Some are seeing the Sindh Festival as Bilawal’s attempt at breaking free from the shackles of a reputation that defines him as nothing more than an inheritor of a political dynasty. The ad campaign paints him as a leader of superhuman proportions (as evidenced by the Sindhi Superman logo) while still being a man of the people (the noticeable effort to speak Urdu in the promos, no doubt a reaction to criticisms of his weak command of the language). Karachi has become a city plastered with his image and an aggressive ad campaign made the VIP opening ceremony an event charged with anticipation and intrigue. Then, of course, there was the backlash from archeologists as to the potential damage the ceremony could have on Moenjodaro, a UNESCO world heritage site, only serving to add to the hype.
The opening ceremony was just as star-studded as expected, attended by top Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) officials, with performances by some of the country’s most famous talent. Aside from the musical performances, the night included an intricate laser show, modern dance troupes, enactments of what appeared to be ancient Indus rituals and fashion shows, punctuated by skits. Critics have argued that the program was too contemporary and (ironically) did not highlight enough of the region’s rich cultural history; others contend the dynamic and cutting-edge nature of the show was the perfect way to propel the festival into existence.
[quote]Ali Gul Pir gave Bilawal a varsity jacket embossed with the Sindhi Superman logo[/quote]
Whatever critics may say of Bilawal and his ability to lead, the festival has done its job in one capacity. For the first time he has appeared a leader in his own right, no longer eclipsed by the monolithic figures of his mother and grandfather. Bilawal spent the evening dealing with swarms of reporters and greeting many of the country’s most powerful and wealthy who treated him as though he were running the place, with the expectation that he probably will one day. Nonetheless, he refrained from addressing the audience, choosing instead to remain the guest-of-honor. At one point he was presented with a varsity jacket, embossed with the Sindhi Superman logo by ‘Saaeen’ Ali Gul Pir who donned an identical one. Bilawal immediately put it on, rewarded by adulating cheers from the crowd.
The following evening, the PPP’s chairperson did, however, speak publicly. He briefly addressed the crowd at the launch of the Sindhi art exhibition at Frere Hall in Karachi, thanking the organizer and extolling the country’s young talent. Both the event and Bilawal seemed much more subdued, a stark contrast to the previous night. This strand of the festival included various art installations and performances. The breadth of talent displayed in the exhibition, primarily by contemporary artists, exceeded expectations. Though some Pakistani artists of regions other than Sindh expressed frustration at their exclusion based on arbitrary provincial boundaries, particularly during a time when the country needs, more than ever, to unite than to manufacture more ways to splinter itself.
I talked to Rehana Mangi, one of the artists showcased, and she explained her piece, Kara Gulla or Black Flowers, to me. It consisted of 240 pieces of handmade paper, each uniformly and meticulously embroidered with human hair in the shape of a flower: “I was curious as to why hair attached to the head is considered beautiful and why hair off the head is not, so I was trying to find a way to make fallen hair just as beautiful as when it’s still on the head.” It took her 2-3 years to complete the piece and she used her own hair along with that of her two grandmothers, yielding a multitude of different shades.
On day three I went to investigate Festival City, described as the festival’s “epicenter.” It has taken over a large section of Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim, Pakistan’s largest urban park, and transmuted the bucolic expanse into a strange combination of fairground and bazaar. Dozens of stalls occupied the grounds, selling everything from rugs to honey, with a smattering of farm animals and a token camel. The area was peppered with small stages which featured music specific to the region, played on traditional Sindhi instruments. A few stalls were run by charities promoting philanthropic endeavours, like teaching Sindhi children how to read; though they looked somewhat out of place – particularly next to the larger booths of major sponsors – serving to heighten, rather than quell, public disquiet over the millions of dollars spent on a cultural festival in a country that is home to roughly one in ten of the world’s out-of-school children.
[quote]A few stalls run by charities looked out of place[/quote]
Sponsorship, in and of itself, is an interesting dimension of the festival. The opening ceremony was conspicuously sponsored by Bahria Town, founded by real estate magnate Malik Riaz Hussain, who was embroiled in a national scandal in 2012 for attempting to frame the son of Supreme Court chief justice Iftikhar Chaudry, alleging he received bribes in exchange for favourable rulings from his father. Some attendants felt it imprudent, both on moral and political grounds, to inextricably bind the launch of the festival with such a controversial figure.
Conversely, Festival City prominently featured the sponsor PakOasis, an organization that deals with all things water-related, ranging from desalination to disaster relief. Known for their solar-powered water plants, they pride themselves on corporate social responsibility (CSR), donating plants around the country and installing solar-powered tube wells in rural areas. I talked to an engineer and marketer at the company and they discussed their public-private partnership with the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KSWB), along with many of their CSR initiatives. “We donated that plant right outside the park,” said one, pointing behind them. “And we proudly supply 50-70% of rural Sindh with water, donating many tube wells, for example.” The company has won awards internationally and been a participant in the United Nations Global Compact, which describes itself as a “…strategic policy initiative for businesses that are committed to aligning their operations and strategies…in the areas of human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption.”
As the festival is still in its infancy, the nature of its overall reception remains to be seen. By next week the Karachi Literature Festival, which the Sindh Festival has now absorbed, will have started, invariably adding an intellectualism that critics propound has been missing thus far. More importantly for Pakistan, there is the question of what this does for Bilawal’s image. Will it dispel the notion that he is out of touch with his country or only buttress the belief that he exists in an elite and elitist vacuum?