Tour de Lahore

Fayes T Kantawala finds aesthetic saving grace to life in smoggy Lahore

Tour de Lahore
Around the end of December Pakistan’s robust expat population flies back home from all over the world to nest in winter wedding tents around the country. Suddenly and apparently overnight the familiar numbers of year-long residents are augmented with the fresh, medicated expressions of visitors happy to be back in the throng of parties and dholkies, their foreign spouses whisked from shrine to shaadi to doctor’s office and back again.

I, too, had friends visiting Lahore from out of town. They were here for a family wedding and I hitched on to their ambitious touring itinerary. They were looking for something fun to do that was convenient but also unusual and were jet lagged enough to be able to do it early. First up was a local breakfast place called Capri, which does not – as its name misleadingly suggests – serve Mediterranean fusion food. Apparently legendary, Capri is nestled behind Liberty Market and is famous among students for their cheap, delicious halwa puri, freshly fried samosas and steaming sweet tea, all dishes best reserved for when you can wear obfuscating layers.

Like many repeat visitors to Lahore, they’d already been to the Fort, wandered around the Old City, had dinner overlooking the Badshahi Mosque and picnicked in the Shalimar Gardens. In order to avoid repeats, I recommended we start out by going to Lahore’s newest museum, COMO. It opened earlier this year and is set in a converted house in Gulberg. COMO (short for COntemporary MOdern) is the first and only museum dedicated to Pakistani contemporary art (someone mentioned PNCA in Islamabad but I have yet to see it open during office hours).

Carved marble at Jahangir's Tomb, Lahore

COMO is remarkable, in both its intimacy and scale. There are some superb permanent installations, but when we went, the whole space was hosting a sprawling show of emerging artists working with the theme of self portraiture in the age of the selfie. It’s wonderful and if art isn’t your cup of tea, they have good coffee in the cafe and a well-stocked bookstore that I would recommend you visit.

Next I arranged for a group of us to go to Jahangir’s Tomb, which for some reason still remains a deeply unvisited site by tourists here, probably because you can’t rent it for parties. I’ve been going there since I was a child, and it remains my favourite monument in Pakistan. Its on the other side of the Ravi river, where after conquering a labyrinth of winding roads you are suddenly faced with the sprawling arched outer wall of a vast enclosed garden. After paying a small entrance fee you enter a huge Mughal quadrangle, then through another gate enter an even larger one inside, in the center of the which is the tomb itself. The Mughals knew how to plan a rectangle, and the whole experience is a lovely mix of nature and marble patterning. We went on a Sunday public holiday, despite which there were hardly more than 100 people scattered around. That said, it is all outdoors, and the smog made it difficult to stay there more than a couple of hours – but it looks absolutely magical in iPhone pictures.
Let me say how grateful I am for seeing the way that art - Mughal, contemporary, culinary, student - continues to form the strength of Pakistan’s public spaces

By now, though, I had exhausted my supply of unusual events in Lahore that didn’t involve hallucinogenics, and so it was with marked relief that I found out the NCA Fine Arts thesis show would be opening over Xmas. The thesis show is always great, and like every year most of it was rightly sold out by the time we arrived. There were the usual miniaturists wrestling with wasli, though they were outnumbered by painters and sculptors (sadly, there were fewer installation artists than ever before). My friends left Lahore this week thrilled and happy with two new paintings, lots of beautiful pictures and only the smallest case of emphysema.

Now that the migratory birds have all begin flying off again, the pace of the wedding season will continue rolling into the early Spring (usually the time when Cultural Lahore wakes up from hibernation and insists on discussing public policy at literary fests). For this week though, let me say how grateful I am for seeing the way that art - Mughal, contemporary, culinary, student - continues to form the strength of Pakistan’s public spaces. It’s often easy to forget how much of a place art can have in our lives in a place unless we let it. And although we don’t get to see it much as we’d like on the roads and streets, I can breathe easier this week knowing art is there.

Well, nearly breathe.

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