By Sonya Rehman
Having commenced from the 22nd of November till the 2nd of December, the World Performing Arts Festival (WPAF) drew to a rapturous end.
With the Qadaffi Stadium (in Lahore, where it was held) looking like a massive birthday present – with its pretty lights, banners, cozy food stalls, huge walking puppets, and the lovely Thar dance troupe putting up daily, free performances (right near the entrance of the stadium), Lahore’s chilly winter mist simply added to the festive mood of it all.
And with Christmas and New Years Eve just around the corner, the WPAF was a great end to an otherwise unstable year – paving the way for, hopefully, a more optimistic 2008.
Years ago, as little tots in grade four, with pigtails and lunchboxes et al, our school took us to a puppet show held in one of the halls at Lahore’s Qadaffi Stadium.
And once seated, as the performance rolled out – with a plethora of puppets – we were astounded.
With animated voices, and puppets in a variety of shapes, colours, and sizes, tiny jaws dropped and saucer-shaped eyes lay fixated on the stage ahead.
There was one scene in particular during the entire show that I don’t think I’ll ever forget: to depict rain, innumerable silver streamers were hung from above and shaken in a quick, jittery fashion.
And that, backed with white, flickering strobes (with the rest of the hall in pitch darkness) and the sound of thunder, managed to jump right out at us. So much so, that many of us gasped, while one little tyke began bawling his batushki off in fright.
But the rest of us? We couldn’t take our eyes off the stage – and continued watching the show like little sponges, soaking it all in, and stuffing our faces with popcorn…unflinching, and captivated.
Magically interactive as it was, that had been my first experience with a Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop (RPTW) production.
Much later, the RPTW introduced the WPAF to Lahore – and brought with it troupes and performers from the world over, in addition to local artists. But this year, the WPAF proved slightly more different.
For one, let’s face it, amidst the political cataclysm, things had (and have) been pretty tense…and for the RPTW, that was a bit of a bummer. But then again, this year (surprisingly) saw far more performers being roped in for the festival in comparison to last year’s event. The performances were extremely diverse – with artists from countries such as Bulgaria, Switzerland, Germany, India, Austria, Italy, Sri Lanka, Ireland, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, and so on.
Also, thankfully, this year the WPAF wasn’t being sponsored by a pompous corporation which had its banners, posters and billboards slapped all over the city (in addition to the stadium), as it was last year.
In 2006, the WPAF’s corporate sponsor actually had the audacity to hoist its mammoth self atop Lahore’s Main Boulevard road (which overlooks a plush golf course). The company’s billboard is still located there, by the way, but the monstrosity of it all was the logo of the company which clearly overshadowed the announcement of the WPAF!
Quite ridiculous. But come 2007, the WPAF via its cloth banners dotting the city (and again, the stadium) looked cleaner – where the festival’s insignia and logo were far more visible than the sponsor’s logo, thankfully.
But coming back to the performances, from a holistic point of view – the cross-cultural exchange of art and culture between countries is extremely vital as it manages to bridge and connect people (both the viewers and artists) on a large, macro scale.
It simply makes people understand each other’s culture far better – easing off prejudiced notions and preconceived points of views.
For instance, after one particular show, I spoke with the performer backstage. His name was Abie Philbin Bowman, and he was a stand-up comedian (with a routine riddled with political commentary on the ‘war on terror’) all the way from Dublin, Ireland.
Why it was interesting speaking with him, was because Abie was fascinated by Pakistan, and felt passionately about the injustice at Guantanamo Bay.
Infact his stand-up act based itself primarily on the latter. And predictably enough, his family and friends were weary of his trip to Pakistan. But now that Abie’s gone back home, his outlook about the country will hopefully be slightly more positive and upbeat.
So that’s basically how – on a very minute, micro scale – the festival helps in reforming Pakistan’s ‘talibanized’, tainted image.
Besides, the RPTW’s primary motive is to not only stimulate the country’s performing arts, but to also rope in foreign thespians, dancers, puppeteers and stand-up comedians to put Pakistan on the cultural world map.
Throughout the festivals that have been put up till date, participation, involvement and contribution – both local and from abroad – has not only remained wholehearted, but has constantly grown with each festival.
The entire ‘global-ness’ of the WPAF has also managed to become quite a phenomenon – as it gives local artists a forum for learning, local audiences a forum to open their minds, and hearts, and foreign artists a chance to experience Pakistan as a culturally-active country, rather than politically damaged, unsafe one.
But the best part about this yearly festival is that it’s anticipated and well-liked by a healthy cross-section of the market.
For instance, it’s not unusual to find the privileged lot and the blue-collared worker seated together – as an audience. This I found at a certain camp in Qadaffi which had put up the comical Punjabi play, ‘Patay Khan’.
In the audience, I was seated with cameramen, college students, families who (during the play) conversed in thait Punjabi, and many others – who sat together, each sharing a similar quest for quality entertainment.
Why the WPAF works so well, is due to its perfect blend of local and foreign talent. Local primarily, because Kathak dancers, classical musicians, thespians and puppeteers, which cater to the grassroots – on a wider scale – are given a chance to put up their performances/shows, and receive the acknowledgement that they so rightly deserve. Because just think, where else would they be given a chance to exhibit their work? Who would sponsor them?
Perhaps the WPAF this year, could not attain as much media mileage as it did last year – given the clamp down of certain TV channels, yet however, as always, it managed to bridge geographical distances and introduce one culture to another in a burst of animated, performing arts confetti.
Instep, The News