Fouzia Saeed, Executive Director, Lok Virsa, talks about the work the organisation is doing and the challenges it faces today
The News on Sunday: As executive director of Lok Virsa, how do you plan to use the platform to promote folk heritage in Pakistan?
Fouzia Saeed: It provides amazing opportunities to bring back our folk heritage and our pluralistic identity on the centre stage from the periphery, where it had been pushed because of various socio-political factors.
I believe that folk heritage and folk culture is our soul and it forms the basis for understanding who we are. I think our younger generation is confused about who they are. Imposition of ideologies over the last decades has taken away from the clarity of our relationship with this land that we live on and our history of the past centuries that we should fully own.
I want to move Lok Virsa away from just entertainment programmes and focus on rebuilding our younger generation’s understanding of our culture, acknowledging the diversity in our nation, bringing in our neglected communities and generate solidarity among all kinds of people to facilitate appreciation of our cultural achievements, to take pride and then move forward with that identity.
TNS: There is a general tendency to ignore the value of cultural heritage and talent in Pakistan, especially at the state level? What are the challenges you are facing at Lok Virsa?
FS: Low budget is the first one, staff capacity and lack of information about our cultural pacts internationally are among the few. Our challenges are no different from any other government institution. I have told my team that we can raise funds, however, not having funds is no excuse for not doing what we intend to do. Sometimes you don’t need financial resources but the will, innovation, and the ability to make use of the rich human resource. I have inducted volunteers from the community to form committees that are looking after certain programmes. They are contributing their substantive experience freely. We have mobilised youth and even children for our programmes.
Our Minister, Senator Pervaiz Rashid himself is a friend of Lok Virsa and contributes to the vision and working by extending full support. I am so proud of our board with experienced scholars and cultural expertise: Salima Hashmi, Farooq Qaiser, Jameel Yusuf, Khadim Hussain, Zubaida Jalal, Taqi Akhundzada and other ex officio members. Lok Virsa has full support of its board and, I am sure, will be very supportive in countering some of the challenges I anticipate.
TNS: How do you plan to make folk music and theatre accessible to the people, especially in the cities? For example, under the last executive director most of the folk singers/performers were recorded and preserved. People complain that those recordings are not easily available? Any plans to disseminate them widely?
FS: Yes, Lok Virsa has focused on documentation and preservation and now I am taking up the challenge of dissemination. I do plan to republish several of the books and republish the audio and video DVDs in the coming months. An important aspect is that people are not into reading books and buying DVDs; they are into internet so, of course, I am looking at new methods of dissemination. We are re-doing our website. Now we are on the social media, Facebook, etc. and are looking into putting samples from our archives on the web. Do check us out and follow our Facebook page.
TNS: How do you evaluate the efforts of Lok Virsa as an institution so far in, as it says, "creating an awareness of cultural legacy by collecting, documenting, disseminating and projecting folk & traditional heritage?"
FS: I think Lok Virsa has a very strong history of its own. It does have a place in the hearts of people and, over the years, it has done a lot of work. Over the last decade perhaps it has not been that active more because of challenges that most government institutions face, for example, programme funds barely cover the operation costs, staff have been promoted to senior positions without first building their capacity, and the inability to transfer out incapable staff.
Unfortunately, Lok Virsa gradually focused more on promoting artisans and performance artists, which is an important part of this awareness and support. However, it ignored the role of research and provided no special focus on building an inclusive cultural identity for young people, including students, city youth and those in rural communities. It also did not focus clearly on the policy and ideological issues that have suppressed the diversity in this country. There still are institutions that discourage men to wear their traditional clothes and impose suit and tie. It is still so difficult to have live folk music at private gatherings without special permission from the municipal authorities and police, while taped music from Bollywood is all over the place.
Times have changed, conditions have changed and, therefore, Lok Virsa’s strategies have to be different to address the current challenges. Just doing work with the pockets of artisans and artists that we already know will not work in view of the current challenges.
TNS: Are women more mobile and expressive today in showing their natural talent of making arts and crafts, etc? What more should be done to realise and appreciate their latent talent?
FS: Oh, that is my favourite topic. Yes, they are more open and have more opportunities, but the overall societal space has also been reduced for them. Therefore, it is a mixed outcome. For crafts, I feel that they do a lot of hard work, but it is their family men that take credit. Lok Virsa has always supported women crafts-persons and have given them awards and projection. It has also introduced many women folk singers.
What I want to do is to increase the space for these talented women. There has to be a market to support these talented women and, therefore, one has to develop the taste of people for folk products, folk music, and folk ways of life. Unless we bring this taste back in the mainstream culture, government institutions cannot keep supporting them by inviting them once or twice a year.
TNS: In times of extremism and terrorism, how can we use this institution to highlight the cultural beauty and diversity of our land?
FS: This is very relevant and important in these times. One should not only think of folk arts to create a softer and more realistic image of Pakistan but bring back the humanness, the tolerance and the appreciation of cultural differences in our society. Sufism and alternative traditions, which actually used to be the norm give us the message of love, collective ownership, and ethics.
We don’t have to go out and look for a mysterious alternative narrative. We have several strands available already which have been quite dominating from time to time. I think we all need to realise that we have to give importance to our cultural institutions.
One point I do want to mention is that while much importance and money is being given for cultural activities, the premiere institutes set up to promote Pakistani culture get hardly any of that. Instead, we give it to institutions that have little to do with culture and, therefore, the insight and the depth of understanding in those cultural initiatives is missing, and they turn into mere performances. I think when I say more attention or funds for culture, it means to focus this with the cultural institutions, both government or private.
TNS: How do you see the contribution of Coke Studio in promoting our folk talent?
FS: I think Coke Studio has been clearly a breakthrough. Frankly, it has brought traditional music back to the youth and children. I like their fusion. I remember in the past when I was at Lok Virsa and was the head of research as my first job, I was such a purist and could not tolerate even a harmonium as a part of the folk ensemble as that to me was a foreign assimilation, but now times have changed. We have to speak the language that our audience understands. So, I am fine with the fusion as long as it builds the life of our own music and heritage yet supports creativity.