An exhibition by the photographer Arif Mahmood in the Lahore University of Management Science’s (LUMS) Gurmani Centre for Languages and Literature has opened last week. Over two dozen photos have been placed in the Gurmani center to give us an intimate look into Karachi’s iconic Napier Road. The Napier Road has several distinct features that make it stand out despite being just another offshoot of the famed Bunder or now MA Jinnah road in Saddar, Karachi. The area is a remnant of the city’s diverse past. Hindus, Parsees, Goan Christians, and Bohri Muslims still live and practice their religions there, though the population is now dwindling. Napier Road is also known as the red-light area of Karachi, just as the Diamond Market is in Lahore, a place for nightly entertainment like mujras and sex. But just like Lahore’s Diamond Market, Napier Road has lost its entertainers and elite visitors to other posh areas of the cosmopolis. The business has shifted to the wealthy suburbs and newer housing schemes. The high-profile acid-burn victim Fakhra Yunus, the former wife of Bilal Khar, who eventually committed suicide, belonged to this road. However, this collection of images focuses on the residents of Napier Road, most of whom are Goan Christians. A photo exhibition gives us an intimate glance into the dark underbelly of the ‘city of lights’ At least half the photos are those of streets and worship places where different objects and people interact with space which is, of course, Napier Road. The other half are portraits of people. Mahmood even gets access to their homes. There is Alfred with his dog sitting near a blue wall and round dining table. The dog, unlike Alfred, is looking straight into the camera. There is the wrinkled and bespectacled Roman Dias wearing a mauve dress in an apartment in the Rimpa Skyline. There is longing in her watery eyes as she looks away from the camera and her lips are curled up. She looks pleasant but unhappy. And then there is Hilary Fartado, a saxophone player, sitting under a garlanded portrait of Jesus and Mary. His eyes are cold and the cheeks are puffed with air while he plays his instrument. He is fully absorbed in his music and one is briefly drawn into his solitary but sonorous moment. The middle-aged Anthony Rodrigues is standing shirtless in his apartment, amidst worn out clothes hanging from hooks on his wall, a Christian Calendar from 2011 and a tiny Pakistani flag stuck on his doorway. A yellow light bulb and the last remnants of the evening sunlight filled his room. The rich realities and mysteries of Rodrigues’s life are enclosed in that image. Napier Road has been losing its Goan Christian population to migrations. Other communities have also been deserting the area. And therefore, like the rest of Pakistan, its multi-cultural heritage is at stake. There is decay, desertion, and darkness in this under-belly of the city of lights which Mahmood captures with finesse. Each image reveals the sorrowful ethos of a dying culture and community. He presents the story in all its detailed glory and explicitness. The photos are alive. One can smell the filth near the litter pickers, the freshly slaughtered chickens hanging from the ceiling and the last fragments of scent left in a garland. And one can hear Alfred’s dog barking, the mournful church bells ringing on Father Todd’s funeral and the bus conductor’s screeching chants to invite more passengers. There is so much to each image that one has to pause, reflect and return to reabsorb the dynamic realities of the Napier Road. co- Two photos stand out. First one is the Portuguese Club. One would imagine that the club would be fancy and glamorous but it is simple and lackluster instead. However, its dilapidated, blood red structure, like everyone and everything else in the photos, seems to have a majestic past. Two people stand in front of it chatting –probably discussing the sheer lack of splendour in the red building behind them. The symbolic value of the sun setting on the Portuguese Club shouldn’t go unnoticed. All the club has now is some dim light from the side, but for how long before the darkness seeps in? And then there is the Father Todd’s Funeral at Saint Patrick Church. The casket was decorated with flowers and a cross. Above the coffin is a large cross depicting the crucifixion and on both sides of this cross are statues of Mary. And the image is taken from between a group of priests in different uniforms. The focal point of this image is the union between two crosses and the white coffin. We want to see and know Father Todd a little better before he embarks on his final journey. But like everything else on Napier Road, it is too late for that too. This was probably the most silent and static of Mahmood’s images. But is it really? Mahmood has a keen eye for not just for the aesthetic value of an image, but also for people, places and the interaction between the two. He captures their shadows, darkness, and silence. He finds the most compelling faces and records their solitude amidst the decline. Each image reveals the sorrowful ethos of a dying culture and community. Mahmood presents the story in all its detailed glory and explicitness Arif Mahmood confesses that he not only knows most of the people he photographs but he also follows them for years to record their lives. He has their consent and at times even their approval. He says his characters are aware of his presence but go about their daily routines anyways. The people are posing for the portraits but the street scenes are obviously organic. Mahmood is accomplished beyond doubt. His work has appeared in magazines and newspapers in Pakistan and abroad. He has 27 publications to his name, including some limited edition books and portfolios. He has held 15 solo exhibitions across the world. All this while sustaining a full-time job at Pakistan International Airlines and now at another firm. Mahmood has been keenly following Karachi and Sindh’s minorities, their worship places, festivals, and everyday lives for decades. His oeuvre is full of the vibrant yet incisive images of Hindus on Hinglaj yatra, qawals on shrines like Abdullah Shah Ghazi, Sadhus in temples in Tharparkar and a vision of a Mary statue placed at Coco’s Den in Lahore, among many others. They make the viewer study these sidelined communities. There was a ceremony held during the inauguration of the exhibition last week for introducing the photographer and his team. The new Vice-Chancellor of LUMS Dr Arshad Ahmad also spoke at the event. This showed how much importance this event was given by the administration. Both the photographer and the Dean of the Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Dr. Kamran Asdar Ali were from Karachi. They endearingly called each other “the Karachi boys.” They shared fond memories of the city of their youth and how it has evolved over the years. The photos have been placed in the first-floor corridors of the Gurmani Centre for Languages and Literature, the main building when one enters LUMS. Author and creative writing professor Bilal Tanweer is now the co-director of the Gurmani Centre. Tanweer said in his speech that bringing arts to LUMS is one of his main aims because he feels this area was neglected. A multimedia presentation by the photographer and a question-answer session followed. Mahmood’s career unraveled through these slides and images. Impressions of Karachi from the early 80s and 90s poured in – photos of children with toy guns pointed at strangers, a horse being cleaned on a miraculously clean Clifton beach and a singer who was about to be photographed but the lights went out and he was clicked in an elegant semi-darkness instead. The lecture room was full of people. There was a healthy mix of young and old, men and women. The audience asked several curious, interesting and even intuitive questions. Though Mahmood has been taking photos of Karachi and other parts of Pakistan for three decades, the images in this exhibition were clicked between 2011 and 2018. These photos are best viewed in daylight. The exhibition is on until December and you must not miss it. The writer is based in Lahore and tweets as @ammarawrites. Her work is available on www.ammaraahmad.com Published in Daily Times, September 21st 2018.