In the name of festivals -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

In the name of festivals

Why have we killed our traditional festivals, which were part of the cultural life and instead tried to hold state-sponsored events calling them a jashan-e-baharaan?

Sarwat Ali

Two melas in the last week or so were held in Lahore — one at the Alhamra and the other at the Minar-e-Pakistan in which a large number of people participated. Both the melas were state-sponsored in the sense that they were organised by government bodies — Alhamra and the City Government — and hence had the tinge of being stage-managed affairs.

It should not be forgotten that the biggest state sponsored festival used to be the Horse and Cattle Show in Lahore and it has been discontinued for the past few years. Besides the horse and cattle being paraded and graded, it included a light and sound (tattoo) show and other acrobatics by the various military and paramilitary organisations.

Then allied activities like theatre and music programmes were held in various parts of the city, mainly at the halls run by the various government bodies in the city. Some years ago Canal Mela was held, concentrated on the Lahore canal with boats and other temporary structures lit up at night. It was also participated in fully by the people for the few years that it lasted and was able to retain its novelty.

The cities’ cultural life is measured by the involvement of the people in the various festivals and this participation by the general public ensures certain continuity. Of the two biggest festivals of Lahore, one is no longer held and the other is a shadow of its former glory. Basant, unique to Lahore, has been banned by the government and Mela Chiraghan due to the shrinking space and urbanisation is a much smaller affair now. Probably basant was celebrated with equal fervour in Kasur but Lahore’s basant was fully reflective of people’s involvement.

The most visible part of the festival was the flying of kites. Dawn to dusk, the sky of Lahore was adorned by hundred and thousands of kites flown from mainly rooftops. The kites flown in open spaces was not usually done on basant for, being a more professional affair, only certain days of the week were designated for it. The participation of the ordinary people, the man in the street, gave so much verve and abandonment to basant. In the last few years, night basant became a bigger affair than day basant as kites were flown under floodlights.

Due to metal wire/synthetic string, the number of accidents and power failures increased and the authorities found an excuse to ban the festival altogether. Instead of addressing the specific problem, it did away with the festival; robbing the common man of revelry and enjoyment that was easily affordable. The main feature of the festival was that the entire city participated in it and that made it truly a people’s festival. People also held music and other programmes to indulge in revelry.

Basant and baisakhi are both seasonal festivals — one celebrating the anticipation of spring and the second the celebration of successful harvesting. If the first was a signal of fructification, the second a gratitude to plenty, both totally natural human responses to activities that sustain life.

Both these festivals have been celebrated for as long as mankind can remember and such festivals are celebrated all over the world. There was nothing particular about the celebration of spring and if it was not celebrated it would have raised eyebrows and questions about curbing natural responses. Unfortunately, both these festivals were tagged by a section of the society to religion, one to the Hindus and the other to the Sikhs.

It would be of interest to note that Buddhism too celebrates with great fervour Vesakha, probably calling it the birthday of Buddha or the day he achieved nirvana. And Nauroz which was celebrated in Sultanate and Mughal eras as well as Iran and the former extended Iranian territories is also the celebration of spring when day and night of equal duration is considered to be propitious.

This tagging of the seasonal festivals to various religions appears to be an act of retrospection — a seasonal festival observed and participated in by the people given a slant and incorporated into the larger cultural scheme of things. The sufis did exactly the same with basant as the festival was celebrated on the shrines of the various Sufis during the spring season.

The Mela Chiraghan was an extension of the festival labelled as urs of a sufi, in this case that of Shah Hussain, the celebrated Punjabi iconoclast and poet. He led a life that was unconventional and wrote about the merit of authentic experience rather than inured by tradition. This urs was also held in the last week of March every year and was also tagged to spring. Its occurrence between basant and baisakhi, is evidence enough that the festivals were held on regular intervals, especially during the extended spring season.

If the celebration of spring was limited to one religion or region then it could be held to be specific but if it is a universal phenomena, then why shy away from it. Why have we killed our traditional festivals, which were part of the cultural life and instead tried to hold state sponsored events calling them a jashan-e-baharaan? As we have a full series of festivals dedicated to bahar all this appears to be mere duplication and that too a tardy one.

The regular time-tested festivals should be revived and if there is any state support needed it should be extended to these festivals for the people to realise and fully experience their integration with their land. Spring and the monsoon are seasons to celebrate and may be given any name, for what’s in a name when it is in accordance with the natural human response; and if an expression of the collective, so much the better.

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