The Faisalabad Literary Festival has become an annual feature since the last four years. A positive addition to the literary and cultural milieu of the city, business houses have started providing financial assistance to the event.
Faisalabad, once Lyallpur, was where the first textile mill in this part of the subcontinent was established. It was owned by Murli Dhar Shad of Delhi Cloth & General Mills (DCM) who was a respected poet himself. They continued to own it till 1965 when it was declared as enemy property and taken over by the Government of Pakistan. He initiated the holding of a mushaira at the Mills.
With that takeover, the great tradition of holding of annual ‘cultural week’ came to an end. The owners of Lyallpur Cotton Mills were also the hosts of Faisalabad’s cultural week, which comprised an Indo-Pak Mushaira in which leading poets from India like Jigar Moradabadi would also participate. Organisers of the event would ensure that before senior poets took their place on the stage, less well-known, local poets of Lyallpur got a chance to present their poetry. And the people of Lyallpur would anxiously wait for this week-long festival.
After Murli Dhar, the Saigols of Lyallpur tried to imitate them, but failed because they did not possess his richness and level of cultural maturity. In those times, every district of Punjab would organise an annual Horse and Cattle Show which would be accompanied with ‘Lucky Irani circus’, Bali Jatti and Inayat Hussain Bhatti’s theatre. This show would move from one district to the next.
Today, we hold literary festivals of a different kind. The present wave of ‘literary festivals’, although a very productive activity, unfortunately lack the native, local, touch. These festivals gather galaxies of intellectuals from Pakistan and abroad, and present them before the local audience. There is nothing wrong in such festivals’ in fact, they provide the audience with views of people who normally would neither visit nor interact with locals. But, in my humble opinion, if one excludes local talent it defeats the very purpose of these festivals; it is like “staging Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark in the cast!”
The main speakers at the opening session were veteran human rights defender and outstanding writer I. A. Rehman, and Aitzaz Ahsan, a politician, lawyer, poet and writer. Veteran poet Zehra Nigah presided over the festival. Aitzaz Ahsan shared childhood memories of Lyallpur when he would come to spend summer vacations with his aunt. He recalled that in the good old days there were no concrete walls between houses.
He recalled that Lyallpur had very good schools and teachers who would inculcate students to ask questions. Islam was not in danger back then, said the politician. The city had parks, and places for animals to drink water. It had such a safe and secure system that a lost child would return back to his house in the evening. He also recalled the trade union and peasant movement. He said Lyallpur was a district of Bhagat Singh. He also mentioned Barrister Aziz, father of great historian K. K. Aziz, who standardised Heer Waris Shah. In the 1970 election, the Pakistan People’s Party won all seats from this city. He also recalled that he was lodged in Central jail, Faisalabad during the Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD).
He said unfortunately now “one dare not differ”. He said the Indus valley had a great civilisation and it must have died because of intolerance. He recited a couple of stanzas from Afzal Ahsan Randhawa’s poetry “Mein Tay hani Saa Daryawaan Daa, Tarney pay Gai Khal nien Maain”, to describe the ‘Indus man’.
I. A. Rehman talked about 70 years of literature and fine arts. Only he, with his great intellect and vast, rich experience, could take stock of literature and fine arts of such a long period in just 30 minutes. He recalled the contribution of Progressive Writers Associations (PWA) in keeping the flame of freedom of expression high, but those in power had not only banned the Communist Party of Pakistan but also banned PWA. During the regime of dictators, such as Ayub, Zia and Musharraf, writers joined undemocratic leaders for petty benefits.
Rehman sahab also particularly mentioned the contribution made by young Pakistani writers in English fiction, leading writers from all federating units, the contribution of ‘Hussain Naqi Lukhnavi’ for bringing out a Punjabi daily. He said these people produced literature of resistance and spoke about how in every society, students from very early age are encouraged to write and question, “in every society, but Pakistan”.
The human rights defender explained that society and writers are interdependent. He said there was great threat to cultural heritage and “we have to break this vicious circle”. He lamented that even mosques have been divided into sects and now efforts are being made to stop Ahmadis from adopting Muslim names. He said Bulleh Shah, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, Khushal Khan Khattak and other classical writers gave the message of equality of human being.
Zehra Nigah, in her presidential address, said “We want to live and live in a decent way. We have to steer our own way in this whirlwind, nobody would arrive to salvage us. Discipline would emerge from chaos”. She expressed the confidence that good days would definitely come. In the evening, the great Zia Mohyeddin and Ustad Hussain Bakhsh Gullu presented their art, and were at their best.
The second day started with an interview of Zia Mohyeddin who was born at Lyallpur/Faislabad. While talking about his days at Government College, Lahore he said he was forced to join Dramatics Club at the college, although he was part of debating team already. He also narrated the way he had to struggle to make his way in Theatre in the United Kingdom and world. In the absence of Asif Farrukhi, Zia Mohyeddin and Iftikhar Arif were interviewed by Dr Najib Jamal.
Iftikhar Arif said the Asaatza (masters in poetry) had written so much “blasphemous” content that they would have been hanged today. He also recounted the incident of Mirza Yas Yagana in Lucknow which he had witnessed as a child, and recited his poetry.
Great drama writers Haseena Moin and Amna Mufti were interviewed by Asghar Nadeem Syed. Amna Mufti shared the method of ratings on TV channels and its negative impact on art and drama. Salman Shahid and Sania Saeed stated that rating on electronic media has damaged art and drama.
Masood Ashar, Dr Anwaar Ahmed and Dr Tahira Iqbal were also interviewed by Najib Jamal. Dr Anwaar’s book Urdu Afsana: Aik Sadi ka Qisa and Dr Tahira Iqbal’s book Neeli Bar were also launched.
Dr Tahira Iqbal told the audience how she had never been to college, that she did all her studies privately and entered college only as a lecturer. Her fiction was printed after her marriage.
The liveliest part of the second day’s proceedings was the launch of English book Beyond Our Degrees of Separation, Washington Monsoons and Islamabad Blues by Muhammad Hassan Miraj and Judith Ravin. Hassan Miraj was interviewed Ayaz Ahmed. Major Hassan Miraj is a former army officer who had served in the ISPR and then left the army and settled in the UK, writing fiction and makes films. He is the author of Rail Key Seeti. He told the audience that he started writing when he was posted at Siachin, that is when he would write letters to his wife. He also shared that his father’s final letter to him asked him not to marry a particular woman, the same one who is now his wife.
He said he went to Pentagon as part of his military training. He was very surprised to see Faisalabad encircled on a map there and inquired why the city was so important to them. He was told that the biggest number of al-Qaeda members were arrested from Faisalabad.
It would be unfair not to point out that Sarah Hayat, the master of the ceremony, is an untiring woman without whom the Faisalabad literary Festival, now in its fourth year, would be impossible.
One hopes that in the future, the organisers would not disconnect with the local intellectuals, since one can say with authority that Faisalabad is not intellectually barren. A plant which doesn’t have its roots in land does not survive for a long time. Literature festivals should be inclusive, not exclusive.