A return to 80s-style Lahore
The Rafi Peer group's Sufi festival has been cancelled yet again. Has terror dragged us back to a time of fear?
Last night I was supposed to attend a Sufi music festival organised by the good people of the Rafi-Peer group. I didn’t.
Why? Because it didn’t take place.
That seems to be the story of Lahori cultural life of late.
I can remember when things began to change.
To someone who came of age in the Post-Zia Pakistan during the early ‘90s, this country was a happening place to be in - almost.
In 1989, when PTV tentatively shed its mandatory dupatta, a live concert featuring Pakistan’s premier pop/rock bands was aired and young people danced next to the catwalk style stage. A whole generation of kids watched fascinated as Pakistan’s television ethos became bolder, though not necessarily better, almost overnight.
Young people tried to come to grips with their new-found freedom that altered their lifestyles through ‘mixed’ live concerts. Now, going out on a Saturday night did not just mean dining at a staid ‘family restaurant’ or cruising aimlessly on city roads to catch a glimpse of women out shopping in Liberty Market. It could also mean going to the grand brick structure of the Alhamra amphitheatre and seeing Pakistan’s premier bands perform live. These concerts weren’t without their problems, often fights would break out, women usually had to go with a group of men for fear of being harassed and these things were still by and large testosterone driven.
A change for the better
The Rafi-Peer Theatre Festival used puppetry, dance, theatre and music to lure families and younger, hipper crowds. Perhaps by then, a few years of checkered democracy and relative freedom had calmed down young people enough to be able to take cultural public events in stride. The festival’s stellar line-up of local and international groups and its impeccable but unobtrusive security also helped, of course. The International Rafi-Peer festivals began in 1996 and ran till 2008 till they were abruptly brought to a halt with what was called a ‘cracker’ bomb.
I distinctly remember the night it happened. An almost-full amphitheatre, dotted with men and women sitting on colourful floor cushions, anticipating a leisurely evening of music under the sky in the pleasant November air. A relatively unknown pre-Coke Studio Arieb Azhar had just begun singing when an explosion was heard above the music. It was loud enough for everyone to sit up and take notice but the band kept playing.
The second explosion, however, sent the audience in a panic and immediate evacuation was announced by the organisers. I knew on that eerie night, as we rushed fearfully to the parking lot, that this was possibly the foreseeable end of any international cultural event in Pakistan. This prediction surpassed expectations. It also proved to be the end of large scale Pakistani concerts.
The subsequent year also sounded the death knell to international sporting fixtures as the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked right in the heart of Lahore (not far from the Alhamra amphitheatre) in broad daylight thanks to the utter negligence of authorities concerned.
This essentially means, that apart from a sporadic play or two imported from Karachi, I can’t recall a large scale public event that can qualify as entertainment since nearly three years. Faiz’s centenary in February this year did provide a bit of respite, but its invitation only format assured entry only to the well connected, or to corporate customers of sponsoring banks (chew on that irony for a Faiz event).
The announcement for the Rafi-Peer Sufi Music Festival, thus, was greeted with much delight and anticipation. But this is the post war-on-terror Pakistan. Murphy’s laws holds truer here than anywhere else.
The raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad resulted in the festival being cancelled due to security fears and fundamentalist backlash.
Pakistan changes – again
Fear and bombings in Lahore have taken us back to the days when the only options for entertainment were food and aimless cruising. Only now I mainly cruise online. I hear the LHC is planning to take that privilege away from me soon as well.