Toto, we're not in Lahore any more

NEW DELHI, India — If you’re asked to conjure up a vision of Pakistan and you imagine men in traditional white outfits sporting long beards, and possibly Kalashnikovs, and women in shapeless black veils with only narrow slits for their eyes, you may be forgiven for thinking Pakistan a dry, drab and colorless society. But if you happen to thumb through the pages of "Mazaar Bazaar: Design and Visual Culture in Pakistan," a chunky book of essay and photographs, you may be surprised.

Take, for instance, the mosaic of film publicity posters painted with an abundance of color, vibrancy and imagination. There are no veils here. Instead, there are visuals of buxom women, jilted lovers, drunks, fully kitted-out spies, temptresses and killers, all part of a tapestry of kitsch fantasy. Even election posters, other party propaganda and announcements of religious congregations, carefully designed in calligraphy are a feast for the eyes.

“Mazaar Bazaar shows that popular and street art, including poster art, has been evolving for decades and continues to thrive and develop,” said Ameena Saiyyid, managing director of Oxford University Press Pakistan, which published the book in collaboration with the Amsterdam-based Prince Claus Fund.

In these 347 pages, one is exposed to an altogether different Pakistan, where sensuality, color and syncretism are more the norm than the exception. For Saima Zaidi, 37, who edited this book — a six-year project — letting images tell the story of this other Pakistan, was partly the motivator.

Zaidi was teaching a class on the visual culture of Pakistan, and realized there wasn’t a single resource to which she could point her students. Her course materials came from random pieces in magazines and newspapers, and as she started collecting pieces, she realized she had a project at hand that could fill that gap.

Collaborating with a wide range of professionals — economists, anthropologists, film makers, artists, activists, the list goes on — she put together "Mazaar Bazaar."

“We are a very diverse country contrary to what everyone thinks,” said Zaidi, who teaches both at Karachi University and is a lecturer on design and typography at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. “I realized that I had to include different voices to reflect that diversity.”

The resultant book — which has an initial print-run of 2,000 copies — wouldn’t really have been possible without the support of the Prince Claus Library Fund, which aims to promote culture in the developing world. The library, which is not a physical space, is particularly interested in visual content.

“This book really helps people who really don’t know of or have never been to Pakistan before,” said Albert Ferre, the editor at Prince Claus Library, who worked on the book. “It's also a great resource for graphic designers and advertisers.”

What seems to have really struck a chord with those who have leafed through the pages of this valuable resource is that it is filled with revelations about Pakistani culture.

For Ferre, for example, who is also an editor of architectural books and is based in Barcelona, the diverse and syncretic traditions of Pakistan highlighted by the book were fascinating.

“This book was a great surprise to me. I’ve never been to Pakistan. The colors and the images and the typography, the advertising is all very stimulating.”

The staff at Oxford University Press suggest the book has novelty for a Western audience, whose senses have been blanketed with visuals of extremism, of oppressive Taliban fighters, of honor killings, and of a deep and visceral feeling of anti-Americanism. "Mazaar Bazaar" offers a window into a public culture that is not only softer, but also much more diverse and intriguing. This is the world of Sufi Pakistan, according to Saiyyid.

“We can't deny there is an international dimension in Mazaar Bazaar as there is now an enormous interest in Sufism in the West as a response to extremism and this book covers many aspects of the Sufi tradition and heritage,” she said.

Much of this can be seen in the visual culture of religion. In Zaidi’s book we see images of the steed ridden by the Prophet Muhammad. The horse has the face of a beautifully adorned woman.

While Zaidi does reflect on statehood and identity in the section, "Pakistan Zindabad", she hopes the book succeeds in showing that Pakistan’s history transcends its 1947 birth.

“I think it’s extremely important that people understand that there is a huge history behind this land, and that we shouldn’t concentrate just on the notion of nationhood.”

Since its publication, the book has done exceedingly well despite its price (about $40), according to Saiyyid.

“It has set production standards. It's raised out bar, and the content is itself very good.” Its richness, Saiyyid attests, is this: “Most [of the images] were created before high technology came into place — cinema posters that were hand painted reflect the sentiments and idiosyncrasies of society. There is a great deal of human element here.”

Mazaar Bazaar will launch shortly in Amsterdam at the Prince Klaus Fund’s gallery space, in the hope of publicizing what Ferre sees as “an extremely comprehensive book on popular culture, advertising and intellectual creativity in Pakistan.”

This article was updated to correct Saima Zaidi's age — it is 37, not 35.