Khyaal Festival attendees enjoy the pleasant November air
One would have thought the Lahori literary pie too small to be sliced two ways, and one would have thought right judging from the turnout at last weekend’s Khyaal Festival of Arts and Literature. Marketed less aggressively than the LLF eight months ago and sprung without warning upon a city yet to wake up to its annual winter quarter of cultural activity, the festival had little time to announce itself before it had come and gone, resulting in what appeared like lifest fatigue.
First I heard of the festival was from a writer friend invited to conduct a session. Second and third I heard of it was also from writer friends invited to conduct sessions; that is how small the world of English fiction writers and readers in Lahore is. In this scenario sustaining two large-scale events of a similar nature doesn’t seem feasible, unless the smaller one distinguishes itself in ways the one with greater money and support cannot perceive.
Mohsin Hamid and Mira Sethi:
Despite all efforts to wake up early on a Saturday the first session I managed to attend started at 2PM on day 1. Conducted by Mira Sethi, this well-attended session was surprisingly enlivened by Mohsin Hamid’s wit and persistent refusal to answer anything straightforwardly. Surprising, because I had never quite imagined Hamid as a wit, having read Moth Smoke a decade or so ago; a book I don’t particularly recall for its humour. Mohsin met the articulate and well prepared Mira’s desire to dabble in political commentary with disarmingly amorphous yet well thought out positions on a variety of issues. A good hour for Mohsin fans and non-fans alike.
Manto and Faiz’s grandson:
Readings from Manto turned out to be Salman Shahid sitting in a weak pool of light on a darkened stage reading a Manto short story off a page, accompanied by a sitar-player arbitrarily weaving in and out of the narrative. Considering last year’s stellar performances by Naseeruddin Shah’s theatrical troupe that brought Ismat Chughtai’s stories to life in the same hall, this unrehearsed fumbling was rather a sorry affair. English literary festivals insistent on inserting token Manto, Faiz and Intizar Husain sessions in the name of Urdu representation need to put more thought into making them more engaging.
Slipping out of Hall 1, I went into the concurrent session between Musharraf Ali Farooqui and Ali Madeeh Hashmi called ‘Micro Narratives’. Ali Madeeh, grandson of Faiz Ahmed Faiz is a psychiatrist and writer with a debonair air, the sartorial elegance of an 18th Century English nobleman and Punjabi-inflectioned Urdu curiously dissonant with the rest of his demeanour – the very embodiment of the Faiz-Alys legacy. One would have liked to hear more of him; as it was, Farooqui’s talk of micro-narratives goaded my Twitter-shaped attention span to quit the hall for the open air.
Outdoor stalls sold Lahori doodad: kettles and mugs painted with truck art; hand-knotted carpets, paintings, and some of the few books I saw at the venue (at education NGO Simorgh’s booth) – all looking a bit wistful despite the loud music’s attempts at masking the forlorn air of a festival lacking attendees. Sunday, though, saw a lot more milling about this area when young intellectual aspirants inadvertently walked abreast placard carrying participants of a ‘Dengue mukaao’ campaign sponsored by the Punjab government and spearheaded by Zakoota from Ainak Waala Jin.
Feryal Gauhar and Intizar Husain
‘Since I have worked in the Shahi Mohalla…which is not to say I operate from there…’ studded with such self-deprecating witticisms, Feryal Gauhar’s was a delightful session that Raza Rumi was wise and experienced enough to allow Gauher to take charge of. Never having heard her speak before, nor having seen ‘Tibbi Gali’, clips from which she showed during the session, I particularly enjoyed this one.
Raza Rumi talks to fans before the launch of his book ‘Delhi by Heart’
By the end though I did slip out to attend the last fifteen minutes of Khaled Ahmed and Intizar Husain in Hall 1. Expecting neither to be particularly stimulating, a notion based on my aversion to dry prose and abstract symbolism in short stories, I was taken aback by my own ignorance. In an intellectually sophisticated exchange Intizar discussed the artificial divide between Hindi and Urdu, questioned whether the term ‘saqaafti yalghaar’ (cultural invasion) has any meaning and insisted that if it does then Pakistan’s cultural invasion of India is as impactful as India’s cultural invasion of Pakistan (albeit committing the crucial fallacy along the way of equating Urdu only with Pakistan). Discussing Iqbal’s misra, ‘shamsheer-o-sanaa avval, taaoos-o-rubaab aakhir’ (sword and hymn first, zither and lute last) he said the West had proven this notion wrong by making concurrent cultural and military progress. This segued into Khalid Ahmed’s musings on what shape our culture would take in the wake of a countrywide consensus in favour of the Taliban, a doomsday scenario Intizar didn’t yet find credible.
Pakistani film and television:
Irritants like moderator Shehnaz Sheikh’s cluelessness about the debate surrounding Waar aside, Bilal Lashari’s presence and the audience’s ability to question him directly made the ‘Waar and Main Hoon Shahid Afridi’ session a compelling one, though organizers need to take active control when audience members’ ‘questions’ turn into lengthy, self-serving monologues, the bane of all such events.
Amir Munawar, Vassay Chaudhry, Shehnaz Sheikh, Kamran Lashari and Bilal Lashari taking audience questions
Vassay Chaudhry, script writer of Main Hoon Shahid Afridi, rued not being able to turn the film into a sentimental India vs. Pakistan match for lack of a bigger budget. Lashari said his success confirmed that a majority of Pakistanis agreed with Waar’s world view. While both these gentlemen have the right to pander to public tastes and exploit them for commercial gain it was hard not to be disappointed by the hardboiled cynicism of artists so young.
Sarmad Khoosat in next day’s session on Pakistani drama was more willing to self-analyse, defending himself not by pointing to commercial imperatives but by talking of small acts of defiance such as the refusal to include dialogues against certain forms of art in his commercially successful play Shehr-e-Zaat.
Sarmad Khoosat, Asghar Nadeem Syed, Haseena Moin and Sarmad Sehbai at the Pakistani Television Drama session
Farida Khanum and Ali Sethi ended the festival with a session that was undoubtedly its highlight. Hall 1 finally filled up to full capacity where a resplendent Farida Khanum sang many of her best-loved ghazals A cappella. Ghulam Ali who had come as an audience member was called on to the stage by the moderator as a mark of respect This made for a slightly too-many-singers-spoil-the-concert scenario but Farida Khanum’s bursts of singing made all other facts dwindle into insignificance. Spontaneous applause from the audience, talk of Radio Pakistan, Z A Bokhari, the evolution of ghazal singing in Pakistan, anecdotes about the recently deceased Reshma and Sethi’s tracing of both Ghulam Ali and Farida Khanum’s musical histories to the eight hundred year old tradition of Hazrat Amir Khusro turned this session into a truemehfil.
Farida Khanum delights the audience
The Khyaal Festival produced value by bringing the debates surrounding Pakistani literature and performing arts to a platform other than English newspapers, though the real task for any such festival is to take these voices to a truly diverse set of audiences. Neither the LLF nor the Khyaal Festival have yet shown much interest in tapping public school and university students to come and participate; to listen to concepts and ideas they would be hard pressed to access in the mainstream television and Urdu press. The real challenge for both festivals lies in that direction.
Published in The Friday Times on 8th November, 2013