Nearby is a life-size sculpture of a couple holding hands on a swing. Inside, the image of a male torso, viewed from one angle, morphs into a female breast. Yet there is no mistaking the stamp of the subcontinent. Women wear traditional thigh-length tunics over their jeans, and some cover their hair. There are also miniature paintings, which traditionally might capture a hunting scene; here they portray other scenes, as in one bold depiction of a bearded cleric reclining on a couch in front of a bombed-out school.
The jumble of styles and influences—the stew of peoples and faiths Rudyard Kipling captured so vividly in his novel Kim—is a hallmark of Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city and capital of Punjab Province. The wealthiest and most populous of the country's four provinces, Punjab is where East meets West and everything in between. Even the brutal and bloody partition of British India in the mid-20th century could not destroy Punjab's cosmopolitan brio.
But the Taliban and its allies are doing their best. In the past few years they have unleashed a wave of terrorist mayhem in Punjab, the home turf of Pakistan's political and military establishments, that has targeted even the visiting Sri Lankan national cricket team. The intrusion of violence from the remote tribal badlands near Afghanistan has shocked Punjabis, who until recently tended to dismiss the extremists as someone else's problem. It also has raised fears in Washington that nuclear-armed Pakistan, an inconstant but vital partner in the war on terrorism, could be heading toward collapse.
The Punjab I knew in the years after 9/11, when I covered Pakistan as a foreign correspondent, was relatively undisturbed. To be sure, it suffered from a myriad of social ills and had its share of homegrown Islamist militants. But the guardians of the status quo—generals, feudal landlords, industrialists—remained deeply entrenched, as did Sufism, the tolerant, mystical, music-and-poetry-saturated brand of Islam that is anathema to many Muslim hard-liners. Could the fabric of society here really come unraveled?
A few days after the art show I tracked down Imran Qureshi, head of the college's miniatures department, at the modern, two-story home he shares with his wife and two young children. A boyish 38-year-old in corduroys and a zippered sweater, he showed me into a living room decorated with tribal rugs and Scandinavian-style wood furniture. Qureshi and his wife, Aisha Khalid, both renowned artists, could easily migrate to London or New York, where they often show their work. But they have no intention of leaving. "I think it's getting more liberal here," Qureshi said, his voice swelling with enthusiasm. "People are talking about politics, sexuality, all kinds of issues. It was not like this ten years ago."