The Lahore Literary Festival has been succeeded by a string of events and activities in Lahore bespeaking a notion of citizenship and community which encourages one to think affectively beyond the confines of class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. This hotbed of activity – an instantiation of the mantra beloved of Lahoris; “Lohr Lohr ay” and “Jinnay Lohr naee vekheya o te jamaaya ee naeen” (roughly translated from Punjabi as: “Lahore is after all, Lahore” and “She who hasn’t seen Lahore hasn’t fully lived”)—reeks of an inbred provincial pride centered on belonging to the ancient city of Lahore in Pakistan’s most populous and powerful province, Punjab. Nevertheless, such a tribal sentiment paradoxically allows for an expansiveness of spirit with resonance beyond the many gates of Lahore, as exhibited in the waves of feverish cultural activism that have swept folks of varied backgrounds into a whoosh-y embrace these past several weeks.
The first of these “waves” to engulf the city most definitely connected the local to the global in the series of symposia, speeches, plays, skits and songs performed all week prior to, and culminating in the solidarity march celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8th. The kick-off event on March 4th was organized at PILAC (the Punjab Institute of Arts and Culture in Lahore), by a loose-knit organisation of feminist groups calling themselves the Feminist Collective. It was endearing to witness young women and men working together to ready the venue for the onslaught of a diverse and large audience of students from local institutions, alongside activists from surrounding towns and villages engaged in struggles for economic justice in their locales against vested interests representing the powerful landed elite of the region. The poems, songs, skits, exhortational speeches and culminating play of the evening directed by Huma Safdar – whom I’ve known since the 1980s when she was part of a pro-democracy, leftist street theatre collective called Punjab LokRehas (Folkways) – were presented by a wide range of young people who spoke in Punjabi but also English and Urdu .The opening song was a cover of the feminist anthem, “You Don’t Own Me” sung beautifully by a female student to the accompaniment of a guitar played by a young man. It all included regular shout-outs to “comrades” from provinces other than the Punjab, including Pakhtun and Baloch brethren. The class composition of the audience and performers and speakers was similarly mixed — from elite English-medium students to working class and peasant leaders speaking Punjabi — whilst the openly queer performativities on display in transgender and lesbian poetry and stand-up comedy routines was a welcome new opening-out into the heterogeneity of our shared world beyond the cliches of a uniform (and uniformly repressed) citizenry. The regular salutations of a “Laal Salaam” (red salaam) by a vocal section of the audience that punctuated the air after almost every performance and speech, reminded one of the ongoing appeal of left progressive politics to an important cross-section of society in Pakistan, which one ignores at one’s peril.
This inspirational program was followed a few days later by the solidarity march spearheaded by women’s and workers’ rights activists belonging to both the older generation of WAF (Women’s Action Forum) as well as the younger ones coalescing around the Feminist Collective which has chapters in all four provinces of the country; red flags representing the leftist Awami Workers Party were prominently on display, and many of the young women I’d seen at the previous event were also members of this left political party. We marched from the working-class locale of Mozang Chungi to Charing Cross, and from there I dashed off to see the opening film of the two-week-long festival of cinema and performance, the “AKS Minority Film Festival” at LUMS university that evening, followed by month-long screenings, performances and talks at various other venues. This festival occurred simultaneously all over Pakistan, its mission to introduce Asian cinema dealing with challenges faced by minority groups excluded from citizenship rights on the basis of their class, ethnic and sexual orientations, to Pakistani audiences. The transgender community of Pakistan is an active component of this festival, and their synergy with the Feminist Collective was on display in the confluence of activities connecting the International Women’s Day with the AKS festival.
Much of the AKS festival has perforce been an underground phenomenon, with organisers and audiences drawn largely from groups not visible to elites of the country. In similar fashion, while the annual Nowruz Festival – held on March 18th at a student organisation building located near Barkat Market in a middle class neighborhood of Lahore – was organised by a member of the privileged classes, its target audience and participants are students representing a wide variety of ethnic, class and regional backgrounds. The stated purpose of the annual event — which celebrates the rites of spring in a festival rooted in the Zoroastrian faith — is to connect Pakistanis across their regional and ethnic divides in a non-sectarian celebration that is rooted in diverse communities that span the region beyond the borders of Pakistan itself. While women were few in attendance, and the dance performances mostly male, I was happy to see women dancing in the Punjabi group. Students I interviewed said that as a result of this festival, much ignorance about their particular ethnic group has been reduced in the majority Punjabi community of their institutions.
Waves of feverish cultural activism have swept Lahoris of varied backgrounds into a whoosh-y embrace these past several weeks
From this festival of inter-ethnic dance and food, I dashed off again to a qawwali by the superb Sami Qawwals of Karachi, singing inside old Lahore’s most beautiful sacred space, the Wazir Khan mosque built during the time of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century. This event — conjoining the sacred space of Islamic prayer with the Sufi-inspired tradition of subcontinental popular and secular music of this region — put on display again how a local musical language becomes global by transcending borders of all kinds; the deference of a young male shagird from an elite background to his ustad Sami sahib, for whom he served as interlocutor and translator throughout the evening, was an important gesture of respect that reversed the usual class hierarchy in which musicians occupy an inferior place. The location, within the Walled City of Lahore, drew attention to the intrusion of urban elites like ourselves into a space largely inhabited now by the lower middle classes, the petty shopkeepers and their families, some of whom could be seen peering down from their small residential windows, at the by-invitation-only audience of the Lahore Art Biennale under whose auspices this evening of sublime music had been organised. Clearly, the bulk of the audience comprised folks who were visitors to this part of the city, driven in by our chauffeurs from our suburban locales, comparable to Westchester residents of NY driving in for a night of exotic entertainment at the Apollo in Harlem. Yet, as I learned later, effort has been made to include local residents in the projects of urban planning and restoration of old monuments here, including regular qawwali nights which are free and open to all. How ideal it would have been to have the Biennale qawwali similarly accessible!
The truth is: it is always the wealthy elite with their crowd-control measures, on whom artists have depended for patronage to keep their art alive. Nonetheless,the Biennale’s inaugural event was held at the Lahore Fort which was open to the public for viewing the work of several prominent Pakistani and Pakistani-diasporic artists. The highlight was a computer-generated screening of Shahzia Sikander’s richly layered, visual and sonic feast for the senses, “Disruption as Rapture.” Her moving, gorgeously-hued painted images drew on the never-ending well of the miniature Persian tradition, but challenged its formal preciousness by expanding, deconstructing, then reconstructing anew, a landscape evoking alike the royal and the plebeian, the human and the beastly, the world of nature and of culture, setting the universe adrift in motion graphics to challenge such binarisms and borders, concretising only to dissolve them in front of our eyes, whilst a sonic coloruta embodied in the vocal harmonies and dissonances of Du Yun, Ali Sethi and a bevy of children belonging to musician families of the inner city, washed waves of magic over a diverse audience grappling the mystery of creativity.
Sikander, a native Lahori and a global citizen who lives in New York, said in her opening remarks, “the world has no borders.” One hopes that as these worlds of art and culture coalesce to remind us of the glorious and varied civilisational heritage of this region, we might knit these discourses productively to answer the more secular needs of an always already heterogenous citizenry that needs to erase its own internal class, gender, sexual borders and boundaries to usher in a globalisation paradigm from below, initiated by the Global South. Sikander’s enfolding of the less affluent inner-city children of Lahore in her installation creates art for life’s sake, speaking to the egalitarian promise of such a moment of hope.