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Unity in diversity

A festival on the mixed heritage of Pakistan highlighted the need for embracing long-forgotten art forms

Unity in diversity

The region or area that has become Pakistan has a long history, probably one of the longest as history of civilizations go. But, of late, there has been an increasing tendency to create a one state-one culture-one narrative construct. So it was very timely that the Greatness in Diversity Festival was held at a local hotel in Lahore last week by Lok Virsa with Smithsonian Institution and Interactive Resource Centre, emphasising the various streams that have gone into the making of this river.

The diversity is on display everywhere and it surfaces in many shapes and forms, even through the lid of an imposed uniformity. If people speak and express themselves, it is a reflection of their culture. There are so many shades and hues in the vast expanse of the country and the milling numbers that inhabit it. So, it was a positive step when a festival was held to ruminate on the issue of arriving at unity through diversity rather than by its negation; to address and bring under the spotlight this richness.

In the past, many have had complaints about the one-dimensionality of the state narrative and have felt not only neglected but also excluded. The inclusion and their contribution only add to the strengthening of the state rather than weakening it.

There have been many languages with their rich history and literatures; similarly, there have been a wide spectrum of musical forms that invoke some of the deepest visceral responses. It would thus be unnatural to slam one narrative and one justification. Something is amiss when eyes are turned away from diversity and plurality; it betrays the weakness of the state. It is more an act of cover-up or a manufactured reality or one that is made up to shield the weaknesses rather than to give opportunities for the people to express themselves without prescriptions.

The aim of the conference was to not only make the participants more aware of the importance of diversity but also what is being lost at great pace due to the changes in technologies. It was to make conscious of what civilization loses and with it its members. The loss is not contained by losing an instrument or a particular sonic feel but also an aspect of culture which makes the culture unique and unsubstitutable. The aim was also to train and educate the participants on how to preserve these cultural variations Thus, the mandate of this conference was to “duly provide for creating opportunities and training the stakeholders of culture and heritage in best practices and methodologies by the pioneers who have managed to preserve the traditional knowledge that we have inherited from our forefathers from generation-to-generation”.

Instruments on display

Allied to it was the exhibition Lost Chord, basically a photographic display of the musical instruments that are being lost to history. It is sad that some of these instruments no longer have a player to create music out of them. The exponents, if any left, are not asked to perform and thus have lost their touch and faith in their own abilities. Borendo, jaltrang, dilruba and chang are some of these instruments. But some of the instruments do have exponents, though dwindling in numbers. The artistes who performed were the famous shehnai player Ustad Sona, pakhavaj player Ustad Qamar, sarangi player Dr Taimur Khan and sarinda player Ejaz Sarhadi. In this conference, the performances by musicians trained in the various music traditions of Pakistan were central to this day-long event, and were complemented by other relevant talks and cultural demonstrations that emphasise the cultural plurality that exists within the region.

The conference was rounded off by a performance of folk theatre by Fazal Jutt. Son of Ashiq Jutt, he is the torchbearer of a traditional theatrical form that revolves round the folk tales that are rendered in music. These can be loosely labelled as ballads for the emphasis is more on the musical rendition of the tales rather than other requirements like acting and development of the plot. These theatrical forms have been hugely popular in Punjab and Sindh, especially on the occasions of melas and urs. But in the advent of the digital age these too are disappearing at a rapid pace. One form, though in an altered manner, exists in the urban areas, a traditional and contemporary meshed as one with loads of comments on the political situation. It relies more on improvisation and ad libbing, rather than music with dance, added to make it more savoury for the people. The music consists of film compositions rather than traditional folk ones.

The speakers particularly discussed methodologies to present intangible elements of heritage in museum displays and strategies to engage audience for greater awareness. The various communities, ethnic groups and linguistic variations are all part of the cultural mix, and it is important that their contribution and artistic expression is included in that cultural mix.

In the past, many have had complaints about the one-dimensionality of the state narrative and have felt not only neglected but also excluded. The inclusion and their contribution only add to the strengthening of the state rather than weakening it. It is about time the entire problem or issue is looked from the other end of the telescope. This was emphasised by experts and speakers time and again, and these included cultural expert Ponstsion, of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, Salima Hashmi and Usman Peerzada among others.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

One comment

  • It is very heart-warming to read about the ‘diversity’ Conference and the ‘lost- chord’ Exhibition held in Lahore. The preservation of art and culture in all their variety is imperative if Pakistan is not to impoverish the life of its citizens. Once the borders with East Punjab open up, cultural preservation will receive great fillip.

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