Politics or culture

A political event, a cultural extravaganza, an attempt to seize back the mantle of secularism, a platform to recast the past, a private party or all of it together

“I hereby declare emergency” are words that have terrorised millions of democracy-loving Pakistanis in the past. But, the way Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) patron-in-chief Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari played on these words was witty and profound at the same time.

In a promotional video for the Sindh Festival, Bilawal addressed the nation in a televised address in the same vein as that of Pakistani military dictators. But, unlike the generals, he declared a ‘cultural coup’ instead of a military coup d’état.

It was refreshing to see this humorous take on coups by a civilian leader.

Those who think such festivals are not promoting our culture need to brush up on their history. From paying tribute to the Indus Valley Civilisation through a tableau to a fashion show with songs and dance routines, from a laser show to pop songs, Mohenjo-Daro was the perfect backdrop for a highly entertaining launch ceremony of the Sindh Festival and provided a platform for our past and present alike. Bilawal is slowly but surely seizing back the mantle of secularism through this festival.

“Sindh Festival is a political event, lightly disguised as a cultural extravaganza,” says The Guardian’s Jon Boone. He felt the opening ceremony was at one level just a bit of kitsch fun, owing more to the Lux Style Awards than traditional Sindhi culture. “In reality it was all about introducing Bilawal as a young man determined to push back against the country’s righ-wing, religious killjoys. It’s hard not to admire his chutzpah, but he’s gambling on the existence of a silent majority who agrees with him.”

From the controversy surrounding the damage this event could do to the ancient ruins to being touted as a private party, the opening ceremony at Mohenjo-Daro was criticised for a number of reasons.

While some of the criticism may be justified, credit must be given where it is due.

In a country that does not take pride in its pre-Islamic 5,000-year-old heritage because of rapid Arabisation, the opening ceremony paid rich tribute to Sindhu Kingdom and culture. The tableau at the beginning of the ceremony was slightly provocative as it depicted the pagan culture. But those of us who feel claustrophobic in a society where intolerance for other religions is increasing with every passing moment, it was indeed a treat to watch. Pakistanis should rejoice that a mainstream political party and provincial government are reclaiming our past.

Suhasini Haidar, Foreign Affairs Editor CNN-IBN, was the only Indian journalist at the Mohenjo-Daro opening ceremony. She says that as Indians, they are brought up on the rich history of Indus Valley Civilisation and the wonder that it existed 5,000 years ago but whenever she has spoken to her Pakistani friends about it, they haven’t been so enthused — because their history books haven’t emphasised their heritage quite as much. “To that end, I think Bilawal Bhutto is making an important political statement, by owning this part of Pakistan’s history,” she says.

Haidar feels the Sindh government has succeeded in lightening and brightening the atmosphere that has been sombre because of all the violence.

The festival could certainly have done without the unnecessary controversy surrounding the venue. Saadaan Peerzada, Chief Operating Officer Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, says the look of the venue largely depends on the creativity of the art director. If given a chance, he says, he would have done things differently. “Depending on the space available, I would have preferred to set the stage/entertainment area away from the heritage site, and allowed people to maybe roam around just as they would do if they were visiting Mohenjo-Daro. We have to be very careful when we go into such fragile spaces,” he says.

However, Peerzada hailed the festival as a good initiative taken by the Sindh government and gave them credit for putting up a great show, despite the criticism. “Under the current climate, this is the worst cultural time in Pakistan. Art is not being looked at as a long-term solution. Cultural activities should not be restricted to just one province. Governments need to hold such events in provinces throughout the country. The impact of such events would be greater if such activities/events were promoted. Even organisations such as ours needs funding and sponsorship. Sindh Festival, though an excellent initiative, should not just be used as a political slogan but should be sustained for years to come,” says Peerzada.

Similar thoughts were echoed by singer Ali Aftab Saeed, who performed at the opening ceremony. He feels that the reason why no concerts or other such events are organised by the private sector is because of the high entertainment tax. Saeed says while the Sindh Festival has a political message vis-à-vis countering extremism, all governments — provincial and federal — need to do more in this regard.

When asked how he felt about performing at a huge event like this in the presence of bigwigs like Saeen Zahoor and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Saeed said if it were not for Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, he doubts that youngsters like him and Ali Gul Pir would have been part of the celebrations. “It is all about young and new leadership. There are not many politicians who are active on social media. Since BBZ is quite active on social media, he knows that young artistes like us have a fan following.”

Saeed, who composed the song ‘Chalte jaana’ in just two days, overshadowed other performers at the event.

If truth be told, Rahat Fateh Ali’s performance lacked the energy that Ali Gul Pir and Ali Aftab Saeed provided. Young and hip, these two Alis are certainly going to give music giants a run for their money.

To fight obscurantist forces and their warped ideology, the federal government and all provincial governments need to come together and promote culture. It is being said that privately some politicians of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) have also commended the Sindh Festival and want to emulate it in Punjab. If it is indeed true, the credit for reviving cultural activities in Pakistan should go to the young PPP heir.

(Originally published in TNS)

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