A portrait of the city

August 2, 2020

A research-based audio-visual project on Lahore, prepared by the students of LUMS, purports to make the history of the city more understandable for those who are interested in exploring it further

Regal Chowk c. 1960s. — Images courtesy: Walking in the City: Mapping Everyday Life in Lahore

An audio-visual project on Lahore, helmed by the undergraduate students of Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), and supervised by academic Ali Usman Qasmi, was recently made public. Titled Walking in the City: Mapping Everyday Life in Lahore, the research-based project views Lahore in a historical perspective through five broad thematic modules — political movements, literary landscape, Hindu monuments and personalities in the city, and the importance of The Mall in terms of its landmark buildings which have political, religious and cultural affiliations with the mapping of the city. The fifth module profiles two violent deaths in the metropolis — the execution of Bhagat Singh and Ilm Din’s murder of Rajpal.

According to Prof Qasmi, the project “was assigned to the undergrad students as fulfilment of their course. They worked in groups to develop an interactive research-based repertoire that digs up various aspects of the history of Lahore. For this purpose, they collected primary and archival data of various sorts and put it together in a thematic and creative structure.”

The interactive quality of the virtual treks through Lahore makes a lesson in history much less than a lecture and more of an industriously paved pathway to discovery for the generations who have had limited access to such annals of yore which have not made it to the discourse in textbooks.

The chapter, titled Lahore’s Literary Landscape, begins with the British annexation of the Punjab which was followed by introducing Urdu as the official language as opposed to the regional Punjabi or popular Persian. The story looks at the culture of Pak Tea House and the intellectuals’ club that formed therein, the Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) which included in its realm greats like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Habib Jalib, Ahmed Faraz and Sibte Hasan. Dissent and rebellion found a voice in progressive literature with the publication of Angaray.

The virtual story goes on to talk of the Halqa-e-Arbab-e-Zauq, a literary organisation, and showcases profiles of its members as well as archival pictures of handwritten letters, manuscripts and photographs from the time.

Reimagining Lahore as a Hindu City celebrates the roots of the Hindu influence on the structures that stand tall in the city, such as the Islamia College, Civil Lines, upon Lower Mall, which was renamed from its earlier name, the Dayananda Anglo-Vedic College.

Islamia College was attended by Bhagat Singh, the freedom fighter who was made an example of by the Raj. Lala Lajpat Rai too finds space in this collection of stories put together by the students. Rai was killed in Lahore as was Bhagat Singh who sought to avenge his death and was later hanged.

Choose a Story, the chapter dedicated to Bhagat Singh and Ilm Din, offers and takes the reader/viewer back in time, to relate both stories in a crisp, juxtaposed diction, offering no explicit judgment but a narrative which draws comparisons in subtle ways. Perhaps, the most interesting part is the ‘chase’ for the screen of a laptop or a phone gains cinematic quality with some additional thrill, a result of meticulous research and interactive display.

Tollinton Market under construction c. 1863.

The interactive quality of the virtual treks through Lahore makes a lesson in history much less than a lecture and more of an industriously paved pathway to discovery for the generations who have had limited access to such annals of yore which have not made it to the discourse within textbooks.

These stories are followed by the chapter, titled The Mall — History and Culture, Now and Then, which is said to be a “curated biography of The Mall’s literary landscape, historical sites, and everyday life.” It contains illustrated maps, rare photographs, and visual narrativisations of literary writings such as Krishan Chandra’s Do Furlong Lambi Sarak and Kipling’s Kim.

To quote Qasmi, again, “The Mall is one of the more modern features that runs through the different colonial symbols of authority. The chapter discusses and displays various buildings that were erected during the Raj, upon The Mall, such as High Court, Chief’s College (later renamed Aitchison), General Post Office, Governor’s House and City Hall.”

Which brings us to the question as to what is the difference between scaling the cityscape for fieldwork and data collection in archival sections, especially in comparison with reviewing literature in the libraries. Ahmed Hussain, a student at LUMS who worked on the chapter, titled Two Murders, Two Trials, answers: “Walking in the city and learning from its history make an enriching experience. Literature texts never help visualise the on-ground happenings and actually bar you from thinking out of the box. Whereas observing things from a palimpsest perspective made us imagine the history and its present which is finely connected.”

The most interesting yet painful process, as per Hussain, is data collection from archives. “But it exposed us directly to the historical artifacts, newspapers, pieces of evidence and materials that might gather dust otherwise in their cupboards and shelves.”

The young curators have brought together extensive information in the form of visuals as much as textual discourse, if not more. However, the lack of citations and references that runs throughout the process of this form of storytelling takes just a little bit away from the glory that is part of the process of research. A keen eye would recognise a picture of stamps taken from the Museum of Lahore, or of bits of magazines from the Punjab Archives, photos that have made their way into WhatsApp shares or similar mediums. The virtual tour is like a book full of stories from history of the city known for its food and heritage but there is so much more to it, other than the popular discourse.

The project has been uploaded for free access, for everyone and anyone to read through and familiarise themselves with the lesser known facts of the great city. Replying to a question about making these projects public, Prof Qasmi said, “The projects were funded by the university and our purpose was to make the history of the city more understandable for those who are interested in exploring it further. Since it’s a non-profit venture, for purely academic and pedagogical purposes, we made it public.”

To wind up this review, one might quote Haroon Khalid, a former student of LUMS and the author of Imagining Lahore: The City That Is; The City That Was (Penguin; 2018), with extensive experience of travelling through Lahore, photographing it and eventually penning a book that describes Lahore in a juxtaposed narration of the city that it used to be when historical monuments were newly erected and how the city looks today. Khalid told TNS, “There is something magical about engaging with history by walking through it, breathing in its remnants, existing in the duality or multiplicity of time where past and present come to meet.

“While textual discourse has its own significance, when it interacts with the physicality of walking through history, it becomes true learning!”

The writer is the author of two books of fiction, including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women (2018)

A portrait of the city