This artist hub in Karachi aims to be a safe haven for freethinkers

This artist hub in Karachi aims to be a safe haven for freethinkers

The Grid creators vociferously campaign against conventional wisdom that says pursuing a career in arts is impractical
Updated 27 Sep, 2017

To have a parent support the artistic endeavours of their children is nothing short of a blessing in a conformist society like Pakistan's ─ one in which a large majority actively discourages critical thinking, clips freedom of thought and moderates choices in its pursuit of convention.

And that is what the creators of The Grid Club ─ a newly opened community centre ─ aim to counter.

The Grid Club.
The Grid Club.

Known as The Grid, the community centre is located in a bustling, hip and happening part of Defence, an area of the Karachi associated with wealth and a liberal demographic ─ pul ke uss par (on the other side of the bridge) as they say. It has a library, an art gallery and a performance venue, where artists, writers, musicians and all liberal arts enthusiasts can band together to create, perform and share.

'The Grid is a madrassah for the left'

"The right has opened so many madrassahs all over the city and they're thriving," Syed Aftab Shah, the man behind The Grid told Images, saying that in Pakistan, creativity and artistic expressions ─ be it in the form of painting, poetry, music ─ are socially regulated, structurally censored and most of the times, systematically killed.

A glass wall separating the performance space from the library also serves as a surface for visitors to write, draw and use as a creative outlet.
A glass wall separating the performance space from the library also serves as a surface for visitors to write, draw and use as a creative outlet.

"I saw the need for a safe space where dissent would be welcomed and where people could express themselves without fear of backlash," Shah said. "We at The Grid want it to become a madrassah for the left, a safe haven for those who are religiously in touch with their creative side."

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The founders ─ Shah and his childhood buddy Abid Baloch ─ are both millennials in their late 20s, working as professionals in the field of mental health and real estate, respectively. For them, The Grid is a place to help artists hone their talents, learn new skills and coach them in establishing passions as a career.

'A career in the arts is not impractical'

"One of the biggest reasons young men and women abandon art as a career option is because they are told they cannot make money from it or sustain themselves and their families," Shah said.

The space can be used as a performance venue, an art gallery, a place to launch other art and literary works.

At The Grid, they vociferously campaign against conventional wisdom that dictates pursuing the arts and music as a profession is impractical and unrealistic.

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"The main crux of The Grid is to facilitate the artist community," Shah said. "We want to help artists, the creatives, to establish themselves so they can earn a living from it ─ if money is what is stopping them," he added, saying the space can be used by anyone to launch their work, grow and network, exchange ideas and generate an income.

'We need to look after our musicians, our artists, our youth'

Shah has set up an internship programme at The Grid where he works with high school and university students to help them in their creative pursuits, polish their talents, develop soft skills and become healthy, productive adults.

The library mimics seclusion for the quiet ones wanting to study and relax.
The library mimics seclusion for the quiet ones wanting to study and relax.

"The state often says the country's future depends on our youth, that it is Pakistan's strength. But at the same time, it has done little to take care of it," he said, adding the coming generation is deteriorating, with many adolescents and young adults turning to hard drugs, resorting to aggression and expressing pent up emotions in harmful ways.

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In that sense, an internship at The Grid aims to provide students a platform for personal and professional growth. Although they have the freedom to design their internship, students must complete the tasks assigned to them.

"On events, interns are asked to wait tables, take orders from patrons and serve them," Shah said. "I want to teach the youth that no job is too small; they must to learn to take orders and deliver, be it cleaning a washroom or performing an administrative duty."

The Grid aims to provide artists and the youth a platform for personal and professional growth.

"This is to break a trend, I have seen how bureaucrats, or even the 'normal' people, refer to artists. They speak of them in derogatory ways, which is wrong and also very hypocritical," he said.

"On the one hand, you ask them to sing Mujhe Dushman ke Bachon ko Parhana Hai, and on the other hand, you call them marasi," Shah said. "We need to realise the value of our artists as they are the ones who help us present a positive image of Pakistan."

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A visitor leaves a message on the wall.
A visitor leaves a message on the wall.

Starting October, The Grid will also be holding different classes where students can learn a new skill such as classical singing and/or polish the ones they have already acquired, as well as gain beginner's knowledge in various subjects in the liberal arts field such as philosophy and psychology.

Additionally, there will be a cut-off fee so teachers cannot charge a hefty amount. "Art is for everyone, not just a privileged few who can afford it," Shah said.

'We want the artist community to take ownership of The Grid'

The Grid opened for the public over a month ago. A project in its initial stages, the financial burden to run the place has been largely endured by the owners and donors.

"A lot of people told me a place like The Grid is more needed in areas like North Nazimabad, Jauhar, Lyari and others where there is a large creative community without resources and access to such platforms," Shah added. "However, sustaining a place like this in Defence is extremely tough as rent and utility costs are high."

"We want to see if The Grid can sustain itself via crowdfunding and support of the artist community," he added.

The Grid has no "one real owner", Shah says.
The Grid has no "one real owner", Shah says.

"There is no one real owner of The Grid," he added. "We hope the artist community and those benefiting from the space take ownership of The Grid and help in keeping it going," Shah further said.

Currently, The Grid offers a simple menu, offering basic (but yummy!) items such as chicken-filled paratha and doodh-patti. Patrons can also play board games, Foosball, pool and Playstation for a small cost. They also rent out the venue to NGOs as well as for-profit organisations.

"However, our approach to not-for-profit organisations is completely different from collaborations with for-profit corporations," Shah said.

In addition, The Grid also has different paid memberships available with various discounts and benefits, though artists, writers and musicians get the best deal.

"I am discriminatory towards them," Shah added, with a chortle.

'The Grid is an on-going experiment'

No interior designer was hired to decorate The Grid, Shah tells Images. "There is a lot going on on the walls; the art and decoration you see is a self-reflection of all the people who helped us with the creative process."

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If The Grid is able to thrive via crowdfunding, its founders plan to replicate the model in other areas of Karachi or even Pakistan.

"It is an experiment ─ if successful, The Grid will open in other areas with its model tweaked as per the needs in that community," Shah said.

However, its essence ─ a safe space for artistic expression ─ will remain, he added.

The Grid is located at Bukhari Commercial in Phase VI, DHA. It is open seven days a week from 12pm till midnight.