A City within a City, a Tale within a Tale

Text | Dua Abbas Rizvi

Visuals | As Mentioned

Issue 47

For their latest urban intervention, Numaish Karachi looked to the walled city of Lahore and found it analogous to One Thousand and One Nights – that legendary, intricate, and indefatigable collection of tales that has not only survived long centuries of darkness and light but emerged more resilient and adaptable with each instance of eager probing, of well-intentioned (though sometimes clumsy) alteration.

Numaish Karachi, which is an interdisciplinary collective of creative practitioners, works towards opening public spaces for cultural production. In March, they organised Sheherezade: The Walled City Anthology in a densely veined section of old Lahore, in collaboration with the British Council, The Walled City Lahore Authority, and MadLab (UK). For the weekend of mid-March, the tangle of alleys and courtyards and unaccounted-for interstices between Delhi Gate and Wazir Khan Mosque was transformed – rather, its history, its character, its peculiarities were brought out – by a number of installations, projects, and performances by artists, designers, craftspeople, architects, students, and digital engineers.

Participants hailed from a range of backgrounds and the versatility of their expressions was integral to the analogy underlying the project – that the walled city of Lahore, like the One Thousand and One Nights, is a veritable frame narrative, a Chinese box, a wunder kammer of stories and aja’ib, or marvels. Just like the tales, the walled city houses the ceremonial with the bawdy, the religious with the secular, and the royal with the demotic. Bazaars unfold like flirtatious ribbons between mosques and Imambargahs. Shrines crop up as manifestations of popular imagination and devotion – devotion that doctrinal practices try but fail to teach. Havelis dot the lanes, connoting indulgence and worldly success, while the walls and gates of the city manage and regulate the abundance – implied and actual.

Most obviously, perhaps, it is the palimpsest-like character of the walled city that lends itself so fittingly to a comparison with One Thousand and One Nights (the former has been built, attacked, salvaged, and altered by the Mughals, Hindus, Sikhs, and the British; the latter is an amalgam of iterations of stories from Persia, India, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, and has repeatedly undergone revision, translation, omission, and addition). But it is also what Marina Warner, in Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, calls the “[endlessly] generative and cyclical” power of One Thousand and One Nights that can be discerned in the very fabric of Lahore’s walled city. The city persists and, like the Nights, keeps “generating more tales, in various media, themselves different but alike…”

The installations and interventions that constituted Sheherezade: The Walled City Anthology exemplified the generative quality of the place. They used and built upon the stuff of the city itself. The architecture, visual culture, industry, and history of the walled city informed many of the works, such as Naveen Syed’s One Thousand and One Flowers – a festive, unabashed monument made of a hundred thousand flowers that hung in festoons from the roof of the Delhi Gate. It served as an overture to the rest of the collection, setting a mood much like Sheherezade’s opening tale.

The alleys bifurcating from the Shahi Guzargah, or Royal Trail, which leads from the Delhi Gate to the Wazir Khan Mosque and on to the Fort, were interspersed with other installations. One of these was Sitaron Se Aagay Jahan Aur Bhi Hain (Beyond the Stars Other Worlds Exist) by Numaish Karachi. Rows of lanterns with geometric and floral patterns cut into them were suspended between houses in the Phullon Walli Galli. They made a charming spectacle at night, transforming the alley into an imagined, older version of itself. Resident children ran to and fro under the lanterns, laughing, embarking on their evening intrigues, appearing for all intents and purposes to be from another time. It would take the noisy passing of a bike through the alley to shake the enchantment with an anachronistic interruption.

Doodh Batti in the Galli Soorjan Singh was another installation by Numaish Karachi. This consisted of upended thumb-sized mugs (a staple of the tea-kiosk culture of old Lahore) arranged and hung in wide rings, and lit from within. The display echoed the way rinsed mugs and kettles are suspended on hoops in tea stalls, to dry. It was also a playful and visually striking comment on tea’s unfaltering power of bringing people together and, in turn, enlivening a place.

The walls of the dizzyingly narrow Patli Galli, which branches away from the Galli Soorjan Singh, had been inscribed with Ustad Daman’s Punjabi poetry by Lahore-based visual artist Zahid Mayo. The gentle, horizontally swooping Nasta’liq calligraphy offered a pleasing antithesis to the rectilinear constriction of the alley and introduced a symbolic layer of space into the passage by means of the poetic, evocative text.

Also in the Galli Soorjan Singh, in the Khalifa Manzil, which used to be a synagogue at one point in the area’s staggeringly rich history, were artworks by students of Habib University, Karachi. One of the rooms of the mansion hosted an interactive rendition of the story of Noah’s ark, produced by a team of communication design and computer science students of Habib University. Calligrams of animals boarding a ship were cut out in a panel of wood. Sensors detected any movement over the panel, illuminating the calligrams one by one and lending a sense of animation to the frieze. In a parallel room, Sarah Khan’s wondrous microbial installation, titled Stellar, invoked the cosmic through the cellular – just as Noah’s Ark revived age-old lore through cutting-edge technology. Khan had recreated the constellation Al Dubb Al Akbar (Ursa Major) using bacterial cultures in five petri dishes. When seen in blacklight, the dishes transformed into eerie, crepuscular scenes combining, all at once, allusions to the saga of Islamic astronomical advancements, cosmogonic imagery, and the beauty and vastness of microcosmic life.

Meanwhile, in the Sabeel Walli Galli, three interactive digital installations by MadLab UK converged in a sort of clearing between grey walls and the tiered backs of houses. One wall was illuminated by a virtual reality projection by Asa Calow, titled Fresco. Next to it, on the ground, was TRAVERSAL, by Calow and Dan Hett – a projection that turned a large, square patch of earth into a chequered frame full of glowing, shifting, wormlike patterns that mimicked flowing water and saluted the sabeel, or water-tank, the alley is named after. As visitors and residents stood or walked over the projection, it responded dutifully, morphing into new formations, evoking the ever-protean nature of water. At the same time, high on a neighbouring wall, flickered a display, by Hett, of Islamic geometric patterns. Dexterously incorporating the architectural elements of the wall it was projected on, such as the casements and ledges, the dynamic show of patterns traced the evolution of an Islamic design by presenting the various stages of its genesis in quick succession – from linear drawings and partial colouring to complete tessellation.

The interventions culminated at the Wazir Khan Chowk, where distinctions between art and design, art and craft, and high and low art, which are often detrimental to cultural production but upheld nonetheless, fell away. The mosque’s courtyard teemed with activity as people gathered around Tahir Mahmood’s platform for spinning tops, or his Mehrab Table, where the game of Ludo was set up. Sitar and tabla craftsmen and players occupied alcoves on one side of the steps leading up to the mosque while, on the other side, installations such as Affan Baghpati’s This Body of Work resuscitated old and once-ubiquitous objects of daily use, like the surmedani (a vessel for kohl) and sarota (betel nut cutter). To one side, the Jharoka Pavillion by Umar Hameed, Raza Zahid, and Saima Zaidi shimmered and reflected slices of the surrounding activity while paying a visual homage to the mirror mosaics of the Sheesh Mahal at the Lahore Fort and the latticed jharokas, or balconies, of old Lahore, and the relationship between viewing and being viewed that they encapsulate.

Children darted between the different works and stations, screaming and laughing. Families threaded their way through the installations, pausing here and there for closer inspection before carrying on as usual. Art segued noiselessly into life in the alleys. Women made purchases at corner shops, then headed on home, stepping over a projection or walking past a video on a wall. Vendors went about their business, unperturbed by the suspended or protruding or moving objects in their peripheries. And perhaps the reason for their unconcernedness was how the interventions were not so much interventions as they were extensions – of a way of life and a distinct culture (within a larger culture).

New experiences and meanings were generated but within the context of the walled city and in relation to it. At no point did it feel that the place or its heritage were being exoticised or presented through a lens of enforced mystery and peddled. Numaish Karachi organised the event with the lightest of touches, taking care to avoid a self-important and too-formal curatorial stance and, instead, like Sheherezade, letting one narrative emerge naturally from another.

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About the Author:Dua Abbas Rizvi (b. 1987) is a visual artist and art journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. Since 2008, Rizvi has been writing regularly on art and culture for leading Pakistani newspapers, journals, and magazines. She also teaches studio and theory courses at her alma mater, the National College of Arts in Lahore.

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