Artists from famous Coocos den in Lahore defend their art

Nov 30, -0001
LAHORE: Violence continues to rock Pakistan. In the most recent attack (16 April) a suicide car bomber attacked a police checkpoint in northwest Pakistan, killing six officers and five civilians. The attack occurred in Charsadda, just north of Peshawar.

The violence - which has also been aimed at theatres - has left many wondering whether the liberal arts have a future.

The city of Lahore is several hundred miles south of the most recent violence - famed for its music halls, cinemas, actors and dancers working in the heart of the old city. It's been a tourist destination for hundreds of years.

A restaurant called Coocos lies in the heart of the Shahi Mohalla, the city's red light area.

The restaurant's verandah commands a stunning view over the nearby Badshahi Mosque, one of the highlights of Mughal architecture on the Indian subcontinent.

Diners come from all over the country to sample the fine fare here of traditional curry.

The restaurant's owner is one of the Pakistani art world's most notorious, Iqbal Hussein.

Now in his sixties, Hussein has lived in the Shahi Mohalla all his life.

Himself born in a brothel, he has given his life to painting the people and the scenes he sees around him in his cherished neighbourhood.

His paintings attract an international following and works command high prices.

Hussein's studies of prostitutes have landed him in trouble with the authorities and religious hardliners in the past, and he has received many threats over the years.

Hussein says he is not bothered about what others think and says he paints what he chooses for his own pleasure.

Although not immune to the violence sweeping Pakistan, Lahore, until recently, was seen as still being relatively safe for foreign visitors.

Two major attacks by militants in March, one against the touring Sri Lankan cricket team and another against a police academy, mean the city is now in the sights of extremists hoping to bring Taliban-style rule to Pakistan.

And there are signs that a cultural assault is reaching Lahore.

In other parts of the country, bombings on video stores, threats to barbers shaving beards and bus drivers playing music on board have become common tales.

The murders of dancers and wedding musicians have shocked many in the country.

And in Lahore, a handful of small bombs have been detonated near theatres and a cultural complex in recent months, spurring fears of a "Talibanisation" here.

For performers at the Al Hamra Arts Complex, one of the locations attacked, the danger hasn't gone away.

The play, a love story called 'A Young Boy' is performed in the local language of Punjabi and features a traditional style of dance called 'Mujra'.

It's been a big success, with performances nightly and twice a day at weekends.

The stars of the show, who also act in popular TV dramas, appeal to the extremists behind the wave of attacks to stop and find a better way to express themselves.

Actor Zafer Arshad says dance is part of the city's culture, the inheritance from their ancestors.

For now at least, the show must go on. But for how much longer? -AGENCIES


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