Revival of baithak culture

Sharing ideas, eating food or just hanging out - the baithak culture is back with T2F and Kuch Khaas

Ayesha Fazal March 07, 2011
Those lamenting the loss of the Pak Tea House in Lahore, look around you. The baithak culture is back. Baithak: a place to sit, eat, share ideas, create change, and most importantly, a place to just be.

The trend is not just to have a restaurant, a cinema or a book store, but to have an amalgam of these under one roof. They are not exclusive clubs but open houses, requiring no membership, nominal, if any, entrance fees and operating on a first come first serve basis.

Designer outlets like Melange now house cafes on the side, as do art galleries like Nomad; similarly, cafes like Mocha, have magazine racks; the Chaaye Khana even has table tops designed as chess boards and the chess pieces are available on request.

It’s not just about food anymore.

The Second Floor in Karachi, popularly known as T2F, and Kuch Khaas (KK) in Islamabad are two modern day baithaks.

Virtual baithak

The traditional baithak has caught up with technology to create a virtual lounge. T2F has 8,451 fans on their Facebook page and KK35,261. People decide to attend an event after looking at the “attending” list to see who else will be coming. Events are announced, feedback sent and laments are voiced, at not being able to attend, all on the Facebook pages. T2F is there on Twitter, RSS and is planning to share information on events through SMS, too.

Who is hanging out at these hangouts

Urdu poetry is for oldies? Not if Kuch Khaas is hosting a Faiz evening. Photography classes are for teenagers? Not at our modern baithaks. The young and the old(er) clap to the same beat as a youthful singer weaves magic with “Hum Daikhain Gey”. It’s about the big idea and not about personalities. There is a refreshing intermingling of different generations, nationalities and classes at these all-embracing haunts.

The line between the community and the celebrity gets comfortably obliterated. Seasoned poets and singers, renowned documentary producers, journalists and intellectuals chat over tea with the aspirants, a happy union where it is hard to tell who is the giver and who the receiver.

The ambiance: non-intrusive functionality

The design of the physical space adds to the intellectual openness: brick walls, floor seating, art-decorated walls, comfy but imperfectly coordinated furniture, all create an artistic, un-intimidating niche. Functionality is the key: at T2F, chairs are stackable, tables rectangular so that they can be joined easily.

Sabeen Mahmud, the woman behind T2F, says how she has kept away couches and sofas, as the seating is meant to inspire conversations. Both KK and T2F have separately assigned niches for books, performances, art displays, and the café. Both have spaces that transform depending on the events. KK has a backyard where refreshments are served, and events are held when the weather permits.

Doing what?

So what are these diverse groups of individuals doing in these thought-inducing spaces?

Both focus on arts and culture, technology and on responsible citizenship. They feature book launches, readings, dance performance and jam sessions, among others.

KK also has story telling sessions for children from the deprived community: dholak evenings, ludo competitions, and purposeful theatre.

KK has hosted events such as TEDx Margallah and movie screenings in connection with the black history month. The Green Drinks discussion forum on environmental issues is also a regular feature at KK. The list is endless. Suffice it to say that there is an unforced mix of innovation and tradition, of self fulfilment and responsible citizenship.

Spontaneity by design

What Shayan of Kuch Khaas calls “impromptu” events, Sabeen calls “organic”. Both are invested in maintaining a non-structured air, allowing a floating space for both events and people.

The community in turn has responded to this openness. KK banks heavily on suggestions from the community and encourages participation from amateur performers – the poetry recitals at T2F are currently housed in donated space, @ Rs1/month!

Sitting for progress

These baithaks are different from theme-based eateries: they are not just about lounging around. The purpose of T2F is “intellectual poverty alleviation”, according to Sabeen, to create a space to discuss conflicted issues. KK offers classes in photography, dance, and filmmaking, to name a few. These baithaks build networks, facilitate catharses of all sorts, mould new talent and connect the mentors and the ‘mentees’.

From here will emerge the critical mass required to make the larger community budge forward, creating a subtle but consistent ground-swell. Ten or 15 years from now the frequenters of these baithaks will look back and reminisce about how their talents were nurtured and their ideas strengthened through discussions and sharing in these safe havens, in these seats of change.

Ayesha Fazal An Islamabad based education consultant and Fulbright Fellow from Harvard University. Fazal contributes to the Islamabad pages of The Express Tribune.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.


parvez | 13 years ago | Reply Nicely written but is it not a shame on us that we have only two such places to foster intellectual debate in a casual open atmosphere. These two also cater mainly to the upper crust, both young and old in society, who frequent them as they would their swank health clubs. For them its enjoyment, its a pass time, its fun, its feel good. What is needed and has almost died out is the Zellins style coffee house or Fredricks in Saddar. The death of such places was a sign of intellectual decay.
Taha Ceen Tayyab | 13 years ago | Reply Kuch Khas is a wonderful place... I just moved to Islamabad from Karachi and was longing for a place to "socialize" and found kuch khas serve that purpose real well for me. I attended the Socrate's Cafe which is an event where participants indulge in discussion over a topic. But you don't debate in conventional fashion rather do it or try to do it the way Socrate's would have done it. Its a wonderfull thing.
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