Friday, March 8, 2013

Sufi Music Festival at Peeru's

To say that Lahore seems to be slowly recovering from the terrorist attacks that ground all its cultural activity to a halt a few years ago would be to tempt fate, and if there is one thing I have learnt as a Pakistani, it is to keep optimistic hopes for the future to a minimum. Luckily for us, the people at the Rafi-Peer group have always held a less pessimistic view of things, remaining constantly involved in carving a livable present for the people of Lahore.

After the initial shock of cracker bomb blasts at the World Performing Arts Festival at Alhamra Cultural Complex that brutally ended a decade of vibrant International and local performances, the Rafi Peer people took most of their work to their outlying café, Peeru’s, which  is where their latest Mystic Sufi Music Festival was held. Peeru’s is a long trek for most Lahoris, so we got out early on the second day of the festival and reached well before time to a now fortressed Peeru’s. Last time I had been it was a charming, open space on the outskirts of the city. Now it is sealed on all sides with high, concrete walls and huge metal doors. Hazards of making a living through art in the ‘cultural capital’ of the city.

I was glad to find that once inside, the open grounds, wrought iron chairs and macabre puppet décor still retained their allure. Walking past shops selling quirky folk trinkets we arrived at the clearing for the festival itself, the stage swathed with bales of cloth in Alif Laila fashion, topped with a small dome. Opting for the farshi nashist in front and watching people trickle in slowly, we were assured by the organizers that the evening would start on time regardless. Exactly at eight, the first qawwals, whose names were unfortunately left unannounced, began proceedings. Particularly unfortunate since they were better than many of the advertised acts that figured on the festival brochures. Their one qawwali, a mashup of a Ni Mayn Jogi De Naal and the ever popular Akhiyaan Udeekdiyaan, proved an impressive beginning to the show.

The last strains of their harmonium mingled with Usman Peerzaada’s voice welcoming the crowd to The Mystic Sufi Music Festival, the synonymous sufi and mystic probably cobbled together to provide dual protection against the satanic influences of just plain old folk music, and to make the festival palatable to diverse audiences. This cynicism was frequently upended by the four days of music itself that provided a robust blend of spirituality, romance, heretcism and playfulness in a potent subcontinental mix honed over centuries. While the organizers may have felt the need to speak the rhetoric of Islam to appease the ghosts of potential terrorists lurking in the shadows, the crowd responded equally enthusiastically to both ‘Allah Hoo’ and ‘Sharaabi Mayn Sharaabi’.

The charming Bushra Marvi from Sind, dressed in a psychedelic, Shazia Khushkesque traditional ghagra, was the second act that night. Her voice, however, could not quite live up to the expectations raised by her striking appearance, though in choosing the familiar ‘Maahi yaar di gharoli’ she managed to elicit some response from the half -capacity crowd. Zarsaanga, the KPK stalwart also seemed lacklustre, partially because the rock concert speakers often overpowered her melody. They sound system seemed particularly excessive on a day the venue wasn’t full to capacity.

Shaukat Dholya from Chiniot performed next with his drumming partner. What a delicious name that, encompassing his passion, profession and identity, a living embodiment of the sufi concept of oneness: Ranjha Ranjha karday ni mayn aapay ranjha hoee. It is impossible to imagine a similar union of music and being in the western musical tradition, where a rockstar by the name of David Singer or John Drummer sounds like an absurdity.  Usually percussion alone leaves me a bit cold, especially if unaccompanied by a more melodious instrument, but the peaks and troughs of Shaukat’s beats created an elaborate, transporting rhythm that echoed boundlessly without being monotonous. The two dholiyaas came together on the stage, foreheads nearly meeting, beating their drums each to each in a perfectly synergetic visual and stylistic crescendo. As if this wasn’t enough, Shaukat added another layer of spectacle to an already spectacular performance, swiveling his drum around his neck like a hula-hoop, then adding his partner’s in a magnificent conjuring feat that combined spinning himself, his drums and his beat in flawless harmony.

The only international participant of the festival, the Syrian Ahmed Altir from Aleppo joined the two drummers next with a graceful dance reminiscent of Turkish whirling dervishes. Ahmed’s romantic foreignness and more elegant, but no less skillful whirling, made for an engrossing contrast with the earthy dhamaal dancers of sub-continental shrines, but his biggest draw was a light-bulb dress with components that could be taken off to twirl umbrella-like above his head in varying degrees of difficulty. Ahmed got warm response from the crowd and he was the only artist to perform on all four days of the festival.

Saturday and Sunday saw the place buzz with a more festive feel as visibly greater numbers turned up over the weekend. Despite that, it was hard to shake off the feeling that deprived of the grand cultural stage of the Alhamra, the festival had been robbed of a lot of its magic and reach. Nonetheless, a group of first time festival attendees sat on my left and giggled away, hushing each other from time to time in a suitable display of coltishness and reverence. A girl with gorgeous long curls banged her head to Mithu and Goonga Saaein’s drums and in the grand old tradition of Pakistani parenting 4-year-olds frolicked around the lawns at midnight on a Sunday. More than the somewhat insipid performance turned in by Pappu Saeen on the third day, Goonga and Mithu Saaeen captivated the audience on the last day, exciting the audience into clapping and smiling and creating a communion of strangers that is becoming increasingly difficult to experience in this city of confined spaces and suspicious insularity.
Of my favourite acts of the next two days, one was the saarangi player, Israr Nabi Bukhsh.  Saarangi is considered a difficult instrument and is on the verge of extinction due to a lack of patronage. The festival brochure stated this fact but despite that the sarangi player was only given one song to play. He chose the popular tune Dama Dam Mast Qalandar but a bias against instrumentals by a strongly lyrical populace meant the performance was perceived as merely an instrumental filler which people used as an opportunity to catch up with their smart phones. A pity, but an expected response in an age where folk music needs to be served with healthy dozes of fusion and glasses of Coke in order to be noticed.
Saaein Zahoor, a crowd puller, was captivating with his Toomba but a bit overshadowed by some of the other spectacular performances in the festival. Also perhaps because the more commercially successful sufi singers have been commercialized by Coke Studio but the likes of The Shajo Rag Faqirs who have been performing at the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in the traditional manner that was created by the Shah himself 400 years ago and which they consider a sacrilege to tamper with, retain a more ‘exotic’ charm.
Surrayya Khanum was another easily recognizable face who delivered a surprisingly soulful rendition of Maae Ni Mayn Kinnu Aakhaan followed by Bulleh Shah’s poetry that never fails to be relevant to our current situations:

Haaji loak Makkay val jaanday, saaday dil vich nau sau Makka
Vichay Haaji, vichay gaaji, vicha chor uchakka

(Haajis go to Mecca but I have Mecca within my heart
Haji, sinner, thief, pickpocket all reside within me)

The heavily decked, sinewy Krishan lal Bheel from the deserts of Sind and the light, feminine sounds of the Bazm-e-Liqa troupe from Hunza, Chitral and Gilgit showcased two opposite spectrums of our land’s diversity. While PTV had for years tried to foster this kind of unity through provincial dance tableaus, the organic performers of this festival did a lot more to bring home to me the vastness of Pakistani cultures. Akhtar Chinaar Zehri’s Balochi, Bazme-e-Liqa’s Burushuski and all manners of strange languages, cultures, dresses and music all a part of Pakistan that from Lahore seems like a homogenized country solely obsessed with politics and revolutions. That is what the Rafi-Peer people have always done remarkably, opened my eyes to a world beyond my own, from a time when they brought artists from all over the world to perform theatre in Lahore tonow that they have been restricted to showcasing only local talent. A lot has been said about their alleged financial fraud due to which they have lost all sponsorship and had to curtail the list of performances from abroad;  all I know is they are one of the few who have kept Lahore’s cultural identity alive over the decades, and for that alone I am indebted to them.


No comments:

Post a Comment