ISLAMABAD: The animated sound of ghungroos has been replaced by the inanimate clatter of crockery in Rawalpindi’s Qasai Gali or Butcher’s Street.
Starting from the congested Raja Bazaar and ending at Talwara Bazaar, Qassai Gali was the city’s red-light district till a few decades ago. Today, the few remaining families of dancers are struggling to make a living. The women no longer sing and dance for visitors at their quarters, as was once the cultural norm. They wait to be invited to weddings and other celebrations for the entertainment of guests.
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The houses of these last surviving families are old and dilapidated with narrow stairways. Occupants of these abodes eagerly peer through their windows in hopes of spotting a customer. But the only resemblance to the music of the past is the untamed racket of ceramic crockery being arranged and rearranged by hoarse-voiced traders loudly advertising their wares. The crammed shops and their extended displays make walking past the street a challenge for pedestrians.
Sanaullah Khan, a veteran broadcaster who has seen the city transform significantly over the years, says the street was a far more colourful reflection of its present self during the 60s, when it produced maestro musicians like renowned tabla players Chacha Karma and Sharif Tabla Wala, and Radio Pakistan singer Ijaz Hazarvi. The women, on the other hand, were exquisite dancers – and as many are quick to point out – not prostitutes.
At the time, the place known as Sirra-e-Bailli on the outskirts of the city was recognized as the go-to brothel, whereas Qasai Gali was where the dancers did their business. In the late 70s came the crackdown against red-light areas and with it the decline in the demand for dancers too. Some, however, still linger. A dozen or so families of dancers from Qasai Gali are available for weddings even today.
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A frail, old woman, who was once a nimble-footed dancer in her youth, tells The Express Tribune that women from around 12 to 15 families still earn a living through dancing. The performances, however, are unlike those of yesteryears. "The era of dancing and singing passed decades ago. There is no girl with musical anklets dancing to the rhythm of the tabla. They now dance to disco music at parties," she says, refusing to divulge her name.
The elderly woman says poverty has forced some families to send their women out with eunuchs who are regularly booked for weddings around the city. She claims the increasing role of eunuchs as wedding entertainers has also put a dent in the demand for women dancers. Not only are eunuchs cheaper to hire, they are not as frowned upon as are women dancers.
"I was hardly 15 years old when I was introduced to the dancing business. I am almost 60 now. We came from households where dancing and singing was the family profession since generations. The trends have now changed and it’s no longer a family profession. Individuals have taken our place, but they don’t have the credentials we had," she says.
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The woman says she married her daughter into a well-to-do family around 20 years ago and the latter is now the parent of several grown-up children. Although the woman says she taught her daughter the art of dancing and singing, the younger woman left the profession after her marriage. The elderly woman says she now trains and takes care of a few nieces who dance at weddings and other events.
Unfortunately for the woman and her nieces, there is not nearly enough work to earn an adequate living. "I haven’t been able to pay the rent of my house, which has now accumulated to Rs14,000 for two months," she laments.
The former dancer then steers the conversation towards the inevitable conclusion that all discussion relating to art and entertainment in Pakistan leads to: Ziaul Haq. She says business was booming before the military dictator took over the country and put dancers and singers behind bars. She fondly recalls legendary folk singer Shaukat Ali who protested on the streets and arranged for the subsequent release of Qasai Gali’s entertainers. "These women only dance, they do nothing else of illegal or prohibited nature," she clarifies as if hoping to somehow turn back time, her eyes glazing over with the memory of more musical days.