian College, Mayo School of Arts (later National College of Arts) and the Punjab University transformed Lahore into the hub of cultural and artistic activity in northwestern India. Lahoris might not have—and possibly could not—acquired a pristine Urdu accent, but they could boast Urdu scholars like Hafiz Mehmood Sherani and Maulvi Shafi. And journalists like Zafar Ali Khan, Chiragh Hasan Hasrat, Ghulam Rasul Mehar and Majid Salik picked up Urdu prose where Ghalib had left it in the mid-19th century.
While Lahoris continued to marvel at the refined sensibility of Delhi, Lucknow, and Hyderabad, the emerging bevy of writers like Hafeez Jalundhari, Patras and M. D. Taseer were not averse to challenge the linguistic and cultural hubris of purists like Josh, Shahid Dehlavi, and Niaz Fatehpuri. Interestingly, Sir Syed had conferred the title of Zinda Dilan-e-Lahore (“Hearty Lahoris”) on the citizens of Lahore. However, when the emerging literary voices from Lahore decided to respond to rather quaint objections raised by the so-called Ahl-e-Zaban (“People of the Tongue”) writers of the Old School from Uttar Pradesh, they chose the appellation Niaz Mandan-e-Lahore (“Humble of Lahore”) for themselves. If the testimony of the evolution of literary sensibility down the lane is to be trusted, the exuberance of young voices from Lahore won the day.
Writes K. K. Aziz in his book Pakistan’s Political Culture: Essays in Historical and Social Origins of pre-1947 Lahore: “There had been a time when the feudal class mixed without any complexes and mental reservations with the urban elite. The Tiwanas, the Noons, the Daulatanas, the Mazaris and the Qureshis had met on equal footing with the non-feudal urban, highly educated and professional men like Mian Sir Fazle Hussain, Sir Abdul Qadir, Sir Zafrullah Khan, Malik Barkat Ali and others. In their Lahore residences they had entertained even intellectuals and editors and lawyers and professors like Salik, Meher, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, Prof. Ahmad Shah Bokhari, Khalifa Shujauddin, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Mian Abdul Aziz Falakpaima.
Lahore retains its flair for celebration despite the vicissitudes of history.
“The houses of Mian Ahmad Yar Khan Daultana, Sir Zulfiqar Ali Khan, Sir Shahabuddin and Mian Bashir Ahmad had had more educated townsmen as their guests and visitors than men from their estates. At least in the Punjab, a good deal of integration had taken place on the social level, not only between the landed aristocracy and the urban elite, but also among the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh leading families. Raja Narendranath, a fanatic Hindu Mahasabhai and the chief spokesman of the uncompromising Hindu Punjabis, had lived in cosmopolitan glory in his palace, learnt the Arabic language, loved Persian poetry, entertained his Muslim friends whose number was not small, and had two Muslim cooks to prepare meals for his Muslim friends. This melting pot was transformed into separated social classes by the refugees who came and took over and the nexus between the city and the feudal hinterland, which had yielded positive results in the past, was forever gone.”
Lahore during the truce between the two World Wars was a curious blend of rustic simplicity, mature urbanity and acquired modernity. The city was not just the home to literary and artistic expression; it was also the center of political discourse. It was on the banks of River Ravi that the All-India National Congress demanded independence. Bhagat Singh and his young comrades conducted most of their violent activities in Lahore. The Simon Commission met its most vociferous resistance in Lahore when Lala Lajpat Rai was fatally hurt by the police. The majority of the religious movements in northwestern India thrived in Lahore.
On the demographic side, the Old Lahore inside the 12 famous gates was rapidly being eclipsed by burgeoning modern neighborhoods. The Mall with its bustling shopping points, cafés, restaurants and imposing official buildings was assuming the status of being the new boundary for the city. Farther on the northwestern flanks of the city, residential neighborhoods like Model Town were emerging in the suburbs. While the pristine flavor of Lahore still focused in Old Lahore—with its wrestling arenas, folk music and traditional food—cultural and social activities were spreading in the outskirts. Places like the India Coffee House, Arab Hotel, and Nagina Bakery were the meeting points for the literati, intellectuals, journalists and students where talent was spotted and honed by veteran practitioners.
Literature was not the only form of artistic expression in Lahore. Music thrived mainly through two classical music families: Sham Churasi and Patiala. A major center of classical music, Kasur, was in the vicinity of Lahore and the musicians and artistes from Kasur, including Bade Ghulam Ali khan and Noor Jehan, stamped their authority on the Lahore stage. Theater in India had mainly evolved in the coastal cities of southwestern India, but with the arrival of movies, Lahore emerged as the second center of Indian film after Bombay. Festive Lahore relished nothing better than wrestling matches. Some of the best practitioners of the art of Indian wrestling were from Lahore, the foremost among those were Ghulam Muhammed (Gama), Imam Bakhsh, and Goonga Pehalwan.
It was in this rich context that the Progressive Writers Movement arrived in Lahore. The movement had been launched in England by a group of Indian students with a tilt toward the Left. Most of them belonged to aristocratic families of Uttar Pradesh and central India. However, the Progressive Writers Movement found its most accomplished practitioners in Lahore. Urdu fiction had not known such mature flair for the modern literary sensibility previously. Short fiction, initiated by Prem Nath and others, was taken a long distance ahead by Lahore’s Krishan Chandar, Ghulam Abbas, and Rajindar Singh Bedi. Manto was not originally from Lahore but chose to spend his last years in Lahore. Modern Urdu poetry unearthed its three best-known names from the literary scene of Lahore: Faiz, Rashid, and Meera Jee.
Sixty-five years had elapsed since a group of British officers outlined the modern narrative for Urdu literature in Lahore. In 1939, a group of young writers gathered. This time, they did not need the gentle nudge from the British. India had come a long way, and so had Lahore. The young writers founded, in October 1939, the Halqa Arbab-e-Zauq, the oldest literary forum in Pakistan today. Halqa has the unique distinction of never having missed its weekly meeting during the past 75 years—even during riots, extreme political suppression, and natural calamities. The Halqa has rendered invaluable services to the articulation of literary sensibilities among Urdu readers.
Initially it appeared as if the Halqa were a riposte to the Progressive Writers Movement. However, the polemic proved ephemeral as Halqa, shunning internecine squabbles, largely confined itself to pure literary discourse. In post-independence years, the Halqa emerged as the strongest voice for the freedom of literary expression. Some of the best literary voices emerged from Lahore after Partition; prominent among them: Intizar Hussain, Nasir Kazmi, Munir Niazi, Ashfaque Ahmed, Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi. Karachi, being the largest city in the country with its huge Urdu-speaking population, was a natural rival.
But Lahore has retained its status as the cultural and artistic capital of Pakistan. The sociopolitical developments in the country inevitably eclipsed the status of fine arts and literature as vital civic organs. However, the struggle continues as the country faces its greatest existential threat: terrorism. The supporters of political Islam can only be defeated through knowledge, compassion, and love—best expressed through art and culture. The role of Lahore in this struggle will remain crucial, shaped by new trials and tribulations.
Masood is a human-rights activist, teacher and journalist based in Lahore. From our March 1 & 8, 2014, issue.