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Kiran Chaudhry (center) with her co-stars Zoe Viccaji (left) and Sanam Saeed (right) in the Pakistani production of Mamma Mia. Chaudhry is pushing new boundaries on the stage for women in Pakistan as the lead singer in a band, a rare role for a female performer in Pakistan. (Julie McCarthy / NPR.org)

By Julie McCarthy

An image has stayed with me on our journey that took us the length of Grand Trunk Road: three girls squeezed upright into the back of rickshaw facing the traffic, bumping along in their black burqas.

They were memorable not just for what they were wearing but for their very presence.

On this road where armies have marched and warred for a millennium women are conspicuously absent. No giggly little girls swarm as you step from the car to check out a scene. No women are there to murmur even a "Salam Alaykum," the genteel greeting here.

Only rambunctious boys, open-mouthed young men, and elderly males crowd around to see what we're doing. When we stopped to talk to the corn vendor I asked out loud -- "Where are the girls?" I'm greeted with blank stares.

The deep traditions abide, including the custom that women are neither prominently nor publicly displayed, apart from their wedding day.

You come to understand on this ancient carriageway that is no wider than fifty feet across in many places that life is lived much as it has been for many generations.

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'taxila'

The sense of permanence connected to this road is what you miss in the hurly-burly of the Motorway with its modern rest stops and smooth running traffic. Here antiquity seeps from the ruins of Taxila and from the crevices of red stone hills that rise around the quarry pits along the Grand Trunk Road that at sunset turn the world a purplish gray.

But the Old does collide here with the New in refreshing ways.

I witnessed one sitting in the front row of a well-worn theater on Lahore's Mall Road.

I wasn't prepared for such a lucid description of what ails Pakistan coming from, of all things, the star of a Pakistani production of "Mamma Mia."

Skepticism might be forgiven about the lead singer in this most Western of wacky romances doubling as a serious social commentator.

But it quickly became apparent that Kiran Chaudhry is no ordinary entertainer.

The thirty-three year old Pakistan-born Chaudhry earned a P.P.E. degree-- philosophy, politics and economics-- from Oxford before studying law.

Four years as a corporate lawyer in London, and this bona fide over-achiever followed her passion to the footlights, a career shift that met a lot of "family resistance." "Especially," she says, "when the direction is something people consider a little dodgy ... in this part of the world."

Lathered in pancake make-up with a Lavalier stage microphone mike taped to her face, Chaudhry traversed topics as diverse as the direction of Pakistan's youth to human rights to the hardships facing Pakistani artists.

It's not an easy career path in Pakistan, "especially for woman," Chaudhry says. The Provincial government imposes a hefty sixty-five percent tax on live productions, which Chaudhry calls "a prohibitive tax on entertainment implemented during the regime of General Zia," who's widely credited with ushering fundamentalism into the country.

As a professional singer, Chaudhry says she must file a "No Objection Certificate" to perform. "I'm the front woman for this band which is pretty unheard of in this country." She needs government permission to hold a concert. Government regulations say "no females on stage." And Chaudhry says "it's the only condition that's in large type and bold lettering."

But this evening, permission granted, she effortlessly belts out the tunes to "Mamma Mia," the zany Abba musical about an unwed mother, potentially scandalous in conservative Pakistan.

Yet Chaudhry is willing to break barriers and push boundaries. "In a country where people are really disenfranchised there is a real responsibility on other kinds of leaders (like entertainers) to create some sort of alternative for people to think. It sounds abstract, but that's exactly what we do."

The Grand Trunk Road introduced us to the Old, the New, and certainly the unexpected.

Earlier that day, I watched a white horse dance on the ancient highway, part of a wedding procession.

And it all seemed perfectly natural: The GTR is, after all, another world.

categories: Grand Trunk Road

3:14 - May 21, 2010