Some thoughts on a festival

Khayaal Festival made a comeback to Lahore’s Alhamra Art Council after about two years with a message -- ‘breaking the boundaries’

Some thoughts on a festival

Khayaal Festival made a comeback to Lahore’s Alhamra Art Council after about two years with a message -- ‘breaking the boundaries’. It kicked off with keynote addresses by four people, and a woman dhol performer.

Organised largely by a group of women, a lot of thought seemed to have gone into the intellectual conception of Khayaal. Set in Lahore, it reflected the cultural, literary, social and political ethos of the city. Feminism was a recurrent theme of various sessions that resonated with men and women alike, as did Sufi thought, music and the ‘new age’ cinema.

While some really bold things were said and heard and felt, one isn’t sure if they were heard by the right people. This could be because the attendance at this festival, and at the one held a week before this, remained thin, even when they were both perfectly organised.

Is it because these festivals failed to reach out to people at large or has a ‘festival fatigue’ set in already because the venue and format remain much the same?

The News on Sunday reviews a few sessions, selected subjectively, since it isn’t possible to cover a festival in entirety.

A conversation on Manto

At high noon this past Saturday two filmmakers shared the stage at the Alhamra Arts Council to discuss a common love of theirs. Sarmad Khoosat and Nandita Das could well be placed on opposite ends of many a spectrum, but both shared an equal humility in the altar of one of the most loved (and depending on who you ask, the most reviled) authors of this subcontinent -- Saadat Hasan Manto.

One may never be able to concretely ascertain whether it was the enlivened discussion or the chance to gain the favour of Das’s kohl-blackened eyes that pulled the Lahori audience to this particular talk "Nandita Das in conversation with Sarmad Khoosat". On either account they were not to be disappointed.

The two panellists shared their first introduction to Manto’s short stories. For Khoosat, it was an unashamed adolescent curiosity over and above any literary inclination that inadvertently inspired a life-long passion for the author’s work, most recently resulting in his film on Manto’s life. His journey into the mind and works of his most misunderstood of muses will continue, this time on the smaller screen for tv audiences.

As for Das, she first picked up a five-volume collection of all of Manto’s stories and pored through them during her college days. The stories and emotions of the author have remained with her ever since.

She admitted that the fear of not being able to do justice to the simple form yet dense content of Manto’s words had kept her from undertaking a film on the author sooner. Only now has she mustered the courage to take on this project, which from her remarks is palpably close to her heart, and has started work on her own film on Manto’s life.

Luckily for the audiences on both sides of the border that will surely throng to the cinemas to see the film upon its release, the two films cover different eras of Manto’s life -- Das’s film will cover the years in Bombay and the shift to Lahore, while Khoosat’s version covers only his life in Lahore post-1951.

Perhaps the most inspiring moments of the panel discussion, which was more of a conversation between the two than a conventional talk per se, were when the two attempted to define ‘Manto-iyat’, a term coined by Das. For her this essence lay in the tragedy of Manto, which was not that he chose black over white, but that he was squarely caught between two rights.

For her he was undeniably a caring father that would do most anything to care for his wife and children, but he was driven by another compulsion that ended up requiring most of his time. The need within him to portray things as they are without dilution was an addiction of his that far outweighed even his urges for drink and potation. It is this over-riding obligation to truth that made him such a great writer and perhaps such a misunderstood individual in private life. And perhaps it is this very obligation that brought our two panellists to the same stage.

It is the content of Manto over his form that has allowed his name to survive. He would have been as much of a maverick today as he was then, for a silent mirror is an inescapable need for all forms of human society. The retributive quality of literature is such that Manto lives to this day through his books and now ever-increasingly on silver screens big and small, while his detractors become minor footnotes in the countless research papers written on his life. But Manto himself was quite aware of this possibility of ever-lasting life as he writes in Manto-az-Manto: ‘lekin yeh bhi ho sakta hai ke Saadat Hassan mar jaye aur Manto na marray’.

Distinction between order and conflict

A panel discussion titled "World Order and Conflict" comprised Andrew Small, the author of The China-Pakistan Axis, Vladimir Boyoko, an expert on Central Asia, and Hina Rabbani Khar, the former Foreign Minister of Pakistan. Ejaz Haider moderated the talk that spanned varied topics.

For a talk so laced with political science jargon, it was surprisingly digestible and if the questions being asked of the panellists at the end of the talk are anything to go by, the audience was kept engaged for the hour-long session.

Perhaps the most important take-away from the talk was the distinction that was drawn between the two terms that form the title, namely world order and conflict. World Order was defined as the economic, military, or other forms of power relationships between the various countries in the world, whereas when talking of conflict the panellists referred mainly to kinetic conflicts such as the various forms of warfare taking place the world over, from the Middle East to the Crimea.


For anyone interested in global affairs this distinction is very important, as two powers can be on the same side of a conflict and yet be competing for influence vis-à-vis the other in other spheres of the world. For Andrew Small an interesting instance of this is the insipid competition between the US and China in East Asia that is being played out silently while the world focuses on more kinetic events elsewhere.

He found it most interesting that apart from the pacific region the two biggest economies of the world face similar threats to their interests in other parts of the world and so find each other to be on the same side of many a conflict elsewhere.

Hina Rabbani Khar, when commenting on the crisis in Syria, placed it in the context of Pakistan’s recent experience and defended Pakistan’s decision not to support non-state actors in the region. She believes as a matter of policy that disorder cannot breed order, but rather the opposite and by supporting various non-state actors the powers that be will not be able to find a workable balance in the region.

One point of nuance one could add to her comment is that perhaps it is the desire to avoid war between great powers, which the experience of the previous century tells us is far more catastrophic, which is pushing the various players to support non-state actors. And maybe this is a less costly, albeit messy, way to find equilibrium.

The women of substance

An audience of around forty people gathered on a crisp Sunday morning with Styrofoam cups of Lipton Tea in hand to attend a talk titled "Gender and Media" at the Khayaal Festival. The panel discussion comprised Meeran Karim, a reporter for The News, and Roshaneh Zafar, the founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation. The stalwart journalist Marvi Sirmed, whose frank and open demeanour gave the audience the confidence to be as much a part of the conversation as the panellists, moderated the session.

Though the festival celebrated Pakistani, as well as international women, from all walks of life -- dhol players, rickshaw drivers, mountain climbers, filmmakers -- this session brought to light the long road ahead for women. The impact that the portrayal of female characters in the media can have on social attitudes was not lost on the panellists, or the audience. The glorification of demure submissiveness, and the often-implicit villainisation of strong independent female characters over the years have both played a role in cementing certain puritan ideals in our society.

khyaal festival

However, a changing media landscape provides for ample opportunity to use it to slowly turn this tide. Roshaneh Zafar took a step in this direction with her Hum TV drama Rehaai. By writing female roles that weren’t altogether good or bad, she attempted to work on the sub-conscious of the audiences by lacing in various themes of empowerment through the drama serial.

The conversation also veered toward the role of women behind the camera, and specifically in the newsroom. Meeran Karim, being the only female reporter in her office, pointed out that the world of journalism is still very much a gentleman’s club. This might well be because of the fact that men can work odd hours without raising eyebrows in society, while women in Pakistan unfortunately do not have that luxury.

Karim however continues to persist and pushes the limits by pursuing stories that would otherwise be assigned to men, something she has managed to do with a careful balancing act between conforming and yet being adamant.

Articulation of Sufi thought

"Punjabi Sufi poetry is not just an articulation of Sufi thought, it is also the manifestation of the Sufi way of life," said Mushtaq Soofi while speaking during the session "Punjabi Sufi Poetry and Thought". The session was moderated by Dr Farrukh Khan with Sara Kazmi and Mushtaq Soofi on the panel.

The session was insightful and brought out some important historical facts. One take-away was the fact that under the title of Sufi, we tend to club different spiritual personalities who represent divergent practices.

Soofi cited the examples of Hazrat Bahauddin Zakariya Multani and Fariduddin Masood aka Baba Farid Shakar Ganj. The former, he said, ran an elitist seminary that enrolled the children of rich and powerful, and it was an exclusive dargah in Multan. It had elaborate dastar khwan. Whereas, when Baba Farid became khalifa, he not only moved away from the main dargah (where he learned he was not accessible to many) and set up a hut amongst the masses. Baba Farid told his family he would not like to see the cooking smoke in his hut and that the family would eat whatever his disciples and students ate at the seminary.


Quoting another anecdote that contrasted the views and approach of these two ‘Sufis’, Mushtaq Soofi said, "Once a disciple contested Hazrat Bahauddin Zakria on the exclusive access of the seminary for the children of rich and powerful, as well as the opulence and accumulation of wealth. The disciple asked, ‘isn’t it true that wherever there is wealth, a snake comes to guard it?’ ‘Yes, that is true, but we need to learn how to keep the snake tamed and harmless,’ retorted Hazrat Bahauddin. ‘But why must we allow a snake to breed and live among us in the first place!’ wondered the disciple."

Contrarily, when Baba Farid was asked by a student for an advice, the latter was told, "Aalam da ilm daulat-mund de dur te jaan naal muk janda ae (the knowledge of a scholar becomes nullified as the scholar approaches the rich person -- to trade knowledge for wealth."

Sara Kazmi lamented that though Sufi poetry was full of women’s voice, we did not have many known female Sufis. Then she beautifully sang a kaafi by Bulleh Shah.

The session concluded that Punjabi Sufi poetry and thought premised on three strands viz. Tark (negation of property and possession), Ilm (knowledge), and Amal (action). To elaborate the last two strands, Mushtaq Soofi said all Punjabi Sufis were multilingual with proficiency in Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit and Punjabi; and all of them walked their talk -- some critical divergences notwithstanding.

He also said that Punjabi Sufi poetry and thought imbibed class consciousness as well as resistance to the prevailing oppression based on class and other divides.

Explaining the Corridor

The session "Pak-China Relations: Partnership or Patronage" moderated by Dr Ayesha Siddiqa, had Andrew Small (author of The China-Pakistan Axis) and Dr Asad Sayeed (Collective for Social Research) as experts.

Analysing the Pak-China Economic Corridor (PCEC), the panel highlighted that benefits to be accrued from the PCEC were over-assumed and inflated. Talking of the billions that would flow in, China made promises of $66billion investment between 2001 and 2011 but only 6 per cent was materialised.

Dr Asad Sayeed was sceptical about the PCEC on the basis that it concealed more than it revealed. He said the deal did not specify which roads and what associated infrastructure would be built; and what type of industrial input this infrastructure would add to. The panel pointed out that the PCEC promised three things: Foreign direct investment; jobs and technology transfer; but Chinese were known to bring their own labour even for the menial tasks, and it was not known what technology transfer would take place.

The panellists brought to the fore that Pak-China historical security relations stand to influence, shape and determine the Pak-China economic and trade relations as well. Between 2002 and 2014, 40 per cent of China’s arms exports were to Pakistan, and in years like 2009, it peaked to even 70 per cent.

A one-sided discourse on Lahore but why

There was not going to be any change in the speakers or moderator for "Lahore badlo ya Lahore bachao: Protecting Lahore for all". This bunch of committed people included the five guests I.A.Rehman, Kamil Khan Mumtaz, Nayyar Ali Dada, Maryam Hussain and Imrana Tiwana and the moderator Aisha Amir Ahmed, all architects barring one.

The discourse was going to be one-sided without doubt; the other side being all too manifest in the road engineering work in progress in many parts of the city. The panel represented both the intellectual elite’s viewpoint of what the project-oriented development is doing to the city of Lahore as well as of the disempowered people who are not involved in decision making at any level and feel helpless.

Maryam Hussain gave an overview of how problematic the entire scheme is. With a mock slide showing what Chauburji and Shalamar Bagh would look like with an elevated train bridge right in front of them, and having already seen what the Metro Bus project did to the visual architecture of the city and how financially unsustainable it is with the government having to pour in Rs5 million subsidy per day, she told the Orange Line train project would affect at least 30 listed and protected monuments.

But it is a city littered with history and heritage, pointed out Kamil Khan Mumtaz. You can’t build a public transport system in the air or underground without affecting this heritage, he said. The best solution is to run this transport on the grade. "Run buses on existing roads or run trams," he suggested once again.

Nayyar Ali Dada questioned the mindset that favoured such development models and declared the mindset emulates ISIS in many ways. Listing the hierarchy of planners and decision makers of urbanism, he pointed at himself and said, "it is professionals like us who love these proposals and let these emerge and be implemented too". Unless and until there is participation of public concern, nothing will happen, he said.

Imrana Tiwana shocked the participants by saying that only eight per cent of the city’s population owns vehicles (one presumes she was referring to motor cars only). She also listed three laws that are being violated by the Orange Line: World Heritage Convention; the Antiquities Act 1975; and Special Premises Ordinance 1985.

I.A. Rehman began by saying that more important than violating laws is the destruction of our cultural heritage which is part of our collective memory. This, he said, is "a violation of my fundamental human right". He made a valid point by saying it is not Lahore’s heritage that is being reduced, it is the heritage of entire Pakistan.

Referring to the official claims that the heritage sites are not being demolished, he pointed at how the quadrangles were built around Taj Mahal and Jahangir’s tomb with the idea of perspective and how these buildings could only be enjoyed from a distance. "I am not so enamoured of the Mughals but I want to honour the architects who conceived them and the labour who erected them as far back as the sixteenth century," he said.

A confluence between language and literature

An interesting discussion took place in the session titled "Up close and personal -- the varied eras of writing" which was a confluence between language and literature, between literary history and geographical history. Ajmal Kamal began by saying that we have had the same attitude towards literary history as we have towards history of languages. The partition of 1947 did not divide literature; for instance Urdu and Sindhi literature is read on both sides. "Every writer is tied with history and describes the emotions and experiences emerging out of it".

session 2

Moderated by Naeem Tahir, it was a joy to hear Noorul Huda Shah on the stage of Alhamra. At the outset she stated as to why did Urdu not adopt words from Sindhi or Punjabi or Seraiki, especially when Urdu is based in Sindh. She questioned the term Pakistani literature or even Sindhi literature especially because Pakistani literature is considered synonymous with Urdu literature. "We need to give the new generation the literature from this land [Iss zameen ka adab] in all its languages," she said. She did well to remind everyone of the resistance literature being produced in Sindhi and how Sindhi writer has always been thought of as the ‘traitor’. "Whatever political and social change we see in Sindh owes itself to the literature. When all sorts of books were banned during the One Unit, Sindhis celebrated Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s day and his poetry was sung which is all about dissent. The Sindhi drama during Ziaul Haq’s time carried its revolutionary message and so did we in Urdu," she said.

Asif Farrukhi said that Urdu has been used by the Pakistan’s political establishment for its own ends. Liewise, the term ‘Pakistani literature’ has been imposed on us a monolith meta narrative. Literature has been divided on the basis of religion too even though Urdu, Sindhi and Punjabi literature has been read on both sides of the border as is Pashto literature, he said.

"Our curriculum has been so designed that we do know about Mir Taqi Mir but not about the feminist experience of Kishwar Naheed and Fahmida Riaz, nor about Asad Mohammad Khan, Ikramullah and Khalida Hussain," said Farrukhi.

Aamer Hussein talked about the labelling of ‘Pakistani literature’ internationally, just like ‘post colonial’, ‘third world’ or ‘South Asian’ literature. This label has been created over the last nineteen years or so and "today Pakistani literature is identified with a tiny minority of writers writing in English".

Letters from prisoners on death row

"A Dramatic Reading of Letters from Prisoners on the Death Row" was one place where the message of the festival -- breaking the boundaries -- was felt with full force. One woman and two men stood in their boxes wearing prisoners’ attire, in a pitch dark stage. Each of them took turns uttering the injunctions of the jail manual, actual letters written by prisoners on death row (who have now been put on the gallows) and an essay by George Orwell "A hanging" in which he tells the story of witnessing a man being hung.

This was an idea of Justice Project Pakistan and the creative side or the production was looked after by Olomopolo Media. Sarmad Khoosat, Nadia Afgan and Erfan Khoosat enacted their roles, intercepting each other to both break monotony and create the right ambience for what it is like to be on a death row in a Pakistani jail.

The real strength of the performance lay in the fact that here, on the stage of Alhamra, was an altogether different narrative being shown, different from what people have witnessed on their televisions and read in the newspapers in the last one year.

The letters lament how the moratorium on death penalty was lifted; they show the human and humane side of the criminals and raise some valid questions in minds, as to whether this was/is the best course to reimagine a society. One example is of Dr Zulfiqar Ali Khan, the man who spent 16 years in jail, not only educating himself but educating many other prisoners while in prison, was not spared. His wife died of lukemia after he went to jail and his two minor daughters are being raised by a distant relative, we were told.

Some thoughts on a festival