Sindh Festival 2014: ‘Culture’ is not a spectacle to be sold, neither can it disguise past failure

Published: February 5, 2014
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The performers happily reduced an ancient civilisation to a handful of singers, women were used as props to showcase clothes they’d never wear otherwise and an archaeological site was decorated as the centrepiece so that the present inhabitants remember that we are lucky enough to own such a site. PHOTO: FACEBOOK PAGE (https://www.facebook.com/SINDHF)

The performers happily reduced an ancient civilisation to a handful of singers, women were used as props to showcase clothes they’d never wear otherwise and an archaeological site was decorated as the centrepiece so that the present inhabitants remember that we are lucky enough to own such a site. PHOTO: AFP The performers happily reduced an ancient civilisation to a handful of singers, women were used as props to showcase clothes they’d never wear otherwise and an archaeological site was decorated as the centrepiece so that the present inhabitants remember that we are lucky enough to own such a site. PHOTO: FACEBOOK PAGE (https://www.facebook.com/SINDHF) The performers happily reduced an ancient civilisation to a handful of singers, women were used as props to showcase clothes they’d never wear otherwise and an archaeological site was decorated as the centrepiece so that the present inhabitants remember that we are lucky enough to own such a site. PHOTO: AFP

The Sindh Festival 2014 is not a beacon of hope; it is a reminder of just how far behind we are lagging. Perhaps it is because of my deep Sindhi roots, my familial history and my life experiences but I don’t think that the Sindh Festival 2014 is anything worth celebrating.

I have lived in Hyderabad for 14 years followed by five years in Karachi and the distinction between the two cities is clear – Hyderabad is more Sindhi centric culturally while Karachi is more of a melting pot. Neither one is better than the other but they are both different.

In Hyderabad, spectacles similar to what Baby Bhutto showcased at the opening ceremony of the festival are widespread.

The festival’s opening ceremony was a variety show with the best-behaved aspects of Sindh highlighted and polite omissions of anything that may seem radical or even ‘heavy’. The performers happily reduced an ancient civilisation to a handful of singers, women were used as props to showcase clothes they’d never wear otherwise (even if it were to save their lives) and an archaeological site was decorated as the centrepiece so that the present inhabitants remember that we are lucky enough to own such a site.

But why we are lucky, we neither have the time nor the willingness to find out.

Of course, these sites never reached this level of extravagance in reality.  But then again a former president with multiple Swiss bank accounts never funded them.

The problem, however, is not the reduction of cultural heritage to a spectacle so that it is examined like a rare species of insect. The problem is that we still believe that this qualifies as cultural preservation.

Let us, for a minute, not even think about the fact that almost half the children, under five years of age, are facing malnutrition in Sindh, that the percentage of out-of-school children in Sindh is the highest in Pakistan or that ethnic and religious minorities face constant hate crimes – for surely, none of these need be the provincial government’s priority (sarcasm absolutely intended).

Let us instead, focus solely on the culture apparently being represented.

During the opening ceremony, like the well-bred little politician he is, Bilawal Bhutto declared,

Marsoon, marsoon, Sindh na dain soon…

(We will die, we will die but we will not give up Sindh…)

Perhaps, no one in the audience knew the original orator of these immortal words.

A young Sindhi general named Hosh Muhammd Sheedi uttered these last words before Charles Napier’s fleet was about to take over Sindh and he went down in history as the Indian subcontinent’s first Afro-Caribbean hero.

But why should that be remembered?

For surely, as the Sheedi community of Afro Caribbean descent is marginalised into the ghettos of Lyari where gang violence parades like the harbinger of death, bringing up a national hero belonging to the same marginalised group isn’t the wisest thing to do.

It is too ‘heavy’ for the ‘happy time’ the young patron-in-chief wishes to have with his international friends.

Next, an exhausted Ali Gul Pir announced,

“I am a Sufi… everyone coming together and having fun is what the Sufis were all about…”

A montage of clichéd folk melodies intertwined with contemporary musicians is exactly what the Sufi saints of Sindh would have wanted.

Why mention here that the Sufis of Sindh have been linked to radical change?

Why mention that Sachal Sarmast was a fierce critic of religious extremism?

Why mention that Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai was a fierce critic of the submissive mentality? That his poetry opposed the Persian rule?

Why mention that their poetry called for total equality in a religiously unequal and ethnically divided society?

Why mention that the Sufis were also revolutionaries, resisting the political agendas of the time? Why mention that, had they been alive today, the political monarchy of the Bhutto family would be atop their list of what to resist?

For this festival was about happy escapism and anything that encouraged resisting authority required too much courage of conviction to be deemed happy.

And then there was the charming display of the archetypical women. Be it the costume clad mannequins that represented the village woman or Bakhtawar Bhutto’s charming promotional video or the songstress whom we will forever know via her first name – all feminine and polite, well behaved and politically correct – all were presented in a modern fashion at the festival.

However, these perfect women formed a stark contrast with their ancient sisters.

In his poetry for the infamous queen Leelan, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai painted the image of a very flawed woman – who literally traded a loving companion for all that glittered. But the famous poet did not condemn Leelan’s lack of political correctness; rather he drew on her experiences to encourage self-reflection and to identify the gravest mistakes that all human beings make – trying to be perfect. Sindh’s Leelan was never perfect but she had the moral courage to accept her wrongdoings as an attempt to learn and do better.

But including these elements would not have worked for this particular festival.

For if all the missing layers were added to the tower of confused performances that was the opening ceremony, we would have on our hands something that a stage show could never have captured.

The reality of this culture is that it is too complex and needs to be studied in context. It has to be understood in socio-political shades of grey – it has to be understood.

It is not an hour long performance; it is a story that spans centuries with lessons sewn into its most hidden corners.

It is something worth incorporating into your everyday life, not a spectacle to be sold in an attempt to disguise failure.

Ushah.Kazi

Ushah Kazi

An avid reader, literature buff and co-founder at thekollective.pk/. She tweets as @TheKollectivePK (twitter.com/TheKollectivePK)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/author/430/faraz-talat/ Faraz Talat

    What the Pakistani public hates more than political inaction, is action.

    This is why it is political suicide to try to do anything positive for the country, whether it’s for votes or otherwise, because the critics would always flock in to explain how it’s inadequate or unnecessary.

    We’ve seen this circus with the Metro bus service in Lahore, with the consequent explosion of criticism collectively titled, “1001 other things you could have spent this money on”. Hardly anybody, save for the PML-N fanbase, took a breath of relief knowing that the funds had cycled back to the public in some useful form.

    It’s perfectly acceptable if the criticism is regarding some aspects of the service – like the expected harm to the archaeological site of Mohanjedaro – and call for an alteration. But it’s quite another to just blast the entire thing as “not worth celebrating”.

    Had Bilawal not announced the event, nobody would’ve talked about Sindhi culture at this scale, and it would’ve continued to rot for whatever reason and whoever’s fault….and the author would’ve been happier for it!Recommend

  • http://@net Khushab wala.

    Great article. You should have mentioned the
    more than 3000 Ghost Schools. Fully staffed.
    Teachers salaries paid diligently, straight into
    the pockets of bureaucrats politicians. And the
    Mohtarma’s previous contribution of $ 1.5 billion to
    the family’s coffers. Separate from Mr. 10% current
    overseas accounts. Recommend

  • https://twitter.com/AamAwam AamAwam

    I agree this was not the best way to execute Sindh Festival the organiser didnt put much thought into the festival they just had a good party.
    Culture was something I missed during the entire presentation. It was merely Bilawal’s version of Sindhi culture.

    Boy are we trying to hard to act like developed countries. they first focused on their basic needs then went for these experiments when your people are dying of hunger and with no predictable future what good is this heritage?
    I would say Bilawal could’ve invested in Sindh Festival in a much better way than he did. How different was his idea from the social exhibitions we have at Expo?
    All people are blind because of the Ohhs and Ahhs at the grand opening but they clearly fail admit it was just a stunt it really didn’t benefit the purpose. Bilawal didn’t do it wholeheartedly. This festival was a joke!
    A local school’s orientation day can do better than this.

    Next time Bilawal, If you really wanna promote cultural heritage please put in some real efforts.Though we all know now you you sure do know how to party hard.Recommend

  • http://@net Landhi wala

    Put it more simply. This is the coming out
    party of Little Bhutto. His cotillion, his quadrille,
    as they say in France. France where he basically
    languishes at the family chateau. Between quick,
    taxing, tiring trips to fortress Bilawal, in Clifton, Karachi.Recommend

  • Parvez

    My thinking on this differs but only slightly.
    The fact that Bilawal took the initiative to do SOMETHING has to be appreciated, period. The aspects of cost, timing, venue, material used to project culture etc are all debatable and I admit most of which would be hard to defend. More importantly,what use is this culture to the people, who get no water, no medical facilities, no education, no justice, no sanitation and not even the hope of a decent life.
    What this ‘ tamasha ‘ actually came across as, was exactly that, a tamasha at the starving, uneducated peoples expense. Done in order to provide a ‘ feel good ‘ moment for our budding Sindhi leaders. Recommend

  • Paracetamol

    Completely agreed with Faraz. While the author might boast about being Sindhi and trying to put all her knowledge of Sindh’s history into her writing, what her ideology lacks is that this is the first time anyone has ever wholeheartedly attempted to portray with Sindh is all about.
    And as naively the author puts it, “women were used as props to showcase clothes they’d never wear otherwise (even if it were to save their lives)”, she probably doesnt know that those clothes that the models would never otherwise wear are worn by the Thari women on a daily basis.
    As for her criticism for the preservation of our cultural heritage, I fail to understand, why is she against the preservation of it anyway?
    And well yes, it might take another two-three years for people to understand the ideology of Shah Latif and Sachal Sarmast, the effort nevertheless is appreciable. Recommend

  • Jumote

    @Faraz Talat: Couldn’t agree more.

    While I agree that Sindhi culture is rich and deep – and commercialization of it betrays its essence, I disagree with everything else. One suspects that the author could be extrapolating her dislike for Bilawal to everything he or the party does.

    Hand picking excerpts to make a point is just woeful journalism. I have been to multiple events in Karachi, and people are really enjoying themselves, regardless of their ethnicity. People from all walks of life can see things which they cannot normally afford (most events are free for the public), nor have the time to see. Contrary to what you think we need more festivals like this. Struggling artists have been commissioned to create things for this festival giving them a much needed lifeline. This is what matters at the end of the day. Giving the enlightened and creative enough firepower to suppress extremism and darkness. Some things are genuinely done with the right intentions at heart (such as this festival).

    Publish this ET.Recommend

  • Sarah Zaman

    Proud to ‘own’ something not afraid to trod on.
    Everything else aside and based on the pictures of the event, placing of equipments and all, I feel shame for knowing that edifices were erected on areas not yet excavated, and towers were erected atop mounds crumbling from underneath.
    The Sindh government was made solely responsible for the site’s preservation in 2011.
    Although, some funds were released and some buildings with heritage value have been restored in Sindh, including temples, by the previous government.
    The family, along with its advisors could have chosen another venue for their little party. There any many heritage sites in Sindh- MANY- just like there are MANY heroes to celebrate, including the lesser known ones. They didn’t have to choose the site that has been predicted by some to disappear altogether by 2030. It is a sacrilege and they have broken the law while doing it. Recommend

  • Ashwin

    Hosh Muhammad Sheedi was of African origin and not of Afro-Caribbean descent as mentioned. Afro-Caribbean refers to people of African origin who live in the Caribbean Islands (Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago etc.) in Central America. Malik Ambar or Siddi Ambar of Deccan who was also of African extraction predates Hosh Muhammad Sheedi, so claims of his being the first African hero of the Indian subcontinent are not factual. Appreciate the sentiments expressed in the article though.Recommend

  • gp65

    Well said.Recommend