Whither culture?

By Zubeida Mustafa

WHEN Ameena Saiyid organised the first Karachi Literature Festival in 2010 she had hoped it would inspire others to hold their own festivals and thus start a movement. She succeeded to an extent. A number of literature festivals are now being held in the country. Ameena was then the managing director at Oxford University Press (OUP) and had the resources and clout to initiate an undertaking of this nature. She also had Asif Farrukhi by her side to indigenise the festival. Literature from our own languages made the KLF more inclusive.

In 2019 and 2020, when Ameena was no more at OUP, she used her experience and creative skills, as well as her social network, to launch the Adab Festival. Then came Covid-19 that rudely interrupted all activities including educational and sociocultural events.

In the gloom that pervaded the lockdown period and immediately after, a silver lining appeared in the pandemic cloud. Technology — especially digital — responded to the challenge by developing new tools to facilitate remote communication and enabled online activities offering opportunities of a different kind. This was unveiled last week when a collaborative venture between the Bradford Literature Festival and the Adab Festival was announced.

Developed and copyrighted by BLF, its purpose is to train the “producers of tomorrow”. The programme has the twin objective of empowering women from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds in Bradford and Pakistan, who face “gender-based discrimination as well as economic barriers to careers in the arts and culture sector”.

Cultural festivals have educational importance.

Ten women, five each from Bradford and Pakistan, were selected for the six-months training online. They were mentored and tutored in various fields such as digital technology, curating, budgeting, raising funds and in commissioning moderators, artists, performers etc. It was, in a nutshell, the A to Z of producing a cultural festival.

The five online programmes they produced on diverse issues have a professional touch indicating a labour of love. One presumes that these women have acquired the skills to produce cultural festivals on-site once the pandemic ends and events resume. Gradually, we shall have skilled producers from various regions of Pakistan who can organise cultural events in their own communities.

This idea is indeed exciting. For many reasons, culture is a sector of national life that has been badly neglected in Pakistan. The fact is that culture has a critical role to play in the lives of the people. It is all-encompassing and determines the lifestyle, language, dress, food habits and attitudes of the people more than anything else. Cultural festivals — be their theme music, poetry, literature, theatre or the performing arts — are of immense value. The entertainment/leisure dimension aside, they have a profound impact on a community. They create harmony, cohesion and, when they are inclusive, a sense of equality and goodwill.

Cultural festivals also have an educational importance especially in our country where governments have traditionally gagged the media to ensure that the people are given only that information which suits the establishment. To ensure the “destruction of the past”, to use historian Eric Hobsbawm’s words, the cloak of censorship extends to textbooks and the cinema as well. Festivals also serve as “social mechanisms that link contemporary experience to that of the earlier generations”. That is why we suffer from historical amnesia. Small wonder a university student asked his history teacher what she meant by East Pakistan that she often talked about in her lectures. Cultural festivals, had they been held regularly, would have been constant reminders of the past and would have filled the void mentioned by Hobsbawm.

The BLF-Adab project we were told about last week has, among other things, a goal to create a cultural movement in the country. To make festivals a popular feature of life, the cohorts who were trained and hailed from diverse backgrounds would naturally be expected to connect with local communities. One presumes they know their culture and language well. That alone provides inclusivity to any community-based activity. One of the sessions produced by two cohorts was an excellent example. ‘Breaking Musical Frontiers’ was entirely in Urdu, understood by the Baloch community of Lyari, Karachi, and included two rap artists from the area. As Khalid Malik, the moderator put it, ‘adab’ means freedom. In this case, it was most apt because rap is the music of protest.

The biggest challenge will of course be financial. It is time we learnt to be as self-sufficient as possible. This can be done by avoiding lavish expenditure, charging a modest entrance fee, raising money through crowd-sourcing to pay artists and artisans and obtaining facilities such as grounds and halls free of charge from their owners. Thus the organisers will have greater autonomy in chalking out their programme.

Source: Dawn