Traversing through the myth and reality of Heera Mandi - Hindustan Times
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Traversing through the myth and reality of Heera Mandi

ByNirupama Dutt
May 19, 2024 07:10 AM IST

The courtesan movies never fail and so it is with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest venture which is drawing applause at home and some wrath in the neighbouring country. The writer recalls her own visit to Heera Mandi in 2004 which brought her face-to-face with poignant stories of the world’s oldest profession

The first introduction one had with the Heera Mandi of Lahore was through a famous story written by the grande dame of Punjabi literature, Amrita Pritam. It was titled “Shah di Kanjari” or “The Shah’s Harlot.” Counted as one of the classics of short fiction in Punjabi, it is set in Lahore and is a complex psychological story of the rivalry of two women, the wife and the courtesan. The latter was once Neelam of the sonorous voice who blossomed into youth in a courtesan tenement in Heera Mandi and a sardar from a princely state performed the ritual of removing her nose ring to deflower her for a prized amount of five thousand rupees. Later she moved to the famous Faletti’s Hotel in Lahore of yore as mistress of a rich Sikh businessman addressed as Shah. The conflict arises when she is invited by the Shah’s wife to the pre-wedding ceremony of her and the Shah’s son to their home, with a view to humiliate her.

The Heerayanis bite buttered bread as though in a dream.
The Heerayanis bite buttered bread as though in a dream.

The Harlot arrives in a shimmering green garara, bright red shirt, bedecked with gold jewellery and a green silk dupatta on her head and trailing her feet. The Shahni finds her pink sari rather plain and readjusts its folds. Thus the game continues through the evening and finally the Shahni decides to belittle the singer by touching a rolled hundred-rupee note to her son’s forehead and gives it to the harlot. The harlot accepts and the pink sari has its victory over the shimmering red and green.

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When I included this story many years ago in a translation of classic Punjabi stories titled ‘Stories of the Soil’ many years ago, I recall running into a very senior turbaned gentleman who had brought his schoolgirl granddaughter to buy her the book in a Sector 17 bookstore. Talking to me he revealed that the story was based on a real story identifying the Shah as a famous jeweller and not just that he had been a witness to the musical evening which was once the talk of Lahore circles. But he did not know what became of Neelam of the sonorous voice after partition of 1947.

Glamour of the Bhansali series

These days Heera Mandi is all over social media and Indian audiences go ga-ga over beautiful women stars of Bollywood in grand clothes and a popular dairy brand makes them munch glittering buttered bread with a catchy slogan of ‘Har heeraine ke liye!’. However, there has been strong criticism of the excessive glamourisation and romanticisation of the subject. Well, Bhansali is an incurable romantic and he made Sarat Chandra’s fans cringe when he sent Paro not only to meet Chandramukhi in her brothel, but also dance with her in full public view in the immortal saga of Devdas. And if filmwalas will not keep an eye on demands of the current audience even in period dramas, how would the audiences swallow them?

The stories of the glitz and glamour of Heera Mandi are long over as it is with the present red light areas of India which after the times of royal and aristocratic patronage turned into crude flesh markets and also the fine artistes raised here. The prejudice to the women who were devdasis, ganikas and tawaifs have long become a thing of the past. The worst sufferers of the great divide of 1947 were these women, bereft of patrons. One just has to go to the stories of them as penned by Saadat Hasan Manto to know that they were probably more humane than many others be it in Heera Mandi of Lahore, named after Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s prime Minister Heera Singh Dogra, who opened a grain market in the vicinity; Sonagachi of Kolkata; Kamathipura of Mumbai; GB Road of Delhi and so on. The interpretation of the name Heera Mandi as the trading centre of beautiful women is a misnomer as pointed out Syed Muzammi of Lahore who is discussing the impact of the series in favour or against it. What is negated is the immense contribution of the women musicians to the arts from the “kothas” of these areas in undivided India. Some of the best singers and actors emerged from these areas.

Visiting Heera Mandi in 2004

One had heard of Heera Mandi long before I visited it by chance in my first visit to Lahore in 2004 to attend the World Punjabi Conference, essentially an Indo-Pak affair with a few non-residents thrown in to give it the nomenclature of being a world affair. I recall theatre artiste late Bhag Singh, who belonged to Peshawar, sneaking in to watch the dance of Jaana Mashooq. Late dancer ML Koser, who founded the Pracheen Kala Kendra in Chandigarh, once told of a secret visit there. Although he had no courage to visit a Kotha. But he did see dances by nautch girls of the lower rungs in the cinemas in those areas.

Looking back and recalling a well-known courtesan Tamancha Jaan, Pran Nevile, a chronicler of Lahore, says, “My maiden visit to Tamancha Jaan’s salon at Heera Mandi was in 1945 with my friend Saeed Ahmed. We were seated on white sheets spread out on carpets with gaav takias (bolster pillows) supporting our backs. The room was fragrant with fresh flowers and incense sticks. The music played and Tamancha Jaan sang in her sonorous voice enchanting our young hearts.”

A painting by Iqbal Hussain mixes the sad reality of the Heera Mandi girls.
A painting by Iqbal Hussain mixes the sad reality of the Heera Mandi girls.

The Cuckoo Den restaurant

Well, we too were taken by some adventurous hosts in Lahore to a Kotha but all that we found there was a leg shake and more to popular music like the dance bars of Mumbai in shadow of the imposing dome and minarets of the pink stone of the Badshahi Masjid. The real experience of the women’s lives there came from the paintings of a world-renowned painter, Iqbal Hussain, who was raised in the streets of Heera Mandi and educated in the National College of Arts on the earnings of his mother and sister and the ‘Den’ was the saloon once for them. They had migrated from Patiala in 1947 to Lahore. Not only did Hussain, who passed away in 2012, paint the reality but even helped the boys and girls of the area find alternate job opportunities. But of course, it will not suit a commercial film maker or web series creator to dedicate a film to this artist who spent 50 years of his life just giving back and he would recount that women of the area would more often than not weep telling their stories as they modelled for him. Alas! true stories rarely interest popular cinema.

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