For better or worse

December 26, 2021

The resumption of cultural activities is once again under threat due to new coronavirus variant

For better or worse

It is difficult to say that the year which is just about to lapse was less weird than the previous one. The previous year could have been weirder because for the first time the world came to a grinding halt. That had never happened before as it had never been so integrated.

The earlier epidemics had usually scourged a certain region and then slowly died after wreaking havoc but this time round the connectivity affected the entire world and no part of it escaped being badly affected and in fear of total annihilation.

This year started with the second wave of the pandemic and when it receded, it raised hopes that the worst had passed and the storm had blown over. However, the activity, which in retrospect can be called normal, was in fits and starts. However, sooner than many had hoped, new variants of the virus cropped up and put a stop to the optimistic return.

Emergence of digital media as the most viable platform for cultural activities again reasserted its validity. It was clear as the wave ebbed and flowed that it had left its indelible mark, if not totally upstaged the main area of performance as a valid parallel.

However, the desire to connect, to be in a crowd and be together asserted itself again and again, given half a chance. In the last couple of weeks, two live concerts have been held in Lahore. Both the events, though not at public places but in private clubs, teemed with audiences breaking out of the pandemic regime restrictions as if with a vengeance.

The melas and the festivities round the urs carried on due to the force of tradition. Their participants refused to recognise the threat as being big enough to deter them from participating in something that they have done all their lives and have been told about by their elders. However, one benchmark of defying the growing and enervating religiosity in culture, Basant still remained uncelebrated. The most famous and colourful occasion for the spray of colours and festivities again looked dark, drab and muted, straining under the weight of growing conservatism reinforced by the threat of the pandemic.

The Dubai Expo was held and the Pakistani pavilion and the allied performances did create a stir. In Konia and Istanbul, Saira Peters sang the sufiana kalam and Arooj Aftab earned a Grammy nomination. In other parts of the country, particularly in Karachi, the Lux Style Award ceremony, the 20th, and the fashion shows kicked into motion the season of colour and fragrance. The awards ceremony was seen by a few in person and many more on the digital platforms to remind one of what was being missed under the rules imposed to forestall a greater disaster.

In other parts of the country, particularly in Karachi, the Lux Style Award ceremony, the 20th, and the fashion shows kicked into motion the season of colour and fragrance. It was seen by a few in person and many more on the digital platforms to remind one of what was being missed under rules imposed to forestall a greater disaster.

The Urdu conferences were held in Faisalabad and Karachi. The one in Karachi was a lot like the old times with few restriction and face masks as a large number of people attended in person and mixed freely apparently without a fear of contracting the disease. There were dramatic readings, dance performances and qawwali performances. The Faisalabad affair was more in synch with the prescribed dos and don’ts and many of the participants took part digitally.

The Folk Mela under the aegis of Lok Virsa returned this year and attracted artistes from all over the country, especially from far flung areas with forms and instruments that are under threat of extinction.

The artistes suffered throughout the year as they were laid off due to the intermittent live performances. This year as well, no music conference was organised nor was a new film released despite all the hullaballoo about the new culture policy that few expect to make an impact.

The death of Umar Shariff was sad particularly as hopes had risen that he might be saved. However, that was not to be. Umar Shariff had enthralled the audiences all over the world who understood our languages all over the world. He had crafted the art of evading the ever growing net of censorship. Others who bade farewell to the world this year were: Farooq Qaiser, Khursheed Shahid, Shaukat Ali, Mohammed Asif and Mehmoodul Hasan Jaffery.

Every event that was held live raised the hope that the stifling restrictions were about to be removed. The digital media had wished that the gains of creative work on online platforms would not come to an abrupt halt with a return to normalcy. The two, it appears now for some time at least will be habouring interests which may be antagonistic to each other. Perhaps they will find a mean where both can exist without shedding their respective advantages. It appears desirable that the one should not overwhelm the other as the only legitimate form of expression. Though starting at a great disadvantage and with limitations, the digital form of expression has created plenty of space for itself. Its most promising aspect has been the emergence and evolution or rather the revolution of the digital medium and it is expected that it will not replace the more conventional expression but will co-exist with it or rather add to it. The two then can be the way forward for yet another adjustment with technology that the human expression has learnt to augment itself with.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

For better or worse