There’s a dire need to revive the arts in Karachi’s design-rich, historical Old Town, “the hub of printing presses” as heritage conservationist and architect Marvi Mazhar puts it.
The Karachi-based activist is the face of the newly inaugurated Pakistan Chowk Community Centre (PCCC), which she hopes will become a social space for locals to meet, exchange thoughts and strengthen the community.
The centre is housed on the first floor of the historic Sultani Mahal Building, located approximately 30 feet away from Pakistan Chowk.
A narrow staircase with bright butterscotch walls leads to the entrance opening into the baithak area, a space designated for holding workshops, literary discussions or town halls. A gallery with a view of the public square conjoins the sitting area, letting the sounds of the Old Town in the space.
The centre is an effort to boost social cohesion via arts and culture in a space available to all members of the community. It also aims to serve as a launching pad for many undiscovered artists and poets living in the area.
“Elsewhere in the world’s urban centres, a place so rich in history and expression would be celebrated. But look what it's like here,” Mazhar said, pointing at the dusty moldings of the Victorian buildings, their walls stained with urine and lined with rotting sludge.
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For a metropolis home to some of the finest universities in the country, Karachi is starving for art, literature and philosophy, she said.
The community centre's launch earlier this week was crowded, with guests like Stefan Winkler, Ambreen Thompson, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Asif Farrukhi in attendance.
While quoting French philosopher Le Febvre, Stefan Winkler, director of Goethe-Institut Pakistan, in his speech said initiatives like Pakistan Chowk Community Centre provide a social space for locals to gather and discuss ideas and exchange knowledge, emboldening them to take ownership of their neighbourhoods, and “ultimately their right to the city”.
Building on the thought, Ambreen Thompson, the executive director of I AM KARACHI, a movement behind the overhaul of some 2,000 walls across the city previously vandalised with hate-speech, said the violence and volatility of the city is such that “we have shrunk into silos”.
And in order to break away from those deeply entrenched divisions, a citizen-led “self-help” initiative is important, as crucial as a public-private partnership, Thompson added.
The local community takes ownership, she said, as she stressed on the need of citizen activism.
However, the idea isn't foreign to the community.
On the grassroots, residents have been working of their neighbourhoods. On Sundays, Pakistan Chowk becomes a site for artists and poets from the area who gather and provide a source of reflective entertainment to their neighbours.
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"But we're unable to sustain the activities by ourselves now," Ahmed Anver, an artist born and bred in Pakistan Chowk said when asked about his sentiments toward the initiative.
"We welcome the initiative and want to see it thrive, but there's a lot more cohesion and cooperation required for it to go in the direction PCCC wants," he said as he critiqued the inaugural event on Wednesday where locals were sparsely seen.
"This gathering would have been twice as beautiful had more of our neighbours been a part of it," the artist said as he reflected on the divide between the aims of initiatives like this and the grassroots reality that continues to persist.
Another issue PCCC may have to contend with is how the public square is a space largely occupied by men, dominated by offices for businesses, its roads bustling with traffic with no crosswalks for pedestrians.
Women of the locality were mostly an audience to the event, seen standing in their balconies. What plans does PCCC have to address these concerns?
"See, when events like these take place anywhere, for example in a park in Defence, residents from their houses in the area don't come," Mazhar said. "You can see and tell from a distance that yes, even though an event is taking place in your neighbourhood, it is not something you would choose to attend."
It was indeed a shiny, high-profile inauguration, with people from the privileged class dominating the event.
That is the very problem that needs to be addressed if initiatives like these, that harp on building social cohesion via arts and culture, are to thrive.