KARACHI: Tehreek-i-Niswan’s weeklong ‘I am Karachi Tlism Festival’, a celebration of diversity through theatre, dance and music kicked off at the Arts Council of Pakistan here on Sunday to coincide with International Women’s Day.

The festival, the third of its kind, also marked the 35th anniversary of the cultural action group Tehreek-i-Niswan, which was founded on March 8, 1979. “We came about on Women’s Day and make it a point to hold our big events celebrating women on the day,” Sheema Kermani had said earlier while introducing the festival.

A documentary about the group also showed their years of struggle in a country that at one time looked down upon women who indulged in dance and music as it was thought to be against religious practice. But they sailed through each storm to reach here.

The first Tlism Festival was celebrated in March 8, 2009 as part of Tehreek-i-Niswan’s 30the anniversary. The following year, 2010, saw the holding of second edition of Tlism when Ms Kermani’s dance teachers Mr and Mrs Ghanshyam visited Karachi. “The Tlism Festival is like a magic wand that gives this city breathing space,” it was said at the start of the programme.

The highlight of day one of the third Tlism Festival was a theatre play, Kirchi Kirchi Karachi, written and directed by Anwer Jafri. Suddenly you were pulled back into the past when the people of Karachi, Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Hindus, Sikhs and Ahmedis, who spoke different languages, too, lived happily. There was complete harmony among all ethnicities who celebrated one another’s festivals. The stage erupted with catchy music as a group of happy men and women sang and danced to ‘Bandar Road se Keamari’.

But things changed as intolerance set in when every other person was called a ‘kaafir’ at the slightest of pretexts. Then came the weapons — guns, pistols, Kalashnikovs, grenades. People blamed their leaders for it all but then who had made them leaders in the first place?

The rot set in some 30 to 35 years ago with little things when some people started believing that ‘aadab’ as a greeting or ‘Khuda hafiz’ were un-Islamic. Then the weekly holiday was changed from Sunday to Friday followed by people talking about jihad thanks to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the coming about of Ziaul Haq’s Hudood Ordinance, which targeted women and religious minorities.

As Karachi grew, it also broke into small pieces, with people of different race or religions isolating themselves. One person wouldn’t tolerate the other’s customs and the play ended with the same people who had danced to ‘Bandar Road se Keamari meri chale gi ghora gaari, Babu ho ja na footpath pe’ singing ‘Baktarbund ho jo gaari to tum jaana Kati Pahari werna khelo ge tum jaan se’!

Meanwhile, one incident during the play deserves mention. Many in the audience were mothers with little children and Ms Kermani stopped the play at one point to make them leave the theatre with their toddlers as they were disturbing the performance. One mother while stepping out commented: “I am at home taking care of my children, cooking and cleaning the entire day. I was looking forward to an outing today but I have been ordered to step outside with my little one while my husband enjoys the play inside. I thought it was women’s day!”

The festival included Sufi dances, folk dances, dandiya dances and folk songs by Mai Allah Wadhaee and her group from Tharparkar. There was also a pictorial exhibition highlighting the heritage of Karachi and those great artists, poets, architects, educationalists, doctors, scientists and others who contributed to the city’s cultural, social and civic life.

Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2015

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