Pakistan Chowk Community Centre: a social urban experiment

by Marvi Mazhar

Our Story

Pakistan Chowk is a landmark heritage site in District South, Karachi and is central to the Old Town. The Chowk was previously utilized as a literary space, where people assembled to exchange conversations about literature, mainly in the forms of mushairas, baithaks and such.

Pakistan Chowk, Karachi, Pakistan

Over time, there began a social exclusion, the horizontal expansion of the city as well as the horizontal concentration of wealth which contributed in an exclusion that damaged the framework of society. Therefore, the intent of the The Pakistan Chowk Initiative was to bring back art and culture to the people and not let it remain as something of the past.

Pakistan Chowk after remodeling with benches, trees lamp posts and dust bins

In the first phase of this initiative, we remodeled a 6,633 sq. ft. space in Pakistan Chowk with benches, lamp posts, trees, dustbins and a mass cleaning of an area that was previously a garbage dump and a public lavatory. After the successful completion of Phase 01, it started serving as a gathering space for artists and thinkers. This led to the emergence of several sensitive topics for dialogue that required a more intimate place. Therefore, we started to envision a space that hosted art and cultural activities that were not feasible to host in the open space. And so, came the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre.

Pakistan Chowk Community Centre (PCCC) at Pakistan Chowk

Pakistan Chowk Community Centre is a two-room space housed on the first floor of the historic Sultani Mahal Building in Old Town, Karachi. It is approximately 30 feet from Pakistan Chowk, and faces the Sarnagati Building. Our goal with the community center is to bring the residents of Old Town together by offering them a space that could be utilized for exhibitions, book launches, baithaks, town hall meetings or as a space which facilitates research.

Important PCCC Projects

The Talking Circle (Baithak): It is a regular baithak with an informal setting where all kinds of people can come together over a cup of tea to discuss the day’s events including social, domestic, economic and political issues. The goal of the Talking Circle is to create a space where people come together and talk about issues that plague their immediate environment and start movements as a result of them.

Baithak at Pakistan Chowk Community Centre

Palak Jhapak (film screening and theatre circle): Through this program, the community center hosts film and television screenings, talks, and workshops on various aspects such as screenwriting, editing as well as acting classes for film, theatre and television.

Soch Siyahee (Literary space): It is the Community Center’s literary space reserved for conducting Workshops and events that celebrate literature, writing and poetry. The Quiet Space is also available for anyone who would like to write.

The Picture House: This program seeks to bring photographers to Old Town to conduct workshops for the people. In addition to this, the Picture House has a photo archive where photographs are collected from the people of Old Town and digitized.

The Spoken History Project: This project collects and curates the history of Karachi’s oldest. We gather storytellers, and extract data to map the vestiges of a space that was, and the space that is now. Informally called “Ghair Sarkari Tareekh”, we emphasize on the validity and legitimacy of memory and oral tradition. It begins with an interview, but it wanders on to an anecdotal charting of space. We seek to both preserve and activate the memories and memorabilia of Old Town, by simultaneously archiving and exhibiting it. Our story tellers are residents, laborers, loiterers, and every other shehri associated with the neighborhood.

Old Town Mapping (Sarak Chap): This project maps out the different communities of Old Town, their environment and legacies for preservation and documentation. The goal is not only to mark the physical details of Old Town, but also to explore the social and political intricacies of the area. This is done by documenting sacred spaces, public and private institutions, open spaces, famous landmarks, gastronomy and built environments which include low-rise and high-rise structures. Additionally, by marking street names, one can see patterns of change that have occurred over time. Increased commercialization has obstructed what Old Town used to be.

Heritage Walk Karachi (HWK): The motive of this project is to engage people from all around the city with the area of Old Town, and enable them to explore their historical treasures; outside the restricted category of pictures. These will include workshops/research tours for students as well as guided tours where participants will be able to explore new alleys, streets, buildings, structures, & spaces within Karachi’s Old Town.We seek to both preserve and activate the memories and memorabilia of Old Town, by simultaneously archiving and exhibiting it.

Demographics of Old Town

PCCC has been, engaging with the historically significant buildings within Saddar, Old Town, whose origins can be traced back to pre-partition times. One of our goals is to photograph and develop a tangible documentation of these buildings in order to trace the spatial as well as social change around Pakistan Chowk and within the ever expanding city of Karachi. Karachi being a hybrid of multiple religions, sects and economic divisions creates opportunities for the PCCC to reach out to individuals from different upbringings and traditions. As Pakistan Chowk is situated in the hub of printing presses, second hand markets alongside a Hindu Mandir and a Zoroastrian Agiari or Fire Temple (places of worship), PCCC draws an audience from multiple migratory histories and religious devotions. For the baithaks (gatherings) and talks held at PCCC, our audience comprises of students and older citizens of Karachi that have a multifarious heritage but our bound together by their interest in communication through the arts and culture in Karachi.

The following communities are found employed and residing around the PCCC which includes the Bohris and Memons, the Zoroastrian (the Parsi) Community, and the Christian community. These communities are diverse in terms of their religious as well as ethnic backgrounds. There are several hybrid communities also found within the area emerging from the amalgamation of certain religious classes with certain ethnic ones. Deriving inspiration from the already existing community/town hall culture within the area, we build upon these dynamics of cultural and social engagement of the communities.

PCCC also engages with the historically significant buildings within the area whose origin can be traced back to pre-partition times. One of our goals is to photograph and develop an archive of these buildings in order to trace the spatial as well as social change around the area and within the larger city of Karachi.

Rationale

The increasing stratification of Karachi has consequently restricted the emergence of social sciences, art, literature, and cultural activities to a certain spatial demographic of the city. As the city expanded horizontally, the wealth is concentrated in certain parts, eroding from others.

The strong symbolic segregation that has come to be associated with space in the city has led to a mindset amongst the citizens that generates a discourse of exclusion regarding “the purana shehr (old town) vs. the naya shehr (new town)”, a categorization that resonates with the orientalist notion of us vs them divide. This symbolic divide legitimizes the lack of communication that exists within different demographics of the city and creates an atmosphere of uninformed citizens who remain oblivious about what exists outside their own demographic circles. The people of Old Town are thus, perceived to reside within anachronistic space and time, resulting in further communication barriers amongst citizens, which have less to do with space, and more to do with the association of backwardness and criminality with the citizens of Old Town.

Through PCCC, our aim is to build a platform for the promotion of arts, literature, and culture in order to provide more opportunities and exposure to the residents of the Old Town. By attracting diverse audiences and participants in our gatherings, classes and talks, PCCC bridges these spatial and symbolic gaps ingrained amongst the classes.

The project further aims to generate discourse on heritage and contemporary arts outside the elite residential areas of the city; where the presence of such activities is already established. In this capacity, the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre hopes to be the inspirational debut project which is to be replicated in the long term as a model to establish similar spaces within different areas of the city.

Goal

Over decades of urban expansion, Karachi, one of the world’s megacities, has lost its heritage and historical significance to its intense urban development. Pakistan Chowk, situated in old town, spread across an area of approximately 2700 sq. kilometers, is home to a rich portfolio of heritage buildings of immense historical and cultural significance; once a hub of intellectual, artistic, and cultural activities, has been forgotten by Karachi’s rapid urban expansion.

This goal of PCCC is to access to a plethora of living talent and provide a platform to this platform. Bridge several programs to enable intergenerational dialogue resulting in creative expression.

Heritage Walk Karachi- exploring the streets of Old Town Karachi

Heritage Walk Karachi (HWK)

HWK is one of the research based academic projects of Pakistan Chowk Community Centre (PCCC) where we have conducted 29 tours with 662 explorers. It all started from Heritage Awareness Program (HAP) sessions for private & public schools, to mapping project in old town and now a research based heritage tour. We are proud to have designed two types of tours in the historic quarter.

Route One: The Serai Quarter Tour

Heritage Walk is one and half hour long covering around two kilometers through the streets and alleys of Pakistan Chowk area. It is one hour Walking Tour and half hour for breakfast and feedback /discussion. The route starts from Pakistan Chowk located at the once cultural hub, through one of the oldest residential settlement the Ghari Khata, towards retail hub of the city, Paper market, Shahrah-e-Liaquat (Frere Road) and back to the Outram Road, where we will have a conversation/ discussion about your experience of Old Town over traditional breakfast at a three generation food joint, Karachi Sweets, following family recipes on Outram Road near PCCC (Pakistan Chowk Community Centre).

Heritage Walk Karachi- Serai Quarter Tour

Route Two: M.A. Jinnah Road Tour

Heritage Walk Karachi is now developing Route Two. This will be along the MA Jinnah Road, the commercial hub of Karachi. Previously known as Bunder Road, meaning the road leading to the (sea) port. This Heritage Walk will be a one and half kilometer Walking tour starting from KMC Building & will end at Merewether Tower, showing and giving narrative enroute the landmark buildings of colonial era built during late 1890’s. On the way there are couple of clock towers and some buildings have an ornate arcade of arches facing the MA Jinnah Road.

Heritage Walk Karachi- M.A. Jinnah Road Tour

Heritage Walk Karachi is also becoming a powerful voice for the local community where it is creating heritage awareness sessions around the area. Recently through our activism, we were able to stop the illegal demolition of Heritage listed Kanji Building. Heritage Walk Karachi also played an actively role in halting the damage caused to the Empress Market during the encroachment drive which started in Karachi, Pakistan on the 5th of November, 2018.

Accomplishments

There have been 97 events conducted by PCCC in the span of 16 months with average audience of 250 people in outdoor events and 50 plus people in indoor events.

PCCC has also organized events in collaboration with different local and International institutions such as I Am Karachi, Goethe Institut (Karachi), Goethe Institut (Munich), Alliance Francaise, Heritage Walk Calcutta, Go UNESCO & Renaissance Foundation.

About the Author

MARVI MAZHAR (Founder of Pakistan Chowk Community Centre)

Marvi Mazhar graduated from the Indus Valley School of Architecture (IVSAA) in 2009 and joined architect Yasmeen Lari’s Heritage Foundation. After completing her masters from the University of Turin, Italy, in 2013 she established her own architecture and design studio, Marvi Mazhar & Associates.

Marvi served as Director at PeaceNiche (T2F), and is the co-founder of (ADRL) The Architectural Design Research Lab, housed within, and affiliated with, the Department of Architecture at the Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture- a research laboratory devoted to projects within the fields of architecture and urban design.

In 2016, Mazhar founded Pakistan Chowk Community Centre and became an appointed member of the Lahore Conservation Society, Karachi Biennale 2017 (Outreach Committee), Secretary to South Asia Foundation (SAF-Pakistan) & ICCOMOS. She was the Project Manager of National History Museum (Lahore, Pakistan), conceptualized by The Citizens Archive of Pakistan.

As an independent Heritage Consultant, she has collaborated on projects with Endowment Fund Trust for Preservation of Sindh, Arcop, NBCL, Shahab Ghani & Associates, Pursukoon Society, Planning, Development and Works Sindh / Culture, Tourism & Antiquities Department (PDMI).
In 2018 she has been appointed as adviser to the Minister for Federal Education and Professional Training, and National History & Literary Heritage Division.

Copyright: All photographs used in this post are copyright of the Pakistan Chowk Community Centre.

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