Aurora Magazine

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Published in Nov-Dec 2018

Latté on the Chowk

The establishment of Pakistan Chowk Community Centre raises a glimmer of hope that art and culture can find a space.

Sip on your latté, engage in a debate by the lake, walk into a museum, dance to the tunes of roadside musicians and even bust a move or two – what am I describing? A culturally-immersive day in any part of Europe. It hit me on a day I wasn’t feeling my best that Karachi hardly has any café libraries where one can sip on a coffee, read a book or just reflect. This epiphany soon snowballed into the realisation that there is a serious dearth of cultural spaces in Pakistan. The few places that serve as a congregational space for artists, musicians, readers and storytellers fall victim to demographic and geographic segregation and eventually, albeit inadvertently, become exclusive to one community.

So where do Pakistanis from all walks go to experience culture? A small focus group on-the-go proved that enjoying culture is largely limited to attending an event at T2F, NAPA or Frere Hall once in a while. However, when asked if there are any open spaces offering a truly cultural experience for all communities, I received blank looks and don’t think so(s).

A brief tête-à-tête with Marvi Mazhar, Founder and Creative Director, Pakistan Chowk Community Centre (PCCC), gave me an insight into her project and how similar ones could realise the hope of eventually having public urban squares bustling with art and entertainment in Pakistan. Mazhar has been involved in numerous projects as an architect and heritage consultant and is still actively engaged in reclaiming the heritage of different areas in Pakistan.

Opened in 2016, the PCCC has two sides to it. The first is the main Pakistan Chowk, now rehabilitated by Mazhar and her team as an open air, urban square; the second is the more intimate Community Centre, a two-room space inside a heritage building called Sultani Mahal, near Pakistan Chowk. While Pakistan Chowk is the main converging ground for cultural activities, the community centre is a cosy space that serves the residents of the Old Town by encouraging social engagement, networking and civic engagement.

“The PCCC was born out of my curiosity to experiment and see if cultural activities can be executed in open spaces. This is why the main Pakistan Chowk is for public events such as open mic nights, art galleries, storytelling and reading events and the Community Centre is for more intimate events such as talks on women issues, film screenings and so on,” says Mazhar.


“We started off by documenting Pakistan Chowk. An in-depth architectural analysis of the Chowk and interviews with residents of the area showed us that people missed its former communal glory. One interviewee nostalgically said that this used to be our angan (courtyard) and people sat together and discussed things. That sentiment was enough for us to know we were on the right track,” Mazhar adds.


The project started off with the team trying to make sense out of the ‘concrete jungle’ we lovingly call Karachi, by documenting various public squares (for example Tabani Steel Chowk and Mukka Chowk).

Then, says Mazhar, “a donor contacted the team expressing her wish to restore something in the city.” This prompted the team to start the reclamation of one square hoping it might initiate a ripple effect.

“We started off by documenting Pakistan Chowk. An in-depth architectural analysis of the Chowk and interviews with residents of the area showed us that people missed its former communal glory. One interviewee nostalgically said that this used to be our angan (courtyard) and people sat together and discussed things. That sentiment was enough for us to know we were on the right track,” Mazhar adds.

The PCCC team reclaimed the communal spirit of Pakistan Chowk by planting 18 trees, installing benches (honouring philanthropists such as Bibi Rustomjee) as well as a removable ramp for the differently-abled and organising mohalla baazi sessions. Once the rehabilitation was complete, the architects moved onto other projects.

However, according to Mazhar, a month later, Farooq Soomro’s documentation of some of the work done by artists on the Chowk “attracted our attention and we decided to involve ourselves in the project again, believing in its potential more than ever.”

Clearly, the artists had found a vast canvas in Pakistan Chowk. “They were travelling artists who went around town to paint different walls; Pakistan Chowk held their interest the longest. This created a wave and along with these travelling artists, some local residents with a flair for art joined in and together, they transformed the Chowk into a mosaic of their respective artwork,” adds Mazhar.

While the Chowk’s future seems promising, community centres come with their own set of challenges and setbacks, especially when the initiative is a brainchild of a few culture loving citizens. Speaking of those challenges, Mazhar touches on the topic of being an outsider in the area and how becoming a part of the local community has not been that easy. “Their daily problems are different, their life is different and one of the challenges has been to fit into the rhythm of Pakistan Chowk.” Another issue is the fact that Pakistan Chowk is located at the heart of Karachi’s bustling commercial centre (Saddar) and it is therefore difficult to attract people to PCCC from other parts of the city.


The success of PCCC is a hopeful sign that Pakistanis are becoming comfortable with the idea of culturally-rich urban squares and open spaces and centres such as T2F and TDF Ghar are also doing their bit in reviving Pakistan’s cultural and artistic spirit, despite the fact that attendance to their events is limited.


The lack of state funding is another concern and as Mazhar points out, “every community centre or non-profit faces this challenge. Thankfully, the expenses are not that much and whatever funding is required comes from the seasonal heritage walks I conduct which are academic-based.”

Despite the challenges, Mazhar has high hopes from the project. “The centre is only two-years old but people have started to recognise us. They know who we are and what we are doing and that is encouraging.”

The success of PCCC is a hopeful sign that Pakistanis are becoming comfortable with the idea of culturally-rich urban squares and open spaces and centres such as T2F and TDF Ghar are also doing their bit in reviving Pakistan’s cultural and artistic spirit, despite the fact that attendance to their events is limited. Some of the most common challenges faced by these centres are geographical constraints (hello, that side of the bridge issue!) and funding. Furthermore, the unintentional segregation that overshadows attendance in these centres is a challenge that both the people behind these hubs and the communities need to resolve.

Meanwhile, the next time you want to take a break from your usual chai hangout or just a breather from the nine-to-six grind, check out the PCCC’s website. They just might be offering something for your soul!

Taniya Hasan is a freelance writer.