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At the urs of Hussain

Celebrating Shah Hussain’s contributions to the cultural ethos of Punjab

At the urs of Hussain
Mela Chiraghaan. — Photo by Rahat Dar

Actually the month of March should be dedicated to Shah Hussain as he is the leading poet of the Punjabi language and set its poetical canons after the initial outpourings by Baba Fareed and Nanak. He also represented a rebellious spirit which many feel has been pushed to the side in the history and traditions of Punjab as constructed in retrospect.

Like some other artistes and men of letters in history he has assumed a legendary status. And a very big festival, Mela Chiraghaan to celebrate his urs at the height of spring is held in the city of Lahore where thousands of people turn up to pay homage to his contribution to the cultural and intellectual ethos of this area.

Today, this mela is not the most important cultural event in the calendar of the city or the province as it used to be for the reason that people living in the cities have moved away from their roots, and have more contemporary means of connecting with their past and culture. In the age of the internet, other accessories or softwares available to them, they can access it in a reworked or an updated version.

To many a purist, exposed and then nurtured in the way things were about half a century ago, this contemporising appears to be a betrayal of the traditional values. It is true that the mela is not as big as it used to be; for one, the space has sunk considerably as the city has totally engulfed the locality slightly away from the congested urban dwellings, and as people from all over visit the mela in droves (also considered occasions for business activity as huge marketplaces are set up) all melas or urs have a distinct rural feel about them even if held in the cities. Many urbanites are put off by this rural feel as they think that they have struggled to shift away and the fact that they are now residing in a city implies that they have moved up the social ladder. They don’t want to revisit their ‘rustic origins’ or don’t even want to be reminded of it by a visit to a fair where they may be forced to recall their past.

Like some other artistes and men of letters in history he has assumed a legendary status. And a very big festival, Mela Chiraghaan to celebrate his urs at the height of spring is held in the city of Lahore where thousands of people turn up to pay homage to his contribution to the cultural and intellectual ethos of this area.

About three or four decades ago, with the rise of swami worldview it was considered essential to connect to one’s roots, and hence the renewal with one’s own traditions was considered necessary. It was also to think out of the box of your class to be authentic sons of the soil as it was perceived that the urban bourgeoisie had something acquired and hence second-hand about them. With time, probably that way of thinking is not that prevalent anymore, and now even the alternative has to be located within the more so-called modern setting. The traditional can be reprocessed and transformed into a relevant entity for the present day cultural or aesthetic consumption.

The same dilemma exists in relation to music. Many don’t want to be linked to any gharana, deny that they have been tutored by an ustad, and by opting for forms that are not local and imported instruments they try to transcend prejudices traditionally associated with music in this society.

As a stuff of legend has to become a subject for literature/ art, from time to time tales have been weaved and plays have been written about the character Shah Hussain. Najm Hosain Syed wrote Takht Lahore, a literary masterpiece very seldom performed based on the battle of two approaches to human existence, one seeking power and control and the other freedom through absence of want – representing Shah Hussain as one following the later creed.

Azad Theatre staged a play Hussain last week at the Alhamra. Though not the first staging of the play written by Shabbir Ji for it has been produced before as Hussain, the leading role of Hussain was played by Sarfaraz Ansari (one of the prime movers of the Azad Theatre along with the director of the play Malik Aslam). Hussain was cast as a kind, loving character who took to adversity and hardship with grace and patience. This was the price he had to pay for being truthful and upright. The character of Madho was played by Mir Hamza; a relationship that was not erased altogether for the purposes of propriety as it sometimes happens with people we want to see sanitised and rinsed in multiple detergents.

Hussain by Azad Theatre.

Hussain by Azad Theatre.

Additionally, three-day festivities are planned at the Punjab Institute of Language and Culture. The kalaam of Shah Hussain will be rendered, a mushaira will be held and a play will be staged. Kahe Hussain by Art Point was staged earlier at the Alhamra and revolved round his life. His character was shown in various scenes mostly based on instances supposed to be very important in his life – the indictment against him on the basis of violating the shariah and the charges of supporting the insurrection of Dullah Bhatti besides other incidents of lesser import. Written and directed by Khaqan Haider Ghazi, the character of Shah Hussain was made to recite his own verses apposite to the occasion, in other words his poetry and his acts were seen in tandem as if the acts released the fountain of creativity in him.

When the Punjab Institute of Language, Art and Culture was set up about twelve years ago, much was expected of it and it was seen to emulate the successful example of Institute of Sindhology. That this play in their project called Lokai Theatre will be staged is thus a good move that the Institute has also now ventured forth into the field of theatre. Hopefully, this will be an ongoing experience and help to accumulate the skills and the experience of staging good theatre with enthusiasm and professionalism, both evenly balanced.

Sarwat Ali

sarwatali
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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