Before the internet, before TV, before films and before radio, the most popular form of entertainment for the people of rural and small town Punjab was a raucous form of folk theatre known as nautanki. Troupes, sometimes called akharas, and other times, mandalis, toured the countryside and crowded urban neighbourhoods, providing entertainment by singing, dancing, choreographed fighting and storytelling. Sort of like the travelling tent shows or a mini-carnival in the West, the mandalis would start their shows in the late evening and play non-stop for up to eight hours when the sun was well above the horizon.

This form of theatre, while not completely extinct, is less and less of a crowd-puller in South Asia today.  TV, film, video games and the internet have all had a perilous impact on the livelihoods of musicians, actors and acrobats who relied on this colourful form of theatre for their living.

Alam Lohar remains one of Punjab’s iconic folk cultural heroes.  With a keening tenor voice he recited in music the many love songs of Punjab and regaled audiences with his renditions of sufi poetry.  He kept beat and led his accompanists with the incessant rhythmic clicking of his chimta (ironsmith’s tongs) – the simplest of rural instruments but one that Lohar played so effectively that he and the instrument are nearly synonymous.

Born into a family of blacksmiths (hence his name, Lohar) in Gujrat district, Lohar, as a young lad astounded his elders with the sweetness and power of his voice and quickly found his way into the rural musical society of Punjab. In time he is credited with inventing a new style of singing Punjabi ‘vaar’ (folk tale).


Lohar is credited with bringing the term ‘jugni’ (firefly) into the musical lexicon and throughout his career he performed many versions of this (or similarly titled) song.  This video tells you so much about this amazing performer: his great natural talent as a singer and actor; his absolute passion for music; his theatrical sense of timing as well as his versatile voice.  Lohar’s energy was legendary as was his stamina.  One can only feel for the bevy of lady dancers in this clip (and the item number below) that he so thoughtlessly ran into the ground. On an ancillary note, this Pakistani film clip is of interest for the way in which it refers back to a pre-Partition time when Sikhs and Hindu panditjis (replete with turbans and  exaggerated choti) were a part of the rural scene.

Kalaam (Saif ul Malook)

Another side of Lohar, without the mise en scene of the film studio, is that of straight-ahead vaar singer of Punjab.  Here he gives a heartfelt interpretation of some kalaam from the 19th century mystical masterpiece Saif ul Malook written by Mian Mohammad Bakhsh of Mirpur district in Kashmir.  The vigour and passion with which Lohar imbued everything he sang is evident in this clip. Lohar was one of the first to put the poetry of Saif ul Malook to music, something for which all music lovers are forever in his debt.  Lohar was not just a performer but a poet in his own right, penning a corpus of mystical and rustic lyrics which he would insert into this shows and performances with as much pride as he would the songs of the ‘greats’.

Ho tu gabroo Jat Punjab da

A gem of a video clip, also from a Pakistani film.  Lohar performs in the street in the fashion typical of the travelling minstrel the species he so well represented during his lifetime. The clip is full of fun and humour from the inexplicable police posse idling about to the vivacious beauty pounding the pavement of the village while stone-like onlookers imitate the Punjab constabulary. A special treat emerges when one realises that the lungi-wearing and slightly confused Jat which Lohar is poking fun at is none other than the great Sultan Rahi, king of the Punjabi rural melodrama.

Moda maar ke Sorry

This has to be one of the strangest item numbers ever. Alam Lohar, as ever decked out in his signature dhoti and rumaal, ripping up the dance floor in a song that plays on the English phrases ‘Excuse me’, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘Never mind’, with trendy Bhutto-era ladies once again struggling to keep up with the frenetic energy of Lohar sahib.  Before seeing this yourself you’d never rate Lohar as sex object.  But as ever, his moves are liquid quick and seductive. His usual expert chimta work and nautanki percussion is complemented by some very cool electric guitar runs and keyboard noodlings worthy of a mid-sixties psychedelic band in full flight. One wonders if this is not the work of the Tafo Brothers, Pakistan film industry’s experimental sibling music composers?

Heer te Ranjha di pehli gal

We (sadly) wind up this quick glimpse at the genius of the Sher-e-Punjab of folk music with a true favourite of the nautanki circuit: a scene from the epic Heer Ranjha in which the two lovers meet for the first time. This epic of Waris Shah was a staple of the travelling music theatre shows that used to criss cross Punjab and Alam Lohar loved performing the songs.  Lohar is famous for his rendition of Waris Shah’s Heer, which he had completely memorised and performed in numerous styles.  Though almost all nautanki akharas were run by men, women singers and performers were not entirely unheard of.  Indeed, in the 1960s Alam Lohar combined with the voice and talents of probably Punjab’s greatest  female nautanki artist, Bali Jaggi.  It is a delight to listen to the soulful dialogue between the two singers (and characters) which brings the story to life so eloquently.

Alam Lohar died in an accident near Sham ki Bhaitiyan on July 3, 1979 but his legacy is carried forward by his son Arif Lohar.