Lahore and art

July 03, 2022

Lahore had a number of venues where musical soirees could be held

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ahore had a number of venues; some designated, others not, where musical soirees could be held. When the Lahore Radio was set up in the middle of 1930s the focus shifted to the station which was on Empress Road behind the Governor’s House where the heavily barricaded American Consulate is located these days. Apparently, the house belonged to Sir Fazl-i-Hussain, the founder of the Unionist Party (UP) in the Punjab.

During the colonial period in the Walled City the houses of well to do were the sites for musical programmes. Known as baithaks these were sprinkled all over, not restricted to any one mohalla. People could quench their thirst for good music at these baithaks. These were more or less open houses and the audience knew what to expect of a baithak in terms of the artistes, his or her form and style. So, the Walled City was the place where everything happened. Other than Taxali Darwaza, the area around the Fort, too, was a desired destination for musical programmes to be held. Now called Ali Park, when Josh Malihabadi read his famous poem, it was renamed, but it was the Ramleela Park where probably the re-enactments of Ramleela were held. Those would have also involved live music, either independently of the show or as part of it.

The YMCA Hall, too, was a favourite haunt of musical programmes. It is said that Ravi Shanker performed here just before the Partition and heard Sharif Khan’s sitar and recommended him to whosoever visited him in India or outside from Pakistan for his virtuosity. But probably the YMCA was a later addition after FC College had shifted from the location of Nila Gumbad to its present one on the Canal and Ferozepur Road crossing.

In the parks, bands used to play in the evenings and this continued till the later half of the Twentieth Century, especially in Bagh-i- Jinnah where a smartly turned-out band stationed itself opposite the Lawrence and Montgomery Hall as people strolled around to the luxuriant foliage of the well laid-out garden.

One had only heard of the Mahavidyala that flourished on the area opposite Taxali Darwaza and is said to have been presided over by VD Paluskar but there is hardly any evidence of that structure anywhere in the vicinity. Though one had attended the barsi for years in the open space of Alamgir Khan who was a shagird of Bhai Lal Mohammed and lies buried in the vicinity. In the later years, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, too, shifted to this locality, from Fort Road where Ustad Akhter Hussain, Amanat Ali and Hamid Ali had lived for decades after migrating to Pakistan from Patiala at about the time of Partition.

Probably when Bradlaugh Hall was inaugurated and was the centre of much activity music programmes were held there as well. It is difficult to say what kind of programmes because there was one with Western instruments, the piano, the bagpipes and violins and then there were the ones with the tabla, sarangi and the harmonium. There seemed to be a cultural divide between the two, the division as enforced by colonialism threw its dark shadow over the kind of music that one could conveniently listen to.

Among the colleges, Government College was much too anglicised for local music patronage and the music society named after a music lover, later the principal, Dr Nazir Ahmed was set going in the decades after Partition. Nazir Ahmed’s brothers, too, were singers and his association with the Walled City and Baroodkhana certified his credentials in the appreciation of good music. In the post-colonial days, to stage an Urdu or Punjabi play was quite a task as only plays written in English were valued and patronised. Dyal Singh must have been another institution where local music societies were patronised.

The Open Air Theatre at the Bagh-i-Jinnah which later became a venue for staging music programmes, especially of All Pakistan Music Conference, was laid out by the first native principal of Government College GD Sondhi. In the years preceding and following the Partition some plays were staged there. But its location in the middle of Lawrence Gardens made it a perfect venue for hosting music programmes because it was a combination of the formality of a box theatre and the informality of open-air venues. People had the freedom, like in the melas, of not being confined rigidly to their seats but moving around to participate intently with the artistes of their choice.

Alhamra was established soon after the creation of Pakistan but during the early years was mostly dormant and underfunded. In the 1960s Feroz Nizami started his music classes in the evening. This established the well roundedness of the Alhamra which had been more centered by then with plays and exhibitions. Feroz Nizami was followed by Sharif Khan and then Chotay Ghulam Ali Khan. Alhamra thus served as a hub of musical activity retaining a certain quality. Some programmes too were held in the premises that was knocked down and built anew in the nineteen seventies. The older structure with huge trees was quite dilapidated but had its own old world charm. The space or the structure was not overwhelming. The shift for many music lovers from Manto Park and Hazoori Bagh to Alhamra was thus not that problematic as it could have been with a forbidding structure and overlaid formal procedures.


The author is a culture critic based in Lahore



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