The earliest landmark symbolising the Western colonialist concept of entertainment and leisure in the heart of the Pothohar region stands in a dilapidated condition today. The building which witnessed theatrical activities, ballet dances and musical concerts in the Rawalpindi of the 1880s – continuing until the 1947 Partition – is now slowly fading into oblivion.
It was March 1849 when the Sikh troops surrendered before the might of the British East India Company. Within a decade, the East India Company consolidated its rule over lands west of the Sutlej. They established an elaborate system of communication, formal systems of security and justice, modern healthcare and Western education. And all of this became the responsibility of the state for the first time. To weld together the new territory with other parts of northern India, the East India Company conceived a scheme for introducing railways in this region as early as the 1850s.Between the 1860s and early 1870s, the British colonial administration was able to execute the scheme. In 1878, Rawalpindi emerged as the last station for what became known as the “Wheels of the Raj”.
Every evening, locally notable British people and some members of the Hindu community gathered at this place
The opening of a railway station brought about a major change in the demographic profile and economic status of the small town called Rawalpindi. It brought hundreds of workmen and the ubiquitous colonial administration babus from different parts of India. With the laying of a rail track from Lahore to Rawalpindi, it became necessary also to build a colonial-style railway station in Rawalpindi. Built on the bank of the Lai stream, the station was soon surrounded by residential colonies – bungalows and halls built for the Railway employees, the usual favours bestowed by the Raj.
A sizeable community of Anglo-Indians also moved to the town to fill the vacancies for engineers, engine drivers, firemen and so on. Not less than a hundred white men arrived to supervise the operations of the railways .This community had its own requirements for enjoying its time off, in line with what was usual in colonial India. Their particular requirements resulted in the construction of the small civilian club which started to the known as the “Nautch Ghar”.
It now has the worn looks of a haunted place. The story of the Nautch Gharat the Rawalpindi Railway Station is completely forgotten today.
The Nautch Ghar was a venue for the evening parties of British military, railway officers and elite of the city. Every evening, locally notable British people and some members of the Hindu community of the city gathered at this place. The drinking and merrymaking continued well into the night. Amongst other regular patrons, there is Balraj Sahni, the noted Indian film actor. A frequent visitor to the Nautch Ghar parties, he for the first time met Damayanti Sahni in this hall and later both tied the knot!
The hall also witnessed famous English plays and drew an audience from the local mishmash of cultures.
Today, the Nautch Ghar waits not for the ‘gentry’ of the city but instead for prisoners who are kept here. The Nautch Ghar, you see, has been turned into a Pakistan Railways police station! It is now a small lock-up where, mostly, people travelling on the railways without a ticket stay for a night or so.
After the exodus of many of Rawalpindi’s inhabitants during the 1947 Partition, this hall turned into a community hall for railway workers. It became an office of the Railway Trade Union.This remained the case until 2006. That was the point at which the Railway Police took over.
Few signs of the majestic and jolly past of this hall can be seen now. The hall which contributed to the rich cultural history of Rawalpindi is now taking its last breaths.
In general, the Pakistan Railways – erstwhile North Western Railways in the colonial era – has a rich heritage that is scattered across the country. This heritage takes the form of old bungalows, various halls and old railway stations that are not functioning any more.
The Nautch Ghar of Rawalpindi is one such site. By making these places tourist-friendly and attractive in general, perhaps the Pakistan Railways can promote heritage tourism.