Koocha-e-Saqafat – Karachi’s nook of culture

Every Sunday evening, one of Karachi’s busiest roads undergoes a silent makeover that transforms it from a bedlam of domineering vehicles that emanate poison into a dais for tranquility, art and culture. The harsh discordant honks and the inherent reek of psychosomatic chaos that are native to the area are miraculously replaced by soft music and a whiff of cultural riches as a myriad of amateur artists, craftsmen and booksellers set up stalls to flaunt their works, artistic flair and collections. The thoroughfare, for a good six or so hours every week, is owned by self-celebrating entertainers, poets and street theatre actors instead of a horde of rowdy buses and rickshaws; thence koocha-e-khabasat is proficiently turned into what is known to Karachi’s art & culture loving community as Koocha-e-Saqafat (Nook of Culture).

It is an impressively lit affair, this Koocha. Sandwiched between the Supreme Court of Pakistan (Karachi) on one end and the Pakistan Arts Council on the other, it covers almost half of M R Kayani Road and falls adjacent to the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA); an ideal location to venerate a heritage that’s been hundreds of years in the making, conserving which will, in our President’s wise words, “give Karachi it’s old socially and culturally rich look, which is the need of time.”

Although the cultural precinct has suffered an incredible decline since it was first conceptualized and facilitated by Governor Sind Dr Ishrat Ul Ebad Khan in conjunction with the Arts Council and the Koocha-e-Saqafat committee in May 2005, the weekly event continues to allure child and adult alike thanks to sheer dedication from persevering artisans to a cause that promises insignificant return. These artistes are commendably trying to hold on to the little that’s left of the saqafat we as a society once possessed, and while their endeavors to salvage the same have been highly acclaimed by the public and local administration, their skills within the city remain hungry for further official patronage, resulting in depleting talent and migration of artists to other parts of the country to survive and keep their art and households intact.

“We love displaying our work at the Koocha every Sunday,” told me an elderly artist who makes pencil portraits for anyone who will pay him a grand for his trouble, “Making one or two portraits every week hardly helps feed my family, but it is a gift to us from the present government and we are grateful for it!”

The affair starts with a section originally called Aao Rung Bharain, which is basically an informal art exhibit and a wonderful place to buy original watercolors and pencil art by some very talented yet sadly unknown maestros.

The Koocha-e-Saqafat book section, Aao Kitab Parhain, has a huge collection of paperbacks and hardcovers on topics ranging from architecture, literature and pop culture to self help, art and biographies in Urdu, English, Arabic and Persian as well as other regional languages. Most of these books are second hand or bootlegged versions of course, and although it’s a clear violation of the copyright law, the place is an obvious dreamland for Karachi’s literary inhabitants and a savored trip is held in as high a regard as an actual treasure hunt!

The third section Aao Hunarmandon Say Milain, which was initially set aside for craftsmen and potters has now been replaced with Itwaar bazaar-esque stalls that are overflowing with mediocre ornaments, artificial jewelry and other handmade domestic items, which too have become the essence of Pakistan’s comprehensive culture and lifestyle over the years. Some of the more prominent displays in this section, however, were those of readymade tie & dye and batik tunics and dupattas, alongside an enthusiastic contemporary alchemist who has been making homemade soaps, shampoos, oils and crèmes for a living for years.

“I cannot thank President Musharraf enough for this opportunity!” He explained when asked if what he was doing was even permissible, “Up until a few years ago I had no platform to display and sell my products which I have formulated after years of hard work and experiments…the authorities used to give me a hard time because I didn’t have any money and was working at home, but today I have regular customers who by the grace of God are very happy with the results and I’m sure no one can find any fault in them!”

Fascinating indeed, but perhaps the most interesting part of the whole experience was the animate Mohammed Ali Sheikh, a modern day behroopia, who has been entertaining the visitors of Koocha-e-Saqafat with his priceless masquerade and singing/acting since its conception a couple of years ago.

“My depictions of Akbar the Great, Tipu Sultan, Jinns and a few legendary film characters have been most popular among the visitors.” He related proudly.

How the poor gentleman comes up with a new costume, corresponding makeup and abiding creativity every week is a mystery quite riveting, but the smile on his face as he performs is contagious to say the least, and that’s where his job is rendered done.

Another compelling feature is Kooch-e-Saqafat’s customary street theatre act which lasts about an hour and includes at least a couple of comedy plays that are typically about different social issues and end with a little something to think about. Kooche-e-Saqafat literary sittings and a routine mushaira follow, and the fête winds up soon after, bringing a harmonized conclusion to a perfect Sunday evening complete with a light dinner of convincingly hygienic aaloo cholay, samosas, sandwiches, spring rolls and the ever essential French fries.