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Withering melas

Fears of security and close to no support from the governments has resulted in age-old festivals becoming a shadow of their former glorious past

Withering melas

Usually, programmes of music are held with the onset of spring in a city that has not really forgotten to celebrate its festivals, which in more cases than one are aligned to the seasons. Basant, the primary festival to celebrate spring with the splash of colour in the attire and kaleidoscopic kite flying, has become a casualty of our own puritanic exclusivity, couched in the trumped up fears of public safety.

Last week, the two-day Sangeet Mela held at Alhamra in Lahore brought the young and not so young on one platform. On the first day of the mela, Ustad Hamid Ali Khan, Tarranum Naz, Riaz Nadeem, Aman Ali, Shujaat Bobby, Saima Akhtar, Muhammad Arshad, Shafaq Ali, Ejaz Ali, and Shaffat Awan, and on the second day Ghulam Abbas, Nida Faiz, Farhana Arshad, Farwa, Abdul Rauf, Shabnam Tahir, Inayat Babar, Imran Shaukat, Asif Javed and Riaz Qadri performed to full houses.

Ustad Hamid Ali Khan, Tarranum Naz and Ghulam Abbas are recognized vocalists and have been performing for the last 50 odd years. They are the examples which the younger vocalists and performers are supposed to emulate, so it was good that the new performed with the established to give the semblance of continuity.

It may be stressed, however, that the moment these established performers begin to sing they are also accosted by the various farmaishes from the audiences, mostly of their popular numbers. This onslaught of farmaish can be a very limiting factor for it inhibits the performers from singing anything new or to venture forth into experimentation, which after years of being in the field could be a welcome change for them. But the onslaught is so insistent that they don’t want to venture away from the recognised comfort zone.

It may be argued to the contrary that the vocalist or the performers perform to the pleasure of audiences, and they cut their act according to what receives the highest accolades. But appreciation and fan following can always put spanners in the works of artistes, who perceive their art as a process or as a journey, with the possibility of the lurking shadow of slowing down and stagnating being ever palpable. The struggle to say/sing something new or to venture forth, that is much greater in the younger years of one’s life, has many attendant fears and inhibitions as the decades go by. And if the external environment too is not helpful then the inhibition surges to such a level that it becomes difficult to negotiate round it.

Radio Pakistan in its days of glory used to hold music programme Jashn e Baharan usually in its own premises, and most of the top-level artistes performed in it. This was also broadcast over the network and people far and wide could benefit from it and listen to very good music. But, with the gradual lessening of the importance of radio, these activities first became sporadic and then totally disappeared from the broadcasting and national cultural scene.

Mela Chiraghan, one of the biggest festivals in the province, is only a shadow of its former glorious past. Baisakhi too is being shoved aside increasingly, being labelled as a Sikh festival. Instead more urban festivals are taking their place. With the cities now holding greater percentages of population than ever before, the activities in the cities are now gaining more cultural significance.

Even festivals like the Mela Chiraghan that was held in the city of Lahore had a distinct rural feel about it. Sprawling makeshift shops would be set up where buying and selling of goods was considered to be an important part of festivities. Shopping formed a fair measure of fun and was not considered as being separate from it.

Similarly, Baisakhi, which was meant to celebrate a good yield and a thanksgiving of abundance, was held once the harvesting had been done and the farmers had a bit of spare cash in their pockets to dispense with. Horse and cattle show or the awami melas as designated by the Pakistan Peoples Party in its first stint, held with a kind of a mixture of rural and urban feel, was backed by the regimen of the military. But for many years this has withered away, so to say, in the wake of no definite decision from the government.

These festivals were managed from behind the scenes by committees and organisations that operated more at the local level. But now the arts councils and other organisations in the city, run by the governments or privately managed, appear to be more involved in the promotion of cultural activity than before. The government-organised programmes have greater diffidence than the other programmes which contained a spirit of freedom and abandonment, which may not after all be a bad thing.

Being too tied up in formalities can be too curbing and off-putting where the common people are involved. Some of the programme or part of it may be planned and the other just provide the space for people to put up their own act or their own show, whatever its quality.

In the past few years, many programmes, public or private, could not be held in open air environment due to fear of security, and many were shifted to indoors, thus the size had to be managed and the free movement of people too had to be curbed.

The environment or the ethos of some of these melas and festivals has changed — and for the worse. Some of these festivals continue but albeit on a reduced level and some died away gradually.

It appears that the Lahore Arts Council and the Punjab Council of the Arts have jointly planned to hold such programmes. It must be ensured that these are held regularly. It should serve as a platform for discovering new talent as well as a process of honing those who have been discovered. Only then its real purpose will have been served.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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