December issue 2006

By | Arts & Culture | Published 18 years ago

If  you were not in Lahore during the second and third week of November, you missed partaking in a great cultural feast. Telenor Pakistan joined hands with the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop (RPTW) to bring South Asia’s major cultural festival, the ‘World Performing Arts Festival (WPAF), to Pakistan. From November 10th to 20th, the 11-day long programme held at Alhamra Cultural Complex, Gaddafi Stadium Lahore, showcased music, dance, drama, theatre, mime, puppetry and also cinema. As many as 700 international artists from 40 countries participated with local performers and delighted the culture-hungry public with a varied and rich fare.

Since its inception 15 years ago in 1992, RPTW’s World Performing Arts Festival has evolved to become arguably the biggest platform of cultural exchange of the performing arts in South Asia. The Peerzada brothers, Usman, Faizaan, Sadaan, Imran and Salman, deservedly take pride in having pioneered the tradition of international festivals in Pakistan, and providing the people with the yearly prospect of cross-fertilising cultural exposure.

With the Telenor input this year, the festival had a spruced up, aesthetically inviting décor in dreamy blues and pinks. Giant puppets in colourful stripes and wavy arms, towering over children and adults alike, welcomed visitors into a magical kingdom of artistic fantasy.

Adding to the captivating ambience, a troupe of boys tapped to music and skillfully manoeuvered their red-skirted, horse-puppets. Peeru’s Café catered light snacks and beverages. A number of stalls tempted the visitors with handmade toys, crafts, jewellery and ethnic-ware.

wpaf-2-dec06Women with excited toddlers were a common sight on the stadium grounds in the opening hours. The puppet shows played to full houses of clapping kids. The Adventures of Mr. Punch by British puppeteer Mr. Konrad Fredericks was very popular. Since the first Punch and Judy Show at Covent Garden, London, by Samuel Pepys in 1662, the adventures of the imperfect but lovable Mr. Punch have captivated the hearts of children for centuries. I, however, found Mr. Punch’s beating of brown and black folks and keeping count of their heads quite violent, if not racist. Quizzically, the kids watching the show with me seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the misadventures of Mr. Punch!

Khairati Ram Bhat from Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India, calls himself a ‘Dhage Kathputliwala,’ which literally means that he uses stringed wooden dolls or marionettes for his shows. As a leading exponent of a thousand-year old craft that dates back to the times of Vikramaditya, Khairati Ram displayed well-honed skills while telling the story of the legendary ‘Bohurupee’ of Indian folktales — shape-shifting changelings who could transform their appearance in seconds. Accompanied by sharp whistles in rhythm with the dholak beat and the narrator’s catchy song, the intricate movements of the marionettes — be it the Rajasthani dancer wiggling her waist or a jockey showing off his prowess on a horse — utterly enchanted the audience.

Puppeteers from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Spain, Russia, Slovenia, Turkey, Iran, Sri Lanka and India featured in this year’s programme, which also included presentations from the Lahore Arts Council, the Pakistan National Council of the Arts and the Rafi Peer Puppets. The RPTW organisers had also invited 12 local puppeteers from the Punjab to perform at a folk puppetry camp set up especially for them. Their effort to keep this age-old tradition alive, and facilitate an exchange of ideas between the rural and urban art forms, is commendable.

While puppetry has been Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop’s forte, they have expanded the festival’s outreach every year to expose the Pakistani audience to a varied selection of other performing arts, like dance, music, drama and now cinema.

wpaf-3-dec06Dance has yet to recover from the loss it suffered during the repressive Zia years. Association with the scandalous kotha culture and with the perceived Hindu origins of classical dance, along with alienation from the heritage of the dancing girl figurine of the Indus Valley Civilisation, have together contributed to the social taboo against dancing in Pakistan. The Rafi Peer Group has endeavoured to change the perception of the public towards dance as a respectable and valuable mode of creative expression. Thanks to their efforts, the dance shows were the second largest crowd-pullers this year, after the open-air music concerts.

Chilean dancer Francesca Garcia and her American partner Chris Anderson delivered a mesmerising modern dance performance in their presentation, Mujer (woman). The dancers expressed the various stages of the emotional development of a woman from servile dependency on a man to egotistic arrogance to a self-aware and mature relationship. The vibrant energy of the couple’s contemporary dance style that fused traditional ballet with modern dance, along with their impassioned portrayal of the tussle for domination in a man-woman encounter and the final peaceful resolution, left a lasting impression.

Pakistani-born Australian Wahab Shah’s free-flowing, scintillating choreography created a sensation. With his punkish bleached, gel-stiffened hairdo, bold and colourful costumes from black tatters to flaming silks, clever variations in theme from the dark and violent to the roguishly seductive, he and his troupe completely charmed the spectators with their vigorous, acrobatic dance numbers. Wahab has trained with leading exponents of modern dance such as Tiffany Muirhead and Gil Duldulao, as well as with classical Indian dancer Ustad Suman Gi. The personal style he has evolved combines both classical and contemporary dance elements.

The spontaneity and vibrancy of the contemporary dances contrasted sharply with the rigidly classical styles, such as Manasi Pandya’s Odissi and Nighat Chaudhry’s Kathak, particularly when in the same programme one style was immediately presented after the other. Faizaan Peerzada, however, is okay with such a contrasting juxtaposition: “We are seeking to provide a balance by presenting the classical and the contemporary. The spectators should be introduced to both forms so they have a chance to develop their taste. Art should not be made too easy for consumption. We throw in a measure of challenge to the audience, with a sprinkling of serious shows that require some effort to appreciate. We aim not just to entertain but also to educate.”

Tickets priced at 300 rupees, seemed to make the dance and music shows somewhat exclusive, but the gain in terms of security and peaceful management of programmes appears to have paid off. The rock music night was the only event that witnessed some rowdy crowd behavior. But then, as someone put it, you can’t organise a rock show and not expect some ‘rocking’!

wpaf-4-dec06Kamaliya, the Russian Madonna, thrilled the crowd, as did Lahore’s own Ali Zafar. The biggest music sensation was the Spanish group Jaleo Real. They specialise in a street rumba genre known in Barcelona as neo-calorrismo (neo-gypsydom). Gypsy, flamenco, Latino, tango, pop and rock music were counterpoised by mystic soul, ghazal and classical music.

I was lucky to catch Tina Sani before her performance at the ghazal night. “Music transcends the mind. It speaks directly to hearts. So music festivals like this one are a wonderful occasion where hearts can rise above all false boundaries,” remarked Tina, who was performing for the first time at the Rafi Peer Festival. She regaled the audiences with Faiz. Ghulam Ali, the other big star of the ghazal night, paid a nostalgic tribute to Lahore, the city from where he began his music career.

Speaking of tributes, Aswath Butt’s mono-act Urdu play, Ek Mulaqat Manto Se, on the life of Sadat Hasan Manto was well appreciated. So was the Bengali mono-act, Golap Jan. Greg McLaren’s How to Build a Time Machine was an interesting attempt to explain a physics lecturer’s desire to travel back in time, both to satisfy his scientific curiosity and a human need to change the outcome of a tragic event in his past. A comedy by the Delhi-based Hungry Hearts Group, 45-35-55, about the interior lives of three ageing women, played by Sohaila Kapur, Smita Bharti and Padma Damodaran, who come to terms with their past errors and go through healing transformations by breaking through their self-protective beliefs, made a profound impact.

However, the play that lived up to heightened expectations on the closing day was Mercury Theatre Hollywood’s presentation of Edgar Allan Poe’s psychological thriller, The Tell-Tale Heart — a theatrical adaptation by Salman Peerzada starring Adam Menken as Jacob Moore/Edgar Allan Poe. Menken’s riveting portrayal of a man teetering on the brink of insanity and his descent into seductive madness was a stunning display of theatre craft.

But the show that stole all hearts, young and old, was Paperworld — a show combining clowning, mime and slapstick by the Mim-i-richi (meaning rich for mimics) troupe from Ukraine. Three anarchic clowns ripped up the set (literally); had a lyrical snowball fight in slow motion in tune with the ‘The Moonlight Sonata’; played soccer with ‘Ole Ole’ on the soundtrack; inspired the spectators to participate in a wild paper fight inside the theatre hall, and generally opened up their imagination to the immense creative possibilities with ordinary paper.

My own moment in the limelight came when the red-nosed clown snatched away my eye-catching red Samsonite bag and later beckoned me on stage to retrieve it. Imagine my shocked delight when the green-nosed clown slipped a paper ribbon around my neck and a paper crown on my head, while the red-nosed one laid out a paper catwalk before me! I’ve played many roles in my life but never that of a beauty queen. Well, thanks to the Ukrainian clowns, I had my moment of paper glory! At the end of the show I surprised myself by spontaneously recalling my rusty Russian and exclaiming, “Ochin kharosho!” (Very Good!). Equally surprised, they responded, “Spaceeba” (Thank you).

On my way out I met Deirdre Lyons, who was one of the six-member American cast in Salman Peerzada’s play, The Tell-Tale Heart. Salman and cinematographer Jack Anderson are weaving the play into a feature film, Raven and Lenore, set against the backdrop of the WPAF. Deirdre said that she had been here for two weeks, along with the rest of the crew shooting for the film. When I met her, she was arranging to go shopping for clothes with two Pakistani girls. “Oh, people have been unbelievably warm and generous,” she gushed. The two Pakistani girls smiled and one of them remarked, “They are SO grateful for every little thing we do for them. Interacting with Deirde, Bridget and Lila (two other members of the cast), I realised how much kindness and caring we take for granted.”