The old world charms of Mian Salli

Published originally in The Friday Times. 25 July 2014.

An inquisitive young man from the north of Pakistan, Muhammad Asif Nawaz, was bursting with curiosity about the enigmatically-named Haveli Barood Khana in the old city of Lahore. Then he got to see it – with the inimitable owner-occupier in colorful attendance.

The old world charms of Mian Salli


When I first heard the words ‘Barood Khana’ on the tongue of an over-enthusiastic caretaker of the Shahi Hamam inside Lahore’s Delhi Gate, I couldn’t help wondering if there was any pun intended. In the long conversation we’d just had, I had told this man that I was from the north of the country, and I suspected my geographical identity had come to feature in his attempts at humour. (For Punjabis, everyone hailing from my province is a martial Pakhtun, everyone knows Pushto, etc.) Anyway, a couple of hours and a Google search later, I discovered nothing of the sort had happened (apologies, uncle!). The Barood Khana, or Mian Yusuf Salahuddin’s haveli is not a jibe but an actual structure inside the magnificent old city of Lahore. And Mian Salahuddin, referred to as Mian Salli by those who know of him, is not just the great Allama Iqbal’s grandson. He also holds the (slightly eerie) title of being Lahore’s culture guru.

Some said the haveli was forlorn and locked up

It was on a succeeding visit to Lahore, then, that I planned on visiting the haveli. But there were as many confusing accounts of it as there were mouths. Some said the haveli was forlorn and locked up. Others said it was private, and again locked up. And of course there were many others who had no idea about the place. So I went about it in the simplest way possible: I looked up Mian Salli’s contact number. When I finally got the number, I typed in a text message so long that it could have given Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ a run for its money. I braced myself for a session of cross-questioning (or worse, a lack of reply). But there it was: a reply that consisted of the following words: “Sure. Come tomorrow at 12 noon!”

Witness to history: the fountain

A beautiful, ancestral box with intricate work

Family treasures: a show of antique possessions

Fast forward to the next day, 12 noon; and I was still treating my body to a therapy of painful convulsions that’s so typical of Lahore’s rickshaws. My cousin by my side, we reached the old city and then had no idea where to go.  (I hadn’t even looked it up, I am that guy!) All thanks to the paunchy, incessantly paan-chewing uncles of those narrow alleys, we finally reached the haveli.

The gatekeeper said, “Sorry, you cannot go inside. Especially today – he has guests.”

I called Mr Salli on his phone.

Jee kahan ho beta?” he asked.

And thereupon he sent a guard to fetch us. Yes, I liked him already.

View of the entrance

Statue of a Greek woman

Like grandfather. Like grandson

A view of the terrace, old design and magnificent wood-work

The artistic stair-case to nowhere (or a vase)

Owing to the various theories about the haveli, and a complete lack of any dependable information about it on the Internet, I had no idea what to expect. But I had settled on the most conventional version: that there would be no Mian Salli inside, I would be shown around by a cross-looking guide and then made to leave silently. But here I was about to meet the man himself. How do you meet someone you have no idea how to meet, especially when you’re utterly ignorant about the place you had expressed so much interest in? And there was another catch: on that cool Lahori morning, the guest inside the haveli was the author Aatish Taseer – who had come all the way from India to meet his sister in Lahore. I was at a loss, so I immediately made use of an oft-repeated phrase in our insincere post-modern age: “Sir, I’m a very big fan!” Twice!

The next thing I remember uttering is: “So this was where some sequences of ‘Khuda Kay Liye’ were shot!” Not just KKL, but Mian Salli had lent (and continues to lend) his haveli for various activities of art and culture, most visibly the PTV music-related program ‘Virsa: Heritage Revived’.

The underground baithak - lights, luxuries and Ghalib

A Herculean statue in the basement

Pictures on display on a wall in the basement. Those of Zeenat Amman, Amir Khan and Saeen Zahoor stand out

Dressed casually in T-shirt and shorts, he asked me if I required anything of him. Visiting the haveli would suffice, I replied. He directed a guard to take us for a visit, and both our hosts retired to watching ‘Heer Ranjha’ in another room. The PTV version I guess, since Fariha Pervez or her vocals were nowhere to be found when the film was made. The serial was Mian Salli’s own production, and it was also among many of the things that I learnt later.

The dining room, with its silver pottery and classical ambiance, reminds you of colonial times

Mian Salli’s haveli is somewhat asymmetrical. It wasn’t built in one go, unlike many of the havelis of old Lahore; its many structures were added to the compound by succeeding owners. The haveli, now more than two centuries old, came into this family’s possession around 1870 and has seen it all: celebrities, politicians, literati, icons. But it isn’t just this aura of historical significance that shapes the appeal of the place; its careful aesthetic maintenance and décor is the real treat. Historical relics and cultural emblems abound throughout the haveli. But the best part is definitely the underground baithak. Centered around a portrait of Mirza Ghalib, this is one of those rooms you see only in desi movies (and inevitably assume that it is too dramatic to be true). The dining room, with its silver pottery and classical ambiance, reminds you of colonial times. And while I was busy clicking away everything I could get away with (which thankfully never once piqued the hospitable guard), I was joined in this activity by Mian Salli’s own love of photography. Numerous photographs of Iqbal, of Mian Salli, of other family members and celebrities were on loving display. The most interesting picture in this collection was in the basement – Zeenat Aman’s photograph stood out among the hangings. (What exactly is it with Zeenat Aman and Pakistani men?)

View from the top. Completely desi ambiance

The statue of an Englishwoman overlooking the dining table

The ancestral silverware on a showcase

The writer with Mian Salli

The haveli came into this family’s possession around 1870

When we were done with our excessive wanderings through the haveli, we were taken to the terrace by our hosts – for a brief round of conversation. And that is where my lack of research became obvious. I asked Mian Salli no question about the haveli, which I should have been doing. Rather I progressed to talking about politics and the media, which I wasn’t supposed to do. But my hosts didn’t seem to mind; and we went on to have a heated debate on some “serious” issues, including Indo-Pak relations with Mr. Taseer, a conversation that prompted Mr Salli to ask me if I had come from some Chinese magazine!

And then I was out on the narrow passages of old Lahore again – all set to locate the Maryam Zamani mosque (ah the trouble, but more on that some other time). All the while, besides cursing myself for not being better prepared, I was thanking Mr Salli for his kindness and for having me in his home – so very happy that I had been inside the famous Barood Khana.

See more at: http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/the-old-world-charms-of-mian-salli/#sthash.ENeo0hsf.dpuf

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