LAHORE — The once-fabled dancing girls of Lahore, the capital of Pakistani Punjab, are fast disappearing.
The performers have left the city’s red light district, Heera Mandi, also known as the Diamond Market, that lies in the shadow of the Moghul-era Badshahi Mosque.
“I have lived all my life here,” said Iqbal Hussain, a painter and doyen of Heera Mandi, having been born there several decades ago. “I have seen all the phases. It used to be a beautiful area but now it is disappearing.
“The area was full of classical dance; there was a tremendous feeling of culture. Famous film stars and actors came from this area.
“The dancing girls have defected to more prosperous areas, now there are only one or two rooms left where they perform.”
Lahore is a city that has to fight for its cultural survival. The growing influence of the Taliban, although hundreds of kilometres to the north-west, has been mirrored by a more insidious, creeping attack on culture throughout the country.
On Jan 2, the bullet-ridden body of Shabana Gul, a dancing girl, was dumped in the centre of Mingora, the north-western district of Swat’s main town.
But the growing cultural conservatism has had more subtle reverberations.
In December, Lahore’s High Court barred the graceful and elaborate dancing girls, who first developed in the Moghal courts 400 years ago, from performing in public, on the grounds that they were too sexually explicit.
A group of theatre owners challenged the ban, which forbade the girls to dance barefoot and ordered them to cover their heads and shoulders, and won an appeal in court in March.
A cultural promoter, said the ban on dance – known as the mujra, and which officials attempted to ban during the 1980s – is a symptom of a more dangerous trend in Pakistani society.
“If the government engages in moral policing, it gives vigilantes licence to do the same. It fuels intolerance and de-secularisation by violence and intimidation and opens the door to extreme jihadi Islamic movements,” he said.
In March, the High Court barred two female singers from recording new albums after ruling that they sang sexually explicit lyrics.
Mr Hussain, the son of a dancing girl who died last month at the age of 98, has worked hard to preserve the old city’s culture by painting the area’s traditional dancers and prostitutes.
He conceded that these days, Heera Mandi has become seedy and very few of the dancers have studied the traditional dance form, instead they learn their moves by copying Bollywood film routines.
His paintings, which portray doleful, large-limbed women, some of which sell for more than US$10,000 (Dh37,000), have become as much a historical record as art objects.
“I portray them on canvas, portray them as human beings,” Mr Hussain said. “They feel pain. They want their children to be educated.”
Mr Hussain preaches tolerance rather than liberalism, and said he had received multiple death threats from Islamist fundamentalists.
Mr Hussain exhibits his paintings in the rooms below a popular rooftop restaurant, Cuckoo’s Nest, which he set up more than a decade ago in the shadows of the Badshahi’s massive, graceful minarets.
Below the walls of the restaurant, tangles of electricity cables trace the path of narrow streets, which come alive at night when customers roam amid hawkers selling jasmine and red roses and food mongers selling the old city’s famous dishes.
His life as a painter mirrors the life of the families that have supplied dancing girls to the city for generations.
He recalled that when he studied at the National Art College he was given a “very hard time” by the authorities because of his parentage. “These people had small brains and chips on their shoulders. I was born as a creation of God.
“I am an outsider. I paint what I see. I don’t care what others think of me. I am portraying reality. I was tired of double standards. I paint from life.”
An acclaimed recent book, The Dancing Girls of Lahore by Louise Brown, described the old city’s society of prostitutes.
A competitive hierarchy operates with an elite “A” class of young, beautiful girls who attract rich clients, and middle-ranking women who fall into the “B” category. The cheapest women, are “C” category. They sell sex for as little as 30 rupees.
The author noted that inversely to the rest of Pakistan, the birth of a boy among the city’s families is mourned while that of a girl is celebrated. Sons often become pimps.
“The women tell me their tragic stories and I hope someone will look after them,” Mr Hussain said.
Now hijras, or transsexuals, and eunuchs are taking much of the trade. “There is more demand for them than women. They are more co-operative and charge less money.”
The hijras are part of south Asia’s ancient and secretive community of transsexuals, hermaphrodites and eunuchs. Once influential in the Moghul empire’s courts – serving royalty or commanding legions of soldiers – the “third sex” now live in the shadows of Pakistani society, as dancers, beggars or sex workers.
“I see them wearing beautiful sleeveless shalwar kameez and bra-tops,” he said.
“I have a soft spot for these people because of what they have gone through.”