Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Back to the '80s

Last night I was to attend a Sufi Music Festival organized by the good people of the Rafi-Peer group. I didn’t. Why? It didn’t take place. That seems to be the story of Lahori cultural life of late. To one who came into her teens in the Post-Zia Pakistan of the early ‘90s, this country was an almost-happening place to be in.  In 1989 PTV tentatively shed its mandatory dupatta as a live concert aired on state television featuring Pakistan’s premier pop/rock bands with young people dancing next to the cat-walk style stage. A whole generation of kids watched fascinated as Pakistan’s television ethos became bolder, though not necessarily better, almost overnight. Young people tried to come to grips with a new-found freedom that altered their lifestyles through mixed live concerts. Now going out on a Saturday night did not just mean dining at a staid ‘family restaurant’ or cruising aimlessly on city roads to catch a glimpse of women out shopping in Liberty Market. It could also mean going to the grand brick structure of the Alhamra amphitheatre and seeing Pakistan’s premier bands perform live. These concerts weren’t without their problems, often fights would break out, women had to go with a group of men for fear of being harassed and these things were still by and large testosterone driven.

The Rafi-Peer Theatre Festival single-handedly changed all that. Its combination of puppetry, dance, theatre and music lured families and younger, hipper crowds alike in an atmosphere of cultured festivity. Perhaps by then, a few years of checkered democracy and relative freedom had calmed down young people enough to be able to take cultural public events in stride. The festival’s stellar line-up of local and international groups and its impeccable but unintrusive security also helped, of course. The International Rafi Peer festivals began in 1996 and ran till 2008 till they were abruptly brought to a halt with what was called a ‘cracker’ bomb.

I distinctly remember the night it happened. An almost-full amphitheatre, dotted with men and women sitting on colourful floor cushions, anticipated a leisurely evening of music under the sky in the pleasant November air. A relatively unknown pre-Coke Studio Arieb Azhar had just begun singing when an explosion was heard above the music. It was loud enough for everyone to sit up and take notice but the band kept playing. The second explosion, however, sent the audience in a panic and immediate evacuation was announced by the organizers. I knew on that eerie night as we rushed fearfully to the parking lot that this was possibly the foreseeable end of any International cultural event in Pakistan. This prediction surpassed expectations. It also proved to be the end of large scale Pakistani concerts. The subsequent year also sounded the death knell to International sporting fixtures as the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked right in the heart of Lahore (not far from the Alhamra amphitheatre) in broad daylight thanks to the utter negligence of authorities concerned.

This essentially means, that apart from a sporadic play or two imported from Karachi, I can’t recall a large scale public event that can qualify as entertainment since nearly three years. Faiz’s centenary in February this year did provide a bit of respite, but its invitation only format assured entry only to the well connected, or to corporate customers of sponsoring banks (chew on that irony for a Faiz event).   The announcement for the Rafi-Peer Sufi Music Festival, thus, was greeted with much delight and anticipation. But this is the post war-on-terror Pakistan. Murphy’s laws hold truer here than anywhere else. The raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad resulted in the festival being cancelled due to security fears and fundamentalist backlash. 

I think the country that has most changed in fundamental ways (for the negative) ever since the war on terror moved fully to these shores is Pakistan. Fear and bombings in Lahore have taken us back to the days when the only options for entertainment were food and aimless cruising. Only now I mainly aimlessly cruise online. I hear the LHC is planning to take that privilege away from me soon.

A version of this post was published in the Express Tribune blogs. I would like to add I prefer this version :)


  1. Good stuff ... but it looks like it's been re-written by someone else. Some 'maleness' in the style.

    - Ed. -

  2. Well, this post wasn't touched by anyone but me, so just might be my own 'maleness' shining through.

  3. beautifully written. maleness/femaleness hardly matters

  4. This has left me pretty sad! Let me praise your write up Sabahat, but the issue that's plaguing us has gone way out of hands it seems. I myself feel afraid while going to the cinema even or any public event.

  5. Well said! Beautifully written! I am not fond of reading blogs.. but lemme confess that you really made me tied to it read till the end.. Very Well Written! and really demanding too! Keep writing Ma'am!

  6. I cannot help appreciating your great style of writing Sabahat. Well done and keep it up!

  7. We are really appreciate to you. For maintaining your blog. This is really great job. Please post different news for catch the views.