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Toto, we're not in Lahore any more

A new book paints a vibrant, sensual picture of an altogether different Pakistan.

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.