Academic Master


Oral History – Bazaars of Lahore (Ichhra)

Zooming in on the bazaars of Asia, the bazaar that reflected the social and cultural code of Lahore in all its glory, was ‘Ichhra’. A commercial as well as residential area of Lahore, Ichhra is known for its clustered lanes, economical shops, and a cost-effective shopping experience. While the market is primarily famous for its outmoded, traditional work ethics; a dialogue with the president of the market sheds light on not only the contemporary political ways this market is run, but also on the ways it reflects colonial influence; the ways it employs religious conviction; and the means by which it perpetuates ideas and norms.

Amidst the very crammed passages of Ichhra, there is a shop labelled ‘Smart Jewellers’, run by the president of Ichhra, Malik Muhammad Abdullah Pervez. Pervez Sahib has been around the marketplace since about 35 years. He has been living at Ichhra since the beginning of time, as it had been the hometown for the past four generations of his family too. In his interview, he not just deliberated the politics of the marketplace, but also talked about his long experience at Ichhra and how its growth and expansion was a lens to changing society. The jewellery business he is now a proud owner of, was started by his forefathers and passed onto him in legacy. He claims this business has only seen expansion and growth since the last 35 years, and that his sons, brothers, their sons, and almost all the men of his family are working in the same business line. He stated that he passed on his business knowledge to his sons; and that the women of his family do not work. Pervez Sahib’s journey as a businessman started off with him having one small shop, at this very marketplace, but today, after 35 years, he has a total of 80 shops under the banner of his family business. He tells stories about how the young children who were sent to him as helpers, who were content with salaries of Rs. 500-1000 when he started working, are now owners of their own shops since the last 15-20 years.

The bazaars of Asia have undoubtedly seen expansion, growth and development in general; hence Pervez Sahib presents a snapshot of his own achievements in expanding his family business. He presents an insight on how the marketplace really is, in terms of structural and legal categories. In terms of the structural changes in Ichhra, Pervez Sahib stated that Ichhra was merely an amalgam of 8-10 shops when he first entered it. He takes one back thirty-five years and states that there was no proper system or categorization of shops; there were hardly any lanes, and jewellery, shoes, bags, tea, all kinds of shops were setup within a small area, clustered together. After about thirty-five years, says Pervez Sahib, Ichhra has expanded immensely; and with that expansion, it has taken a set structure too. Today, Ichhra is structured in a systematic way; with shoe shops in one lane, jewellery shops in another; there is a whole street allotted to eyeglasses and spectacles, another to clothes, and so on. However tea and food stalls are still cluttered around all over the marketplace. But that adds to the food culture of Lahore.

With the growth and expansion of the bazaar, the need for a proper form of control also arose. Hence, Ichhra can be seen as following a certain form of governance. Pervez Sahib states how he has been the president of Ichhra since the last 26-27 years; and that he was elected the first 3 times, but since then, has been winning uncontested, because the retailers and sellers are satisfied with him. While he presents the political structure of Ichhra as a representative democracy, after talking to a few more shopkeepers, it seems more like an oligarchic form of governance. Whereas most of the retailers respected the president, some said that he was a self-proclaimed one and that they let him be because of the reputation he has and the family he belongs to.

The parallel of Confucianism can also be seen in this market. Since Confucianism is understood as a grand approach of thinking and living that entails a profound human-centered religiousness, Pervez Sahib’s use of words and static principled values highlight the religiosity of Ichhra. He talks a lot about ethics and moral values, and that these are the two things that are integral in running a successful business. His religiosity is commendable, because he credits all his success to religion and “Allah ka karam” (God’s blessing). Pervez Sahib also believes that he has been winning the elections uncontested because god is happy with him since he is ‘ba-kirdaar’ (of a good character), ‘imaandaar’ (honest), and ‘diyanatdaar’ (upright). Like most of the marketplaces in Asia, Ichhra too, had a mosque nearby: the purpose of which is to link the material and spiritual aspects of the conventional culture of Lahore. Hence, a good part of Pervez Sahib’s discourse includes phrases like ‘Allah izzat deta hai’ (God is the provider of respect), ‘Zaati kirdaar acha hoga toh insaaf ho paeyga’ (If one’s own character is upright only then he will be able to do justice), ‘Niyat theek honi chaiye’ (One should have good intentions), etc.

Since the bazaars are also a troupe of perpetuation of ideas and norms, some elements of colonial influence can be seen as a means of identity formation. While there are instances of how the marketplace is helping in the preservation of the old Lahori culture of religion, or food; the fact that the moral economy is being replaced by political economy with the advent of capitalism cannot go unnoticed. There is a rapid western influence seen in bazaars like Ichhra too. Western-influenced clothing, shoes, accessories, all add to the material reality of the bazaar and identity. Like the monks played a huge role in the propagation of new objects and culture in China, bringing with them ideas and customs; the colonizers can be seen as playing a huge role in the kind of goods sold at Ichhra. The bazaar, which was famous for its Punjabi cultural dresses and traditional handicrafts and goods, is now selling clothes ranging from all sorts of local shalwaar kameez to western shirts, blouses, skirts and even second-hand western party wear. This could be because of the western influence in Asian bazaars, but also because there is a large Christian community living at Ichhra, and they make the majority of the clientele.

The marketplace has been a familiar and vital article in the historical landscape of Lahore; it thus, speaks the language of negotiation and exchange, of movement and flow, of transmission and redistribution, and of identity formation and the local way of life. With an insight on the bazaar of Ichhra, one can state that it is the amalgamation of the interplay of market with modes of power; the employment of religion; and the propagation of colonial notions that makes a marketplace replete with richness of cultures and lifestyles, weaving together the historic past and the prospective present.



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