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Art amidst chaos

After a long gap, the 15th edition of Mystic Music Sufi Festival was finally held at Alhamra Cultural Complex, Qaddafi Stadium

Art amidst chaos
— Photos by Rahat Dar

The danger to civil life in Pakistan is not any less as was amply demonstrated by the bomb blast just outside the Punjab Assembly Building a few days back, and it is courageous of the performing artistes, who have been the prime targets of terrorists in the past, to be holding festivals on a regular basis. As things appeared to be treading towards normalcy, it was decided a couple of years ago that a bigger festival will be held at the venue.

Still, there were many doubts about whether the return to the original venue was a wise step, because the arts — particularly the performing arts — have been victimised in the last decade or so, and the festival held here in 2008 was actually targeted. So far so good, because, the festivals including Youth Festivals, had passed without any untoward incident.

The All Pakistan Music Conference last year had returned to Bagh-e-Jinnah Open Air Theatre, the venue that it has inhabited for all those years but then reverted as the last conference was held in the relatively more secure precincts of Alhamra on the Mall. The Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop has held festivals in their own compound on Raiwind Road, for example at the Puppet Museum/Peeru’s Café, and also at Alhamra on the Mall in the past eight years or so in a constant effort to imagine a secure environment that has eluded the country on the whole in the past decade or more.

In desperately keeping the flame of the performing arts alive, the air of anticipated threat hangs like a pall, and when the festival ends, without any incident, there is a huge sight of relief. It is seen as an escape from imminent attack. It is a strange condition probably similar to what soldiers in battle experience as every moment for them holds the possibility of violent death.

What one missed were the foreign artistes who visited and performed in large numbers in the previous festivals. Festivals like these have been held to showcase to the world that life has to go on despite grave and genuine concerns, now voiced openly all over the world. The local artistes and the audiences did prove in the past that they could counter the concerns and fears that have gone in attendance of such events. Given the shrinking funding for the arts in the country, and the continuing difficult security situation, this will become a greater challenge for such organisations in the future.

Some of the performers rendered their musical forms according to the understanding of what urban audiences in places like Lahore appreciate.

Live music performances or festivals have a value all their own. These cannot be substituted by recordings or playing of music which is not live. Besides the significance of live music as being rendered in original (for all live music is original in contemporary times), a composition brought back to life, it also provides an opportunity for the audience to come together at one place. It becomes a meeting point for the artistes and the people with similar interests. Other than the great social potential of such get-togethers that foster feeling of wellbeing and commonality of purpose, they also motivate the performer to do that bit extra on the occasion.

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These days very few vocalists can perform live because the post-production input has increased tremendously in proportion. The end result one hears in a recording is hugely mediated technologically, and the performance is reduced to just miming on stage. Mostly in live performances, the singer or the vocalist is only lip-synching while the same recorded version is being played over the sound system. In the case of various groups only prancing, hopping and gesticulation is live, the music all pre-recorded.

This may be the future of all arts — as the increasing technological input is irreversible, and, perhaps, greater creativity will go into the handling of ever-improving, ever-changing technology in the years to come.

As in the past festivals, the artistes participating in the 15th Mystic Music Sufi Festival held at Alhamra Cultural Complex, Qaddafi Stadium (a two-day event commencing from Feb 11, 2017) hailed from various regions of the country — Gilgit Baltistan to Balochistan to Cholistan and interior Sindh besides the quasi-urbanised areas of the Punjab and Sindh.

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The artistes included Suraiya Khanum, Javed -Babar Niazi, Mai Dhai, Akbar Khamiso Khan, Zarsanga, Wahdat and Husnain, Hadiqa Kiani, Akhtar Chanal Zahri, Sain Zahoor, Ali Sethi, Krishan Lal Bheel, Areeb Azhar, Shah Jo Raag Fakirs, Bushra Marvi, Chand-Sooraj and Bazm-e-Liqa, and qawwals — Rizwan-Moazzam, Mehboob Mian Meeri. The dholias included Pappu Saeen, Gunga Saeen and Shaukat Saeen. Wahab Shah did his contemporary dance numbers and Nighat Chaudhry performed a dance number with three other dancers on the number currently made famous by Abida Parveen ‘Tera karam hai aaqa’.

New to the festival, Wahdat and Husnain belong to the city of Baba Farid Ganj Shakar; they learnt classical music from Ustad Ghulam Hussain Shaggan and Ustad Badar-uz-Zaman. Passion for spirituality and sufi music led them to perform in the prestigious event of Sufi Festival. Their father, D. Niaz, and elder brother, Tohed Ahmad, a devotee of Sufism and Sufi music, taught them the music initially in their childhood.

Some of the performers rendered their musical forms according to the understanding of what urban audiences in places like Lahore appreciate. By interjecting lyrics of languages widely understood and some contemporary instrumentation, they were attempting to give a colourisation of modernity. But in niche festivals, it is expected of these performers to be as close to their pristine repertoire as possible.

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There were a fair percentage of young people in the audience, and it appeared that their musical taste has been conditioned by the Coke Studio. All the names or numbers which had appeared in that programme were warmly, even ecstatically received while others were countered with probing curiosity and lingering doubt. This uniformity of taste can be a good thing but extremely limiting — because it holds you back from delving in sonic experience and improving the taste further.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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