From October – Dec 2016, I was artist in residence with the Lahore Biennale Foundation, working on a public art project called Urbanities. My main projects there were group silent walking performances in the city led by local women, in research into the complexities of being a body in public space in Pakistan. The work led to a change in government urban planning policy to include functioning footpaths in some areas of the city. As a part of this residency, I also held a Silent Dinner.
On a rooftop in the old town, on December 5th 2016, 60 of us sat for exactly the allotted 2 hours. It was a calm Silent Dinner, with many people resolved to remain reflectively with themselves, in silence. The intensity of the subtle nuances in communication that occurred across the tables grew over the night, as people reached out to each other and connected, slipping into convivial, gestural, eye contact and other engagements. Much was understood, much left behind. It was the first silent dinner not to involve alcohol, so the evening did not take as dramatic a curve as it does when it follows alcohol’s arch.
The sounds of the environment rang strong, at 5 floors high we caught the distant buzzing of the busy city roads, and endured interventions from neighbouring conversations and stereos, all providing us with something ‘else’ to tune into. This melody, along with the magnificent views of the stunning Badshahi Mosque and surrounding walled city provided much distraction from the necessity of immediate human interaction. A welcome relief (an excuse almost) to be with others while consciously immersed in the environment; paying attention to the sounds that we normally ignore, the we usually drown out with our words. The thick haze of smog hung with deceptive romance on the horizon, blending the orange and green lights blissfully.
My new love is Pakistani food. Such incredible cuisine, and our silent meal was no exception. We began with a raw beetroot salad that I made for the guests, and followed with a very traditional vegetarian meal prepared by local chefs. The beat to the evening was provided by the patter patter of dough being flung quickly from hand to hand to make ‘pathooray’, a local bread specialty freshly fried for us, sizzling softly when the dough hit the oil bubbling on a round metal plate. This harmony repeated as long as the people ate more, and so the beat followed our bellies.
At the end of most Silent Dinners, I feel exhausted from extending my capacity to be understood without words, but here in Lahore I felt revived, happily fed and rejuvenated. Nourished by the warm gentle nature of the folks I shared the experience with, and the encapsulating city that hosted us.
Photos by Sana Ullah Rajpoot.
Thank you to the Goethe Institut Pakistan for their generous support of the project.