Instep takes a look inside Yousaf Salahuddin’s Barood Khaana Haveli, the site for Lahore’s most happening social gatherings and its illustrious guest list that includes everyone from presidents to rock stars.
The annual season of festivities is upon us and Lahoris are getting ready to party with the same fervour that they do every winter. If you’re a regular on the city’s social circuit, chances are you’ll end up at THE venue in the city sooner or later – the place where not only do Lahore’s well-heeled get together regularly to kick up a storm but which is also the symbolic token of Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage that we love showing off to our guests from abroad.
Spend a few evenings at the Barood Khaana Haveli – the official name for Yousaf Salahuddin’s residence since the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh when it served as the arsenal for the Sikh army – and you’ll witness the best of the country in all its eclectic glory and experience the unique contradictions that make Pakistan the heady, chaotic mess that we can’t seem to get enough of.
Sandwiched between the Badshahi Mosque on one side and Lahore’s infamous Heera Mandi on another, it’s not just the location of the haveli that brings to the fore an interesting contrast. Its guests can range from serving Presidents and local politicians to rock stars and actors and its gatherings from cultural events and literary mushairas to rocking parties that witness some serious action on the dance floor.
Whatever the occasion may be, Yousaf Salahuddin, or Mian Salli, as he is fondly known around Lahore, is a gracious host as the Instep team learnt when we paid him a visit at his home one sunny autumn afternoon a few weeks ago. Having attended a number of glitzy events here, we thought we would be more than familiar with our surroundings but we weren’t prepared for the old-world charm of the place to transport us to an era bygone.
At night-time, which is when most guests tend to visit the building, it looks grand and imposing, lit up in all its colonial glory. But it is during the day that the real beauty and romance of the two hundred year old haveli is really evident. Although not much is known of its original architectural design, Salli, whose family came into possession of the haveli in 1870 and who is its current owner, has added numerous rooms to the original façade in a 17th century Mughal design.
Walk into the huge sun-dappled courtyard and the sight of lush grape vines climbing up the whitewashed walls with their ornate wooden jharokas is what greets you. Magnificent trees that are as old as the building itself form a canopy over the lily pond in the centre and charpais decked out in ethnic throws and adorned with vibrant cushions form a cozy seating area where Salli plies his guests with chai, paani and a history lesson.
“The haveli is steeped in history, as my ancestors were prominent members of the Pakistan Movement in the subcontinent and had formed the organization, the Anjuman-e-Himayat-e-Islam, to work for the uplift of poor Muslims. It was the Anjuman that first invited Jinnah to address the people of Lahore and helped organize his speech. In fact, the carpet on which Jinnah stood and addressed the Muslims of Lahore for the first time ever now hangs in one of the rooms of the haveli,” recounts Salli.
As Salli recalls memories of his childhood, of gatherings that brought together some of the greatest literary minds in the country, from Allama Iqbal (who happens to be Salli’s grandfather) to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s father, the barrister Sultan Muhammad Khan, it is as if the ancient trees we sit under swish their branches closer over our heads to capture the echoes of a glorious past they seem to long for.
“One of the very first memories I have of my childhood in the haveli is from my chacha’s (uncle) wedding. Most of the festivities took place in the zanan-khana and I remember being in my ayah’s lap and coming across an elegant woman in a blue sari whose face stayed with me for years to come. I later learnt that it was Farida Khanum.”
It’s broad daylight, but the effect of Salli’s words riding along on the gentle breeze is hypnotic. “Those days were different, almost magical. Yes, the haveli was host to some of the most well-read and educated people in the country but I also remember that anyone and everyone from the neighbourhood was welcome to drop by. We were taught to be respectful to our elders, no matter what social class or economic backgrounds they came from,” he tells us.
Fast forward to modern times, and the celebrities to have graced the mansion with their presence are no less fascinating. Take a walk through its numerous rooms and you’ll come across photographs of everyone from Rekha in her glamorous heyday to the iconic Lady Di, Mick Jagger and Imran Khan to Elizabeth Hurley and Cherie Blair gracing the mantelpieces along with knick knacks that come with a story each of their own.
There’s the centuries-old surma-daani (kohl pot) that belonged to a female ancestor, an old metal urn salvaged from the times of the Sikhs as well as antique hand guns and ornately carved daggers that were once part of the arsenal that gave the haveli its name. On the walls are photographs of the illustrious members of Salli’s family as well as framed verses of Iqbal’s poetry, some of them in his own handwriting.
The reverence with which Salli talks about his maternal grandfather is hardly surprising, given Iqbal’s place in the subcontinent’s history, but he admits that it took him years to understand what his grandfather’s legacy truly meant. “It wasn’t a big deal to me growing up, the fact that Iqbal was my grandfather. It was only when I was much older and read his works that his poetry and its Sufic tendencies resonated with me. I feel that Iqbal is even more relevant in today’s turbulent times when we need the thought of the Sufi to fight the extremists.”
As a patron of the arts and somewhat of a cultural icon in Lahore, Salli has made a habit of highlighting the city’s rich heritage. The haveli forms the backdrop for his show on national television Virsa: Heritage Revived that aims to revive the tradition of classical music in the country. It has also been featured in numerous music videos and movies; most recently in Khuda Kay Liye as Naseeruddin Shah’s home.
What the haveli is most famously remembered for, however, is its revival of the festival of Basant and the days of festivity and celebrations it hosted that put Lahore firmly on the global social map, if only fleetingly. Salli calls the ban on Basant one of the biggest tragedies for the country and its economy. “I’ve gone blue in the face trying to convince the authorities to revive this potentially billion dollar industry but I’ve had little luck so far.”
By now, we’ve moved towards the kitchen where the chicken our host has been roasting has come out of the oven perfectly golden and bursting with a stuffing of fresh herbs and mushrooms. There are also pots of qorma and rice brewing on a stove nearby to feed the army of domestic help as well as us. We sit down in the outdoor kitchen where rustic tree stumps around a circular table serve as the eating area. This apparently is Naseeruddin Shah’s favourite room in the house and he’s often to be found here when he visits Lahore, sipping on chai and devouring the desi ghee parathas that are the cook’s specialty.
It’s not just stars and celebrities who are welcome at the haveli. If one day you come across Ali Azmat, his wife and their two daughters enjoying afternoon play time in the courtyard or Imran Khan discussing politics with his close friend and confidant Salli, you’re just as likely to meet a random stranger who expressed an interest in the history of the Walled City and was invited in for a chat. It is little wonder that Jemima refers to him as “Lahore’s best host” in an article she wrote for a UK newspaper; he and his residence are an integral part of what lends the city its reputation for being the lively and vibrant centre of arts and heritage that it is.