Sitting on the top floor of a large stone and concrete building in a quiet lane in Hyderabad’s Banjara Hills, Ashhar Farhan is thinking about how cities and spaces change and endure. "There used to be a lake that would come up till here, this building," he says.
"This building was on the lake... is on the lake rather," he says, tracing out a network of lakes that stretched from the KBR Park to the Hussain Sagar, that have disappeared as the city grew.
For Farhan, who mourns the loss of these lakes, preserving something of the place over time was important when he and three others set up Lamakaan, or ‘the abode of the homeless’, one of Hyderabad’s most recognised cultural spaces today.
So, unlike much of the architecture in the city, Lamakaan moulds itself around its natural landscape. "We had taken a conscious decision not to undo the natural architecture of this place," says Farhan.
In the seven years since it came up, Lamakaan has served as a cultural melting pot, providing a venue for everything from literature to theatre, music and dance to debates and discussions of social and cultural relevance. From plays to documentaries, from Hindustani music to stand-up comedy, Lamakaan has hosted it all.
Much before Lamakaan’s Banjara Hills abode became an integral part of Hyderabad’s cultural landscape, it was a place with a deep personal connection for Farhan. The house of his uncle M Hassan, Farhan had always had many fond memories of the place.
So, when his uncle passed away, Farhan took the over the house in 2005 with the intention of creating a more socially relevant space. It would take another five years, however, for Farhan to quit his software industry job and begin to think about Lamakaan.
"We were generally looking to do something. One of the ideas was that we required a space for intimate culture to happen. The main reason was that there were no small venues left in Hyderabad. The other was that there was no physical space that could be called a political space," Farhan says.
(From left: Lamakaan’s founders, Elahe Hiptoola, Ashhar Farhan, Humera Ahmed and Biju Mathew)
Initially though, Farhan and his fellow founders, Humera Ahmed, Biju Mathew, and Elahe Hiptoola, were unsure of setting up in Banjara Hills. "We weren't certain of the geography of the place, as we were unsure if it would attract the kind of people we wanted to attract, being so far away from the centre of the city," he adds.
When Lamakaan threw open its doors on March 13, 2010, it began as a humble affair. "In the initial days, we would have one performance a week. We didn't even have a proper canteen then, so we used to get chai from an Irani cafe and serve it to visitors," Farhan says.
With time, however, admits Farhan, many of their concerns about the location of the space have been proved at least partly wrong.
Within a few months of setting up, Farhan began looking for someone who could make tea at the premises itself.
"We knew KK for a long time. He used to run a guesthouse opposite our house, and we had got to know him well. Once in a while, we would drop in at that guest house to have breakfast. I always found him very courteous and extremely efficient with work," says Farhan.
Karunakar Barik or KK, is the man who first started the cafe at Lamakaan and has built it up and upgraded it, so that it now even serves lunch.
Today, the 'Cafe @ Lamakaan' generates a major share of the revenue to keep the place up and running. Despite this, the rates remain extremely reasonable.
As a cultural and political space, Lamakaan is very clear about conditions events must fulfill to be held here.
All events organised at Lamakaan have to be open for all, and cannot be invitation-only. Additionally, events with government or corporate sponsorship are not allowed.
Ticket prices for any event, no matter how big the artist, cannot exceed Rs 200.
Lamakaan does not charge rents for events that are free for all attendees.
Otherwise, the cost of renting the venue varies, and is generally tied to the cost of the ticket.
"We always knew that this was not going to be a place full of corporate sponsorship. The most important thing is that we did not want any interference, either from the government or from corporations. We wanted it to be a completely independent space," says Farhan.
Seven years in the business
In March this year, Lamakaan celebrated the seventh anniversary of its inception. Happy as he is about the space’s success, Farhan wishes that the quality of art could improve further, "I definitely didn't expect that so many people would be coming in, but I had better hopes for the kind of programming which happens here."
Celebrating the fact that more people have begun performing because a place like Lamakaan exists, Farhan says he would be more satisfied if more artists were pushing the envelope in terms of their politics and art.
"For example, we tried doing a few stand-up acts here. After a while, things turned sour and our theatre curator gave up on it. I am perfectly fine with expletives, but when the act becomes misogynistic, sexist or homophobic, we will not tolerate it," he says.
Though many would argue that Lamakaan has become an integral part of the city and its culture, Farhan is not completely satisfied.
"It is a well-known place in Hyderabad, but I would say it is well-known within our own social circles. I wouldn't call it an elitist space, but it’s certainly well-known only within a tightly knit community," he says.
Controversies and closure notice
Lamakaan’s commitment to politically-conscious art has meant that the space has not been without controversy.
In October 2015, several Christian groups gathered outside the venue and raised slogans, to protest against the staging of a play titled Agnes of God, revolving around the attempt to cover up a nun giving birth to a child by claiming an immaculate birth.
The protests got so big, that the issue even reached Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao's desk, but eventually the play proceeded without any untoward incidents.
"There are two things here. If any act promotes a divisive agenda, it will not find space here. We have made that very clear. Secondly, the act should be open to receiving criticism," Farhan says.
He gives the example of a play staged at Lamakaan on Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi's assassin, which upset a lot of 'liberal friends'.
"Following that, we did have a fair amount of dialogue on what the play was about. Similarly, when we did Agnes of God, we had invited the protesters to come in and watch the play, and then have a discussion about it afterwards," he adds.
Even during the Telangana movement, the venue was criticised for hosting several programmes on the culture of Telangana and the struggle for a separate state.
Lamakaan’s alternative culture has perturbed authorities more than once. In December 2015, the venue even received a closure notice from the Greater Municipal Hyderabad Corporation (GHMC). The GHMC notice, accused Lamakaan of creating a 'nuisance' to the general public without providing any reason except the lack of a parking space.
Within hours, an online petition was started, that demanded that the place stay open, and outrage followed on social media, forcing GHMC to withdraw its notice.
"I think we got lucky with that outburst, as it caught on the imagination of people who frequented the place. We were taken completely by surprise by the quarters from which we got support, and it was endearing," Farhan says.
Lamakaan now plans to foray into the digital space. "We've run out of physical space here. We're also constantly grappling with this idea that Lamakaan is not able to reach out to a greater audience. So, we think that the digital space is the best option for us," says Farhan.
"We're still in the planning phase. We are planning to do some exclusive content for Lamakaan's website. That being said, the place doesn't exactly have future plans of its own. It's driven by what happens outside and the political and cultural climate we live in," Farhan says.