Monday, October 24, 2005

The Dancing Girls of Lahore by Louise Brown

Louise Brown, an academic who lives and teaches in Birmingham, has spent a great deal of her adult life researching the sex trade in Asia. Before she wrote her most recent book, "The Dancing Girls of Lahore", she wrote,"Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia".

In order to study the dancing girls of Lahore, or the "nachne wallis" as they are called, Louise rented a room in the red light district of Heera Mandi in old Lahore so that she could observe the subjects of her research from close quarters. Heera Mandi (Diamond Market) was once the abode of the fabled courtesans of the Nawabs (Princes) of Lahore. The women were respected for their art which included being a master of Kathak, a very intricate dance, she also spoke chaste Urdu (the language of the poets) and was able to sing impeccable ghazals (songs in a classical or semi-classical tradition).

After Independance in 1947, the Nawabs were stripped of their purses giving way to a new class of Pakistani industrialists and businessmen who became the dancers' new patrons. However, when in the 1960's the military dictator Ayub Khan, while pursuing a policy of stricter Islamization closed the district down, the women of Heera Mandi had to go underground. Since the place was now declared illegal, the nature of the clients changed. The elite stopped visiting Heera Mandi and the current customers, poor or middle-class men, now seek the girls out only for sexual favors. Not being cultured they have no real interest in paying to see the women dance. As if riding on the luck of their residents the havelis (grand residences) in which the courtesans reside, have also crumbled into tiny, dark, stinky, airless rooms.

Although the author describes the lives of many of the girls in Heera Mandi the focus of her book is Maha and her five children. Maha was born into a family of kanjars (prostitutes). When she was only 12 years old she was taken to the United Arab Emirates and was paid well for allowing one of the ruling Sheikhs to take her virginity. After that, she returned to Lahore where she enjoyed the patronage of some fairly rich Pakistani men. When Louise meets her she has 5 children by three different men and her latest husband already has another family and is a drug addict. Maha considers herself lucky to have a legal marriage. Most of the women in Heena Bazaar don't. However they call all their clients shohar (husband) because being intimate with someone who is not your husband is a criminal offence.

At 36 years, plump and not as pretty as she once was, Maha appears to be a spent force, and much to Louise's concern, spends most of her energy (when she is not overdosed on cough syrup) on grooming her 12 and 14 year old daughters to take up the trade. She insists they have no other way to survive. She is very concerned that if they don't find another source of income she might wind up in Tibbi Galli which is where older tawaiifs (prostitutes) are forced to sell themselves for little or nothing. Maha is lucky in that she has daughters. How ironic that while elsewhere in the country the birth of a son is celebrated, in Heera Mandi it is a daughter who is celebrated because in this business it is she who becomes the sole bread winner.

The girls pictured here are dancing girls from Heera Mandi. They wear the traditional outfit of a Pakistani woman but they omit the head scarf indicating they are "fallen" women. Around their ankles they wear bells, also known as Ghungroo which make a delightful tinkling sound as they dance. In the olden days, the choice of dance was "Kathak", a classical dance of the courts, but these days the women do several versions Bollywood (Hindi film) dance routines.

For more pictures, go here

I love Louise Brown's writing style. Although she is an academic discussing her research, she doesn't have the dry style of a researcher because she weaves into the study true conversations, wonderful anecdotes and beautiful geographic descriptions. Best of all, each chapter is subdivided into little chapters under headings like, "Shadi-Wedding Ceremony", "The Shia and Sunni", "Black Magic" "Friday Prayers", etc. which makes it easy to use as a reference book. Her particular strength lies in being an astute observer of customs and everything else she sees around her without being judgmental.

Readers might want to know how this book, which is one among hundreds of books on prostitution and sex slavery, is different from the others. What makes it special is that the people of Heena Bazaar, have descended from true artists. These courtesans of old and ancestors of our current Heera Mandi women, may not have gone to school but they were highly accopmplished in the art of dancing, singing and pleasing a man. Till today there is a refinement in many of the women of Heera Bazaar that one finds hard to locate elsehwere, also, the residents of Heena Bazaar are tightly bound to Shia rituals and customs. Religion plays a very important part in their lives. One of the finest parts of the book involves descriptions of Ziyarat ( a religious ritual at Moharram) and the mattam ceremony , where 100's of young men flagellate themselves with blades strung on metal chains to show sorrow at the killing of the Shiite prophet, Imam Hussain from many centuries ago. The Sunni majority in Pakistan look down upon such rituals as semibarbaric and these ceremonies very often become sites of clashes between the Sunnis and Shias.

In clssing, Louise Brown ingratiates herself admirably with the women and families in Heera Mandi. They trust her with their life stories and their friendships. This is the main reason why this book is such a good read.


Asha said...

Oh dear! Do they still have those around?!
Books sound interesting but I don't know I can take the tragedies it might have in their stories.
When I was in boarding school in Mysore,one of my classmates who was about 10yrs got kidnapped and was never found until this day.Scares me to think what happened to her.

starry nights said...

I think I would love to read this book , even though it is sad it gives insight to what those women went through and their reasons for doing so.Thanks for that review.
Heres wishing you a happy mothers day.

Anonymous said...

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