Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Dancing Girls of Lahore


A year ago a fine man told me to read The Dancing Girls of Lahore by Louise Brown and this week I finally got down to it. The Heeran Mandi - the Diamond Market - lies in the shadow of the Badshahi Mosque built in 1674 by the last of the Mughal Emperors.  In Mughal times the district was celebrated for its courtesans whose poetry, dance and manner were sought after by princes, nawabs and dignitaries. 

However the advent of colonisation and the influx of British troops to the region changed the face of the business. The British had no interest in the stylised recital of beautiful poetry or traditional Khatak dancing – where even the slightest movement of the hand or eye are part of the story-. The demand was for hard sex!

Things have not changed much since the Raj and the Heeran Mandi remains infamous because very few dancers have the means or inclination to study Kathak or sing in the classical styles. Instead the women of the Heeran Mandi and Tibbi Galli (where the women sell themselves for mere cents) learn their moves by copying Bollywood actresses and the current clientele, usually men from the middle and lower income groups, seem to prefer this anyway.

Brown’s research spans over four years of visits to the Heeran Mandi. Where she lived in the house of Iqbal Hussain, a famous painter whose roots are deeply tied to the area. However she spent most of her time with the whores, musicians and the transvestite community and her book follows the story of their lives. I was really caught of guard by the communities deep sense of religion and spirituality mostly because of my own ideas on how these terms are defined.

In the past few decades the police and government have clamped down heavily on 'trading'. However this hasn’t been successful in curbing, and is far from ending, sales. Firstly because government officials and police are among the main ‘consumers’ and secondly because many of the sex workers have aligned themselves with pimps and moved into the suburbs where there is greater anonymity and a richer clientele.

Most of the women that work in the Heeran Mandi are from the Kanjar caste and are therefore born into the sex trade and pimped by their families. The ways of the caste and living within the community does offer a degree of protection, that those working for pimps in the suburbs do not have. 

I'm certain that no one would willingly choose this lifestyle but it is a demand run business and for some reason even though there are derogatory words in every language for sex workers there are none for the men that ensure the survival of the industry.

  *For further reading on the subject you can check out:  
   Faryal Gauhar’s novel The Scent of Wet Earth in August and Fouzia Saeed’s Taboo

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