Of Palimpsests and Desi Flâneurs
Of Palimpsests and Desi Flâneurs

The area of Anarkali extends south from the Lohari Gate of the old Walled City to across the British-era Mall—a wide tree-lined boulevard. Therefore, it encompasses a large swathe of the city and consists of colonial structures, a residential area1 and of course the Anarkali Bazaar itself which is named after the fabled and ill-fated courtesan of Mughal Emperor Jehangir (then Salim) who was entombed alive for falling in love with the young prince. Such was the fascination of Lahorites with Anarkali that the tragic love story fired the imagination of dramatist and Urdu playright Imtiaz Ali Taj and he wrote the drama titled Anarkali in 1922.2 The “Old and “New” Anarkali are still popular markets primarily where women come to shop. The tomb of Anarkali is presently located on the grounds of the city’s Civil Secretariat Complex.

In late 2020 the World Monuments Fund3 conceived an innovative project with the aim of reviving and raising awareness about the cultural, historical and spatial significance of Anarkali. This encompassed identifying tangible and intangible cultural heritage through cultural mapping that was not just restricted to historical buildings in Anarkali but also highlighted the importance of shared communities, cultural memory and local history. 4 The World Monuments Fund website mentions that congestion and loss of shared spaces has affected the overall cultural and social fabric of the area and that they endeavor to involve community members and other participants through identifying culturally meaningful shared spaces.5

The Anarkali is Alive project was conceived as a response to these concerns. The first phase of the project was executed over a period of months by students and faculty from the National College of Arts Lahore. Anarkali is Alive has been opened to the public in the form of an exhibition but it is artist/curator Sehr Jalil, a faculty member at the Cultural Studies Department of NCA, who has spearheaded its evolution and execution. The project unfolded and was brought to fruition in two phases, the first phase involved cultural mapping while the second phase involved the creation of art works that involved interventions “with a historic urban focus”. Most of the artists created work on the site in public space engaging directly with the public either through performance or other methods of on-site art making. The results of their efforts were displayed at the Lake Road Gallery and Studios, a historic home located near Anarkali.

View of Anarkali is Alive at Lake Road Gallery and Studios, 2021.

The artists continually sourced the “flâneur” as they roamed the city, a concept that emerged in literature and theory in the late 1800s. The flâneur or modern-day “artist-poet” was a figure who would wander or stroll the city streets investigating, observing and commenting on modern urban life and its problems.  Jalil cites the concept of the flâneur and the palimpsest as being integral to her approach in conceiving the exhibition. The layering of various architecture styles, histories, cultures and memories make Anarkali a perfect case study for being recognized as a living palimpsest of sorts. The fragmented landscape of both the tangible and intangible reveal the identity of the space. The act of removing, adding, restoring and overlapping that is constantly at play in the space and architectural landscape of Anarkali imbue it with memorial, historical and aesthetical values so that they become part of the collective memory of its inhabitants.6

The brief of Anarkali is Alive encapsulates this spirit and describes it as “an attempt to mark a continuation and reflection of Anarkali’s pulse; its struggles joys and wonders.”

The exhibition features work by ten artists: Mina Arham, Zara Asghar, Zahra Asiam, Farida Batool, Sehr Jalil, Marria Khan, Suleman Khilji, Mehdi Maloof, Sachal Rivi and Mohsin Shafi.

Marria Khan’s comic strip titled Book Baazar Zinda Hai7 consists of a narrative inspired by a “ruddi wala”8 she noticed near the Anarkali Book Bazar. She recounted how she had placed this strip on walls around Anarkali so that it would become part of the existing palimpsests of posters in the area.

Book Baazar Zinda Hai, Marria Khan. Comic strip print, 9 x 51 inches, 2021.

The preliminary field work for Farida Batool’s intervention titled Not Looking Away had involved taking endless selfies of herself and others in Anarkali; her aim was to explore the notion of the gaze, particularly in public space. Batool pasted images of hundreds of eyes on walls, plaques and passing rickshaws in Anarkali as a means of commenting on the ever shrinking public space for females where she hoped they would not be “be buried or sealed alive within the brick walls as Anarkali.” The work in the exhibition space consists of a wall covered with a sea of images that feature an endless repetition of her eyes printed in monochrome. The overall effect was discomfiting and intrusive—the eyes “followed” one everywhere as if they were silently judging the viewer. Ironically, the fact that most selfies at the exhibition were being taken in front of her work also sums up the ethos of the age that we live in!

Installation of Not Looking Away in progress on site. The artist, Faridal Batool, can be seen in the picture. Black and white offset press, 11 x 8 inches, 2021.

Zara Asghar expanded on the concept of female space by painting A Performance of Genders, a mural of a group of women relaxed and at ease as they put their feet up, read or have a drink. The text on the wall written in Urdu translates as ‘An invitation for women to gather here for a few minutes. Let’s gather because we can, lets gather because it is our right.” The act of painting a mural about the reclamation of space amongst people who are not used to seeing females painting a wall in public in itself becomes a transgressive maneuver. The printed image of Asghar’s powerful mural in the gallery space perhaps deserved greater space, or at least a larger scale, in order for its impact to be acknowledged.

Performance of Genders mural in progress, Zara Asghar, mixed media, 2021.

Laced with a sardonic wit, Mohsin Shafi’s video titled Ghunghat ohley na lukk sajna, Main mushtaq deedar de haan9 locates him as a concerned citizen roaming Anarkali and searching for the “real” Anarkali who was rumored to have been tragically entombed alive in a wall. The work questions the role and identity of females in society as it features haunting shots of stoic female mannequins outside shops showing off the latest fashion and being undressed/dressed in extravagant outfits by male shop owners in the bazaar.

Suleman Khilji’s works are diverse. His paintings on book covers, placed in unassuming spaces such as on dressing tables and other furniture mirror the equally unassuming existence of interesting characters that roam the streets of Anarkali. His video records the aimless wandering and observations of an ordinary man or perhaps a “desi flâneur” amongst the masses who spends the day in Anarkali. Mundane acts such as slurping on milky chai or passively observing a burning pile of trash engender debates such as who has the most claim to public space and what scenes classify as being “normal” for an average desi flâneur. The video is complimented by Mehdi Maloof’s soulful music that syncs perfectly with the reflective tone of Khilji’s video.

Flaneur II (Aur Talwar Toot Gaee), Suleman Khilji, oil on gesso on an old found book, 5 x 8.5 inches, 2021.

Zara Asim’s painstakingly crafted diminutive bronze reliefs of windows and doors that are typical of Anarkali’s residential and shopping area demonstrate a fascination with pattern and detail while Mina Arham’s architectural interventions titled Contradictory Facades draw attention to the need to preserve historical facades, and questions issues of land ownership. In one of her works, she takes up the case of Jai Ram Building in Anarkali as a disputed property that had to be divided between two brothers; the contradictions inherent in the visual topography and her observations, rendered through delicate drawings, highlight stark methods of demarcation.

Jai Ram building was a pre-partition structure that belonged to two brothers who “marked their territory” by dividing the facade into two halves straight through the center and with the use of colour. In another set of works pertaining to Jai Ram Building, Asim creates two images that depict what would have been the facade had it not been divided into two. She mentions that the aim is to depict the erratic nature of Anarkali as well as question the notion of territory in such an inconsistent landscape.

Untitled (1-9), Zara Asim, Mixed media on copper, sizes variable, 2021
Bhool Bhulaiya I, Sachal Rizvi, pen and ink on paper, 72 inches x 23 inches, 2021.

Sachal Rizvi’s large-scale drawing Bhool Bhulaiya celebrates the topography and sensory experience of being in Anarkali bazaar whose narrow lanes are akin to an ever-expanding maze.  Sehr Jalil’s ode to Anarkali is encapsulated in a grand homage to the many women who shop there: she adorns the façade of a building in the central bazar of Anarkali with a phrase from Anwar Masood’s poetry as he waxes eloquent about the market proclaiming that “Oh! Sweet naïve young buffalo what would you know of the majestic Naarkali?”

The work at the exhibition demonstrates a larger effort on the part of the artists and WMF to raise awareness about the values and revitalization of cultural heritage while reflecting on retaining the urban and historical fabric of the area. The artists of Anarkali is Alive don the role of “desi flâneurs” who in contrast to the Parisian of the nineteenth century strolling orderly arcades and boulevards instead navigate and confront the “orderly chaos” and incongruous modernity typical of a post-colonial society where history becomes a “stack of non-synchronous time-streams”10 and the various life-worlds of Anarkali come to represent a “complete interpenetration of technological and primitive modes of life.”11 Ergo as a post-colonial nation, our cities and people have not been mere passive recipients of some homogenous colonizing European modernity but they have actively responded and produced their own ideas of modernity and tradition in response.12

The works in the exhibition therefore expand on these ideas by choosing to be critical rather than merely eulogizing the patina of time or highlighting the aesthetics of urban space. Its inconsistencies and problems are equally relevant as evinced by the works that for example discuss shrinking public space for women in an area where women are ironically the major stakeholders, as consumers. As one viewed the works, the crux of the project and the nature of their production on site kept referring back to the role of people and community. To lay greater claim to the complexity of urban identity and its capacity for resilience and change, perhaps Lahorites need to start considering capacity building and the power contained within its communities.

“Anarkali is Alive” remained on display at Lake Road Gallery & Studios, Lahore from September 7,2021 to September 9, 2021.

Title image: Work on site for Contradictory Facades, Mina Arham, 2021


  • Anarkali Bazaar. World Monuments Fund. (2021). Retrieved 26 September 2021, from https://www.wmf.org/project/anarkali-bazaar.
  • Imtiaz Ali, the Taj of Urdu drama. DAWN.COM. (2021). Retrieved 26 September 2021, from https://www.dawn.com/news/917423/imtiaz-ali-the-taj-of-urdu-drama.
  • Kaiwar, V. (2014). The postcolonial Orient: the politics of difference and the project of provincialising Europe. Ebook. (Boston: Brill), p.108, 117.
  • Kordonouri, Thomais, and Alectis Rodi. LDE Heritage Conference of Heritage And Sustainable Development Goals Proceedings. Ebook. (Netherlands: DELFT university of Technology), 2019, 38-39.


  1. World Monuments Fund (WMF), 2021
  2. “Imtiaz Ali, the Taj of Urdu drama”, 2021
  3. World Monuments Fund (WMF) is a private, international, non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of historic architecture and cultural heritage sites around the world through fieldwork, advocacy, grantmaking, education, and training.
  4. World Monuments Fund (WMF), 2021
  5. Ibid
  6. LDE Heritage Conference , 2019
  7. Book Bazaar is Alive
  8. Someone who collects used paper, newspapers, bottles etc
  9. Hide nor behind the veil my love, I long to have a glimpse of you
  10. Kaivar, 117.
  11. Ibid
  12. Kaivar, 108.

Zohreen Murtaza is a permanent faculty member in the Cultural Studies Department at the National College of Arts (NCA). She regularly writes on art and has contributed towards various publications including the daily newspaper Dawn.

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