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CULTURE

Building bridges

RAHUL CHANDAWARKAR who took part in the World Performing and Visual Arts festival in Lahore recently, says that culture alone can cement the ties between India and Pakistan.

Picture by PEERGROUP, LAHORE

Theatre exponent Nadira Babbar in her play "Sandhya Chhaya".

EVEN as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf take tentative puffs at the peace pipe, the cultural brigades from the two nations seem to be melting the ice faster.

A team of as many as 200 Indian artistes visited Lahore in Pakistan in December 2004 for the World Performing and Visual Arts festival.

As an actor, with one of the Urdu drama troupes from India, I can safely say that we managed to build several bridges between the two estranged neighbours.

Noted Delhi based Bharatanatyam dancer, Pratibha Prahlad, one of the participants at the festival said, "Only artistes can help build bridges between nations. We are able to bring about a change based on trust and mutual respect. We work with our hearts."

Whether one agrees with Prahlad or not, the fact remains that the large Indian cultural contingent, gave love and gained love in return.

Television's reach

Hence, whether it was Neena Gupta's effective portrayal of a queen in the Hindi play: "Suraj ke antim kirano se ... ' or Pratibha Prahlad's elegant Bharatanatyam dance or the electric performance of the mother and daughter duo of Nadira and Juhi Babbar in their play, "Begum Jaan", Indian artistes from Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Lucknow and Kolkata, enthralled Pakistani audiences.

One must understand of course, that the average Pakistani is exposed to much of India's culture via the television channels every day. In fact, an average Pakistani watches as much Indian soap, music channels and movies as an average Indian family. No wonder, the attendant in our Lahore hotel, wanted to know what Sanjay Dutt was doing next after "Munnabhai MBBS" and whether Arshad Warsi was as comical in real life!

This explains why Nadira and more particularly her daughter, Juhi, were mobbed wherever they went. Not only was there a sizeable crowd to welcome them as they alighted from the Delhi-Lahore bus at the Wagah border, but television cameras followed Juhi's every step in Lahore. Everybody, of course wanted to know what the attractive actress' next Bollywood move was!

Of course, it was not just mainstream Bollywood that held centrestage. Parallel cinema guru Shyam Benegal had Lahoris transfixed to their seats too. Five of Benegal's films, "Ankur", "Bhumika", "Mandi", "Kalyug" and "Junoon", ran to packed houses at the festival's Film Centre. A woman professor told this correspondent, "I am a very big Benegal fan. I am disappointed that he is not here in person."

It was not just the big, Indian names which won Pakistani hearts in Lahore. Pune group, Raabta Foundation's Urdu play: "Jis Lahore Naee Dekhya" penned by the Delhi based Asghar Wajahat and based on the sensitive, post-partition period, struck a chord in many Pakistani hearts.

The play revolves around an old Hindu lady from Lahore and a young Muslim refugee family from Lucknow, who get embroiled in a property dispute in Lahore. Hindu-Muslim tensions reach a peak and a Lahore goonda is ready to eliminate the old woman. However, the play ends up communicating a strong message of peace and harmony, as the Muslims of Lahore rally around the old Hindu matriarch.

The play received rave reviews in leading Lahore newspapers like the Nation and the Daily Times. The level of appreciation could also be gauged from the fact that the dramatics department of the prestigious Government College, Lahore, invited the Raabta group for a discussion on the play.The English literature department of the University of Punjab also invited the team for a play reading session.

Cultural visits

Actually, the recent thaw in Indo-Pakistan relations, has seen several Pakistani cultural troupes tour India in recent months.The Amritsar-Lahore cultural festival in November 2004, saw a host of Pakistani cultural troupes cross over to perform. "Lok Rahas", a Lahore based theatre group, comprising Lahori youth, toured the western Indian cities of Mumbai, Pune, Aurangabad and Nagpur in November 2004 with their Punjabi play: "Bhagat Singh".

Recently, the Peergroup, arguably, Pakistan's oldest cultural organisation, performed their popular Punjabi musical, "Patay Khan" in Delhi's Kamani auditorium in mid-January. Says Usmaan Peerzada, CEO, Peergroup and director of "Patay Khan", "I would love to travel to many more Indian cities with the play."

Actually, the Peergroup, organisers of the annual World Performing and Visual Arts festival, could emerge as catalysts to foster cordial relations between the two nations. The group started by the late Rafi Peer, noted theatre personality, who worked with the likes of the late Prithviraj Kapoor in India, is today run by Rafi's sons, Usmaan, Faizaan, Saadan, Imran and daughter Tasneem.

A film academy

RINA KHAN

The Urdu play "Jis Lahore Naee dekhya" which did three shows.

The group has metamorphosed into a colossus, which houses Pakistan's largest puppetry centre, besides being one of the biggest event organisers for theatre, music, dance and the visual arts. The group, which has been organising international events since the early 1990's in Lahore, is now planning to start a film training academy for Pakistani youth.

Says the articulate Tasneem, former journalist with the leading Pakistani newspaper, Jung, "We need to wipe out the differences between our two nations through the world of art, music and culture. Ye dhooriyan matlab nahin rakti ( the divide that exists between the two nations, makes no sense)."

Nadira Babbar seconds Tasneem's sentiments by saying, "Yes, culture alone can cement the ties between the two nations. I am very happy that our contingent could contribute to this effort in Lahore."

Mega fest

THE scale of the 10-day international festival was immense. It attracted at least 500 artistes from some 30 countries.

The variety was mind boggling. In the puppetry section, you had the likes of Anurupa Roy from India, the Republican Puppet group from Uzbekistan and the Calliope Puppet team from the United States among several others.

On the dance arena, you had Debabrata Banerjee from Kolkata, Naheed Siddiqui from Pakistan and several others.

In theatre, you had the navtanki group, "Swarg" all the way from Lucknow, Lillete Dubey's "Prime Time" from Mumbai, Neena Gupta's "Sahaj" from Mumbai and Nadira Babbar's "Ekjute" also from Mumbai besides several Pakistani groups.

Shyam Benegal dominated the film section with his five films, while several Pakistani and western films were also screened.

However, the crème de la crème was certainly the musical nights that were held in the magnificent, open air, Al Hamra centre.

While the Pakistani, Urdu, pop and rock artistes from bands like Junoon, Strings and Fuzon had the audience eating out of their palms, the several Pakistani qawali, ghazal, folk and fusion artistes from all over the world also had the audience in a thrall.

The magic of `Neechanagar'

THE late Rafi Peer, founder of the Peergroup acted in just one feature film in his life. The film was the 1946 film, "Neechanagar" made by Chetan Anand. While Rafi Peer played the villain in the film, the film also starred a very young Kamini Kaushal and Zohra Sehgal.

Ironically, Rafi Peer, who died in the early 1970s in Pakistan, never got to see the film himself. His family too had not seen it, until November 27, 2004. On this fateful day, the Indian High Commission in Islamabad presented a DVD version of the film to the Peergroup as a gift from India. Not surprisingly, the film was the toast of the festival, where it was aired several times.

In order to understand how the film reached Lahore, one needs to go back to September 2004. Faizaan Peerzada, one of the directors of Peergroup, requested the Pune based Raabta Foundation to try and procure a copy of the film from the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) in Pune.

After some hectic parleys initiated by the Raabta group, a "no objection" letter was procured from Shiv Shankar Menon, Indian High Commissioner, in Islamabad. This helped the NFAI authorities prepare a DVD copy of the film, which was dispatched to Pakistan through diplomatic channels.

Sasidharan, NFAI director told this correspondent, "I am sure that the Neechanagar film will go a long way in building bridges between the two nations. It could trigger off collaborations in the field of film making."

Rahul Chandawarkar is a journalist and an amateur actor based in Pune.

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