People & Society

On popular demand

Updated 22 Aug, 2015 03:28pm
Ticket booth for the ferris wheel at Uch Sharif | Danyal Adam Khan
Ticket booth for the ferris wheel at Uch Sharif | Danyal Adam Khan

It is mela season again and Uch Sharif is a sensory overload. The celebrations start small as you make your way towards the town centre: scattered congregations of boys, an odd ferris wheel or men selling cotton candy on bicycles. These swell into a crowd by the time you reach the main bazaar of the town, and into an indistinguishable mass at the actual venue of the mela — a vast tract of land stretching as far as the eye can see.

Negotiating its throngs with me is Ghulam Shabbir — or Shabbu for everyone. A young man in his late twenties, he is a devout aide to Iftikhar Hassan Gillani who organises the mela every year in late spring. Shabbu is an expert navigator, pausing to use the authority of his master – colloquially known as saeen – in a booming voice to make way where the mela becomes too densely packed.

Crowds moving in all directions and row upon row of stalls in no particular order — this is what chaos looks like. A blind man steps over a cripple before being pushed aside by a swarm of children donning golden birthday hats with photographs of unidentified babies. Two screaming toddlers are being pushed around in a wheel cart by their mother; their shrieks pause momentarily as they pass a stall selling plastic masks. The mother herself is making frequent stops to admire the colourful array of bangles, jewellery and parandas, hair extensions woven with threads and beads. Teenage boys try on sunglasses under towering posters of Bollywood actresses. Others sell pendants which claim to ward off evil spirits.

For those wanting a little more, a 20-rupee fee can get you access to a tent where women dance in a caged enclosure, readily accepting tips from fawning admirers.

There is dust in the air and food is on display everywhere — pakoras and jalebis, ice-cream cones and kulfi, biryani and nihari. Every few paces, someone is selling the delectable pink and white mithai quintessential to melas all over Punjab. There is an assortment of suspicious-looking drinks; when I point at a particularly colourful display and ask Shabbu what it is, he winks and says, “Apple juice”. Over the babble of the crowd are the competing announcements of those selling refreshments, each vendor claiming there is no soda like their soda:

Soda ik vaari piyo ge, baar baar piyo ge;
Glass dus rupay da
(Drink this soda once, and you’ll drink it again and again;
A glass for ten rupees)

Shabbu suddenly swerves away from a fully-packed tram running through the mela, dodging carousels and pirate ships on its track with hairpin turns. On the side of a pathway, we pass by a man with a snake casually flung over his shoulder, beckoning passers-by into a zoo; opposite him is a boy inviting you in to see a magic show featuring a girl with the body of a snake. At the far end of the mela, three theatres are being set up to which people will storm once the night falls.

On raised platforms nearby, transgender dancers perform provocatively to blaring Seraiki tunes in front of a thoroughly amused crowd. For those wanting a little more, a 20-rupee fee can get you access to a tent where women dance in a caged enclosure, readily accepting tips from fawning admirers. Shabbu ensures we walk as far away from these temptations as possible and directs me towards the crown attraction of the mela: maut ka kuan or the Well of Death. He leads me up a rickety staircase to the top of a cylindrical wooden arena where a crowd has already gathered, staring down at a couple of women dancing — this is pre-performance entertainment.

Soon, two motorcycles rev into life. With the ease of daily routine, the drivers begin circling the bottom of the well — one round, two rounds and the vehicles are driven onto the walls of the arena, aided by strategically placed wooden planks. The motorcyclists gradually edge their way up. Their pace quickens as they come closer and closer to the audience; they whiz past the crowd countless times. The well wobbles and shivers, the crowd hops and jumps, but everything remains intact. The performers finally get so close to the audience that they can be touched, jolting the planks and exciting viewers even more.

Iftikhar Hassan Gilani blessing his devotees at Shams Mahal | Danyal Adam Khan
Iftikhar Hassan Gilani blessing his devotees at Shams Mahal | Danyal Adam Khan

At the climax of their performance, the bikers start their acrobatics. One drives with his hands off the handle, the other raises them above his head. One sits cross-legged, the other rides side-saddle with his arms folded. On and on they go to the deafening applause of a jubilant audience, until they slow their motorcycles to drive down to the ground. It has ended too soon — but this lap will be followed by another immediately afterwards, and another after that. Performers may change, vehicles may differ, but maut ka kuan remains.

The environs of the mela beyond the confines of the wooden well are just as noisy. As afternoon changes into evening, the hubbub becomes stronger, with the loudest of sights, sounds and smells competing for the attention of a crowd numbering a few hundred thousand. Commerce of every imaginable sort is raging in the mela and those in attendance are here to ensure they miss no opportunities.

“We are lucky we are celebrating this right now,” says Shabbu, taking a deep drag on his cigarette as we make our way from the carnival towards Shams Mahal — Gillani’s home. “The government was refusing to give permission for the mela this year because of security reasons. It was only when saeen made a trip to Lahore that he brought back permission for three days.”

Shabbu brushes the dust off his flowing hair and black shalwar kameez. He is sporting a scarlet thread on his wrist and a crimson stone on his finger — both blessed by his saeen. Generations of Shabbu’s family have served Gillanis and his hope is that it will always remain that way. “He is all we have,” says Shabbu. “If saeen gives you his blessings, you need nothing else. If he curses you with bad luck, you cannot escape it.”

The many faces of folk entertainment | Shot by Danyal Adam Khan, edited by Alice Peter

Shabbu stops at the top of a small hillock with a full view of the mela in the distance. He points to the setting sun on the horizon. “As far as your eye can see is saeen’s raqba — his landholding.”

Gillani’s automated wheelchair comes to a stop in front of me, the mark of prayer prominent on his forehead. He contracted polio at a young age and has remained confined to a wheelchair his whole life. This, however, has not hindered him from deftly managing tens of thousands of his devotees across Pakistan and the few thousand acres of land he has inherited from his father.

There is an unmistakeable air of entitlement about him: sporting a flashy gold watch and an assortment of rings, he seems to assume the burden of his spiritual and feudal responsibilities with great confidence. Exhibited on the walls of his dimly-lit drawing room are various family trees towards which he proudly gestures as a proof of his descent from the Prophet of Islam. Alongside these is an array of photographs; in each one of these, he smiles down benignly, accompanied by the chief of one or the other major political party in Pakistan.

A devotee at Lahore’s Mela Chiraghan | M Arif, White Star
A devotee at Lahore’s Mela Chiraghan | M Arif, White Star

Uch, a small town about 75 kilometres to the southwest of Bahawalpur, holds a high place in the subcontinent’s Sufi pantheon. Ranked highest among its saints is Jalaluddin Bukhari, also known as Surkhposh (clad in red). Following him is his grandson, Makhdoom Jahanian Jahangasht (globetrotter). Another eminent saint buried in Uch is Syed Muhammad Ghaus Bandagi Gillani, a descendant of Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gillani of Baghdad. He came to the town in the early 16th century and is also the ancestor of Iftikhar Hassan Gillani and his vast clan.

This clan’s per-eminence in the power structure in Uch and its adjacent areas is of recent origin. A couple of decades ago, the Bukharis – descendants of Jalaluddin – were as powerful as the Gillanis, if not more. Even the mela used to be held at a venue jointly owned and managed by the two clans.

Over tea, Gillani tells the story of chaar yaar, or four friends. “It was in the early 13th century when four Sufis got together in Uch Sharif,” he says, referring to Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Bahauddin Zakariya, Fariduddin Ganj Shakar and Jalaluddin Bukhari. “These wise men began attracting followers that soon multiplied as they spread the word of God; pilgrims would walk long distances to hear them speak. It is in remembrance of their meeting that this mela is organised, and it has been so for centuries.”

Gillani’s son, Ahmer, a business graduate from a university in Lahore, explains that the mela is spread over four consecutive Fridays. “The celebrations on each Friday are based upon events from the time of chaar yaar.” The first two gatherings are relatively small affairs but the third – called pandri – is massive as “thousands of women gather to exorcise their demons.”

These are women supposedly possessed by jinns, and a khalifa, or deputy, of Gillani performs the exorcism in a public ceremony to rid them of the apparitions. In Gillani’s guest house, I meet Allah Ditta, an ageing man with piercing grey eyes. He is the head of a group of around 20 khalifas who have been assigned different areas in Gillani’s sprawling spiritual domain. At the time of the pandri mela, they all gather at Uch.

The khalifa initiates the exorcism process by communicating with the jinn. He recites verses from the Quran and makes the jinn play to the beat of a dhol. If the jinn refuses to respond, the khalifa resorts to a firmer approach: hitting the possessed woman with a stick. “Of course, this does not affect the possessed,” interjects Shabbu quickly. “The woman is not herself; it is the jinn that gets the beating.”

When the jinn finally makes his appearance felt, no one but the khalifa can see him. Nor does he speak with anyone else. “If someone [other than the khalifa] tries to approach the woman, the jinn will slap them. And it will be a slap that they will really remember,” says Shabbu, with one hand on his cheek as if recalling a personal experience.

Towards the end of the ceremony, the exorcist questions the jinn: “Why are you here? What do you want? Why have you taken hold of this woman?” He then communicates the demands to her relatives for the apparition to leave her body. Sometimes these are religious – perform an umrah or visit a certain shrine every month – but sometimes they are trivial — eat half-cooked meat or drink a vial of fragrance.

“It is entirely up to the jinn if he wants to return by the next mela,” says Ditta, leaning back to rest. “Of course, we can permanently get rid of him but we need saeen’s permission for that. For us, after all, there is God in the heavens and then saeen on earth.”

A girl with a snake’s body at the Uch mela | Danyal Adam  Khan
A girl with a snake’s body at the Uch mela | Danyal Adam Khan

Next morning, in the veranda of Shams Mahal, Gillani is receiving devotees from near and far. Among them is an odd group: blowing their conches and accompanied by an unceasing beat of the dhol, these men with knotted beards and locks carry skewers in their hands. Gillani signals them to come forward. One by one they present themselves and lay their skewers at his feet. Then – with the conches and dhol blaring – they pass the skewers through one cheek and out the other. Some of them break into an impromptu dhamaal during the act. Gillani flips through currency notes and keeps handing out change to each of the men as they approach him.

A swarm of followers then mobs Gillani, everyone rushing forward to touch his feet or kiss his hand. He indifferently hands out small slips of paper carrying verses from the Quran to eager devotees seeking benediction. Then he leads a short, collective prayer, and people start dispersing.

Riaz Bhutta does not approve of the skewer show. “Call me a coward, but I can’t bear to look at them when they poke those rods through their faces,” he says with a chuckle. An occasional columnist and an acclaimed Seraiki linguist, he is the brain behind the successful combination of spiritual legacy, feudal power and electoral politics that has sent Gillani to the Punjab Assembly as a member multiple times over the last 20 years. Not just that, Gillanis now dominate the local political scene completely. His nephew, Ali Hassan Gillani, is a member of the National Assembly and his brother, Syed Zafar Hassan Gillani, is a former head of the town’s municipal government.

The contract for the mela is auctioned out, explains Bhutta, sitting in the now empty veranda of Shams Mahal. “The contractor then rents out the land to different stall owners, circuses and theatres.”

“Of course, we can permanently get rid of [the jinn] but we need saeen’s permission for that. For us, after all, there is God in the heavens and then saeen on earth.”

According to Bhutta, and contrary to popular perception, crowds at the Uch mela have been increasing over the years. “There may be many entertainment opportunities in big cities but all we have here is this mela for people to get out of their homes and have some fun. All over south Punjab, people save money the whole year for this mela.”

Because of the deteriorating security situation nationwide, though, he says it is becoming increasingly difficult to get the government approval for the mela. “The district administration does not want to take responsibility for anything,” he laments. “Even though there have been barely any untoward incidents [in Uch], the officials are scared of the repercussions if something were to happen.”

Their fears are not imaginary. Over the last five years or so melas and Sufi shrines in Punjab have come under terrorist attacks quite regularly. On April 3, 2011, twin suicide blasts hit the shrine of Sakhi Sarwar in Dera Ghazi Khan district while devotees had gathered there in the thousands to celebrate the saint’s death anniversary, or urs in Sufi vernacular. About 50 people lost their lives and scores others were hurt. On October 25, 2010, at least six people, including two women, died when a bomb blast hit the boundary wall of Baba Farid Ganj Shakar’s shrine in Pakpattan during the saint’s urs. One of the province’s oldest shrines – that of Data Ganj Bakhsh in Lahore – was targeted with two massive suicide attacks on July 1, 2010, resulting in the death of 50 people and injuries to 200 others.

A man with a snake flung across his shoulder at the Uch mela | Danyal Adam Khan
A man with a snake flung across his shoulder at the Uch mela | Danyal Adam Khan

Even though the government has allowed the Uch mela to go ahead this year, it has withheld permission for one of its main attractions — the Lucky Irani Circus, which could have easily doubled both the number of people at the mela, and the possible threats to their security.

With an air of unshakeable confidence, a performer climbs onto a raised platform in the centre of an arena. He smiles and waves at the audience as his assistant hands him a hollow cylinder which he places on the ground horizontally. On top of this, he places another, vertically this time, above which he puts one more horizontally. On top of this, he will place the plank on which he is to balance himself.

The assistant steps back to let the show begin, except the performer signals her to hand him another cylinder. A nervous smile flashes across her face. Is he going too far? She hands the cylinder to him nonetheless and then another, which he adds to the wobbly pile. Gingerly, he puts one foot onto the plank, and then the other. One second — the structure is rocking; two seconds — it swings from side to side; three seconds — the whole thing collapses onto the platform amid gasps from onlookers.

A technician comes running out to check if the performer is hurt, but he is up on his feet in a flash. The legs of the platform are tested to ensure perfect balance on the ground, and the performer begins working with five cylinders again. He will succeed this time and the crowd will roar with delight. This is The Great Pakistani Circus, which has been entertaining audiences in Karachi since March this year.

“This is a new initiative of ours,” explains Mian Amjad Farzand in his fourth-floor office in Lahore’s Gulberg area. The middle-aged entrepreneur leans back in his chair to take a drag on his cigarette; he has been managing his father’s mammoth legacy – the Lucky Irani Circus – for 23 years now. “We felt that the urban Pakistani crowd was disconnected from such entertainment, so we are trying to draw that group of people back to the circus.”

The Lucky Irani Circus, in contrast, is a creaking old establishment. Set up by Mian Farzand Ali in 1969, it used to be an essential feature at every major mela in Punjab — at least, until recently.

Traditionally, the mela season would begin in February every year and continue well into the summer. It started with the travelling spring festival known as basant, reached a climax around the vaisakhi melas – or wheat-harvesting celebrations – in countless villages and towns across Punjab and culminated in urs celebrations at the shrines of revered Sufi saints.

The well of death at Lahore’s Mela Chiraghan | M Arif, White Star
The well of death at Lahore’s Mela Chiraghan | M Arif, White Star

The most famous mela trail in the province is known as Sang da Mela – or the festival of companionship – which retraces the journey of the 13th century saint Sakhi Sarwar from Dhonkal, a small town near Gujranwala, to a place in the middle of the Suleiman Range on the western edge of Punjab. The trail passes through large towns and cities such as Jhang, Faisalabad, Multan and Dera Ghazi Khan, occasioning big melas at all these places.

Outside the trail, some major melas also take place during this time of the year, including Lahore’s Mela Chiraghan (in late March) and a series of others scattered between March and June in otherwise little known places such as Ranmal in Mandi Bahauddin district, Bhiri Shah Rehman in Hafizabad district, Shah Jewna in Jhang district, Jalalpur Pirwala in Multan district and, of course, Uch in Bahawalpur district.

At its peak, the Lucky Irani Circus would move from one mela to the next, following a haphazard calendar that randomly hopped from one place to another. Most of these melas have become off-limits for the circus due to security reasons over the last few years — yet its eccentric and skilled ensemble of trained animals and multiple other attractions are still a part of its entertainment oeuvre.

The Lucky Irani Circus employs over 400 people, including 180 labourers, 20 managers, technicians, drivers and dozens of performers — both local and foreign. To mobilise these is no small task: 20 trucks are deployed to transport all the personnel and equipment, enough to occupy acres of land on its own. “You will rarely come across a mobile circus in the world which does a show every day without a break,” says Farzand with a hint of pride as he reminisces about the glory days of the Lucky Irani Circus. “So can you imagine the loss incurred each time we are not given permission?”

I broach the subject of the mela at Uch.

“That mela is one of the biggest events of its kind in the country,” responds Farzand, with obvious frustration. He talks about the milling crowds at the Uch mela as a security nightmare for any administration to handle. Even if the authorities attempt it, says Farzand, there is no way that they can manage and control the hundreds of thousands people there. “Then why stop us?”

He also talks about the elaborate security arrangements the circus has mustered on its own. “We have 50 armed guards, walk-through gates and security walls,” he says, counting on his fingers. “We are not asking the government to provide us with anything but the least it can do is review our arrangements. If they are found to be inadequate, we are willing to do more.”

The ferris wheel at Uch Sharif | Danyal Adam Khan
The ferris wheel at Uch Sharif | Danyal Adam Khan

The primary reason why the Lucky Irani Circus has sustained for over four decades is its legacy; it is around because it has been around for so long. “The public is starving for entertainment,” Farzand gestures dramatically with his hands. “When we cancel our performance in a district, we are bombarded with phone calls, asking us when we will return. Given the dearth of entertainment facilities in rural areas, I’m not surprised.”

At the Lahore office of Punjab Lok Sujag, a non-profit research group working on the promotion of Punjabi language and culture, melas are viewed neither as spiritual festivals nor as venues for commerce and entertainment. They are treated as shared public space for collective cultural expression.

“Before Partition, people of all faiths used to participate in melas together,” says Tahir Mehdi, one of the founders of the organisation. “The Sufis and their shrines – like that of Shah Hussain in Lahore – were owned by people of all religions. Even urs celebrations were held according to the desi solar calendar, not in tandem with the lunar Islamic one, making them cultural festivals rather than religious events, he explains.

For Mehdi, the most important facet of a mela was that it provided a platform to folk artists, such as musicians, dancers, puppeteers and theatre performers, to showcase their art. They were present in every rural settlement and received a fixed share from the harvest as compensation for their work without having to plough, sow or reap. Because these artists were an intrinsic part of their communities, says Mehdi, they were fully aware of the fears and aspirations of the common people. This understanding, in turn, reflected in their art. Entertainment was merely a by-product of that, Mehdi explains. “They did exactly what art is supposed to do; they gave people a voice.”

The commercialisation of the mela, according to him, is not what has killed folk artists. It is just a symptom, produced by an economic system based entirely on money and markets. “In a thriving cash economy, you sell your surplus in the market and pay your mobile phone bill or buy a coca cola,” he says. “Or you go to a mela and buy a ticket to a circus or go watch motorcyclists performing in maut ka kuan. You do not support a folk artist.” Commerce and entertainment, thus, take over tradition and culture.

Faizu Kukkarbaaz is a Seraiki superstar. On a hot afternoon during the Uch mela, he emerges from a tent in a wrinkled white shalwar kameez, stretching and yawning away — his nap has been cut short. His eyes shine with a mischievous glint as if he is always thinking of the next quip.

Faizu has been a public performer – a one-man comedy show, to be precise – for 18 years, having spent more than two-thirds of this time in rural and city theatres. “Name any Pakistani star, such as Moin Akhtar or Umer Shareef, and this man in front of you is comparable to them in south Punjab. He is a modern Alam Lohar,” says Faizu’s aide and sidekick, Zulfiqar Zulfi.

The stifling tent is full of admirers by now, including a couple of policemen. With a rose garland around his neck, Faizu leans back casually on his charpoy. “Look at how other superstars are, with all their airs, protocol and gunmen, and look at Faizu. He should have been in a fancy hotel but he prefers to be one with the people,” says Zulfi.

Faizu Kukkarbaaz, the Seraiki comedian | Danyal Adam Khan
Faizu Kukkarbaaz, the Seraiki comedian | Danyal Adam Khan

“The public has given me a lot of love,” speaks the comedian himself, as everyone goes quiet. “My car has never been stopped at a checkpoint. If it has, they have only spent two or three hours talking to me,” he says, laughing.

Soon it becomes obvious that this is more of a performance than a conversation. The line between fact and fiction blurs as I hear about the time when Faizu and his associates performed in the tribal areas for 17,000 soldiers. Or about the time when he was kidnapped, blindfolded, and taken to “the mountains” only to be greeted by a tribal chief who was a fan. The anecdotes follow one after the other and all those present are thoroughly captivated.

“Name any Pakistani star, such as Moin Akhtar or Umer Shareef, and this man in front of you is comparable to them in south Punjab. He is a modern Alam Lohar.”

I ask Faizu about the long-vanished folk artists who used to render folk tales and Sufi poetry in their theatre performances. “Nobody wants to see that now,” he says dismissively. “This is the modern age. People want more enjoyment in less time — and we give them that.”

Back in the day, he says, nobody had a daily work routine. People had plenty of time at their disposal which they could spend in watching long drawn out traditional performances. “Now people would much rather buy a ticket, have a quick laugh and go home.”

Faizu’s own appeal can be summed up in his ability to crack jokes rooted in everyday life. “Thousands of people of all ages line up to see him because he makes them laugh about simple things that they can relate to,” says Zulfi.

At night, half the mela seems to be battling to get into Faizu’s theatre through a haphazard ticketing system. Others take easy routes: crawling in from under the canvas screens or barging in through gaps in the tent hall. Policemen freely wield batons on unruly crowds and disabled men drag themselves closer to the stage. The chaos of pushing and shoving is heightened by the onset of a dust storm.

Amid this tumult, Faizu is holding forth. He hardly utters a phrase and the thousands of men in the audience roar with laughter. “Do you have any idea who I am?” Faizu asks. “Even the entire police station empties out when I get there!” Zulfi feigns a scared salute. “That’s because I have to clean the place,” Faizu adds, as an old man at the front nearly topples over laughing.

And then Aasia enters. The audience is suddenly sitting upright, all eyes focused on her as she thunders onstage with her suggestive dance moves. Faizu himself sways to the Seraiki music on one side as Zulfi romances Aasia in true filmi fashion. Thousands of unblinking eyes are glued to each thumka — nobody is leaving anytime soon.

“It was never like this,” says Dr Fouzia Saeed, the executive director of Lok Virsa, a state-run, Islamabad-based institution meant for the preservation and promotion of cultural activities. “Though such dances or variety shows were used in folk theatre a few decades ago as well, they were always employed as a break between the plays themselves,” she says. “Over time, vulgarity took over, swallowing the plays entirely.”

In Saeed’s analysis, both logistical and commercial considerations on part of the theatre groups are to be blamed for the rise of obscene dances and lewd jokes on stage. “It is far cheaper for the owner of the theatre group to send a girl on stage for an item number than hire a whole crew and cast of actors for a play.”

“It is far cheaper for the owner of the theatre group to send a girl on stage for an item number than hire a whole crew and cast of actors for a play” | Danyal Adam Khan
“It is far cheaper for the owner of the theatre group to send a girl on stage for an item number than hire a whole crew and cast of actors for a play” | Danyal Adam Khan

“A huge contribution to the decline of theatre was made by many big names associated with it,” says Saeed. She has spent years researching folk theatre in Pakistan, in particular the role of women within it. “Many of the old actors and actresses I have interviewed say they would be waiting backstage with make-up and costume on for hours but some star performer or the other would refuse to leave the stage.” Theatre then became more about individual rather than collective performances, she says.

A few of these big names, indeed, have shaped the development of Pakistani popular entertainment and music in the past half century. One of them was the multi-talented Inayat Hussain Bhatti — a theatre singer who later became a film actor, director, producer and writer. There was the steely-willed Bali Jatti, the first woman in Pakistan to own a travelling performance group, remembered by many as the queen of folk theatre. To top them all was the man who made Punjabi folk music synonymous with his name for two decades — the inimitable Alam Lohar.

His son, Arif, is considered to be among the last generation of folk singers in Pakistan. Just recently, he tells me proudly at his home in Lahore, he was ranked the third-best folk performer in the world. He offers me a cup of tea and flicks his flowing locks off his shoulder. I ask him about his father.

“By my estimate, he would sing at least five hours a day, if not more, for about 300 days a year,” says Arif. “And to do it without a loudspeaker! He would call out to people at the back of the audience and ask them if they could hear him. If not, he would raise his voice even more.”

Lohar began small. Coming from a family of blacksmiths, he took up a pair of tongs at an early age and converted its metallic sound into music. Soon he became a much sought-after performer. At some point in the 1960s, he set up his own theatre group. His flamboyant personality, dazzling smile and snazzy appearance would enthrall audiences as much as his unrestrained, high-pitch musical performances — for years.

Alam Lohar also perfected the mix that attracted audiences like nothing else: liberal doses of spiritual and Sufi poetry, romantic folk tales, celebration of folk heroes with huge amounts of glamour and glitter thrown in for effect. His was a highly successful commercial product in a revered traditional wrapping. Not only could Alam Lohar sing for people what they wanted and how they wanted it, he could do it with the panache of an artist and the acumen of a businessman.

“He was very competitive, and would never miss a chance to sing a note above a fellow artist,” says Arif laughingly. “I remember crowds stretched over miles gathering wherever he performed.”

Alam Lohar’s eponymous theatre slowly fizzled out after his death in 1979. Arif eventually started his own Chand Theatre, replete with the latest technology, symbolic steel walls and a solid stage. This venture, however, had to be wound up ostensibly for security reasons, but in reality because of the changed tastes of audiences and failure to compete with monsters such as television, Indian movies and the Internet.

Arif gives an innocent answer when asked what future he envisions in Pakistan for folk entertainers such as himself and his illustrious father. “All us artists can hope for and give away is the love we feel within us. Without it we are nothing. Even when it is not reciprocated, take this message of love and send it as far out as you possibly can,” he quotes his father.

With a smile, he recites some verses from Alam Lohar’s famous song Jugni:

Ayi jawani har koi waikhay, jaandi kisay nai dithi
O ki bunyaad hai bandya teri? Bunyaad hai teri mitti
Sai varian jiyo ke vi orhak maasa mitti Ishq, Lohara, taaza rehnda, pavain darhi ho jaye chitti.

(Everyone sees youth approaching; none see it leave,
What is your foundation, after all? It is mere dust!
Even after a hundred lifetimes, you’ll end up a pinch of dust;
But love remains young, O Lohar, even if your beard grows white.)

Lohar’s timeless reflection on love is also a portrayal of the inevitable continuity of life. Even after mutating into a commercial enterprise, fuelled by spirituality, powered by money and sustained by political authority, the mela has also continued. This is because, regardless of external evolution, the core principle behind it has remained valid across time: an opportunity to drown worldly anxieties for a while. This is why the mela has existed and, in one form or the other, will continue to thrive.

This was originally published in Herald's June 2015 issue. To read more, subscribe to Herald in print.