This spring yellow kites were replaced by yellow balloons and a rush of language and pros that Lahore has long awaited. As the hub of cultural commotion for centuries, and the birthplace of many internationally recognized writers and poets like Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohsin Hamid, it is quite bizarre that such an event has never been held before. Literary Festivals have become the rage in South Asia since the Jaipur festival was established in India in 2005. Festivals have sprouted all over the region since.
The festival was held in Alhamra Arts Complex, and more than 30,000 people showed up for the various panel discussions that covered topics from literature, arts, and poetry to social issues and political dilemmas. Who would have thought a female Kathak dancer (Naheed Sidiqqui) would lure the audience with her elegant moves from an art lost in the Mughal era, in the middle of a terrorist-fest state? For the New York Times and other mainstream newspapers and journals a literary, artsy ambience propping up in Pakistan was odd, amusing and unforeseen. After all where do ‘books’ fit into the Mullah and Militant outlook that is seen.
“Pakistan is a country that in recent memory has been better known globally for bombs than for books.” Wall Street Journal, India.
While we found it strange that the storied city of Lahore hasn’t once been host to a cultural, literary event, the success has left even those who know the city for more than the bombs and terrorism and sectarian violence dumbfounded. Our history of creating artists and poets for millennia has been closed and placed away neatly while we deal with more real issues like the energy crisis and soaring food prices, security threats and sectarian strife.
But underneath the economic and social impasse lies an artistic streak in most Lahoris, poetry is an integral part of pros of the generation that experienced a more culturally alive era in the 60’s and 70’s. And this is the generation that has seen the arts move away from the spotlight, the curtains drawn, but an art that resonates with the audience, becomes a part of it. For this generation the literary fest brought back memories of a different Pakistan they were more familiar with. And for the youngsters it was a whole new experience, a positive change from the talk shows that have become the only source of entertainment and intellectual exposure, sitting through a panel discussion led by academics who weren’t on the verge of tearing each other’s throats apart was a relief.
While the topics ranged from satire, Manto, architecture, to more crucial issues like the veil and Afghanistan war, a relevance to Pakistan’s social needs was maintained. So the discussions were not just entertaining, but provided food for thought. A healthy experience for a younger generation that has become materialistic, and suffers deep rooted insecurity germinating from the kind of attention Pakistan attracts in the mainstream media.
While the Festival was a huge success, and we do need many more, this should have also been the perfect opportunity to promote our Urdu language poets and writers. While one of the panels did brush the need for dying poetry, and whether this was cyclical or a permanent shift of preferences, the need to promote Urdu was left out altogether. While the international bestsellers like Mohammad Hanif, Mohsin Hamid and Bapsi Sidhwa were attracting thousands of fans, leaving halls jam packed with barely any space to breathe, this was the perfect opportunity to endorse the Urdu writer who already suffers from a dearth or publishers and readers.
A panel on poetry in English, where mediocre poems were being recited by unheard of poets, made this supposedly strategic maneuver to sideline the ‘un-classy’ language a little obvious. One explanation for doing so would be to project a certain image to the World, that we are not so different. Yet the only photograph of this ‘literary spring’ in Lahore that the New York Times could find was that with a woman wearing a burka, looking confused, in front of a book stand. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with a burka, it is funny how the Pakistani news sources have shown pictures of the ‘elite’ and liberal tier.
So, we can say that for the sake of image building, the Literary Festival was an elitist affair.
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