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Karachi re-imagined: How the City of Lights Festival brings civic pride back

Updated June 08, 2015

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Karachi's glorious past was celebrated at the Citizen Archive of Pakistan's City of Lights Festival — Photograph courtesy CAP Facebook Page
Karachi's glorious past was celebrated at the Citizen Archive of Pakistan's City of Lights Festival — Photograph courtesy CAP Facebook Page

Recently, Karachi's walls got a resplendent makeover.

Instead of political slogans and commercials for cockroach killing concoctions, the walls were adorned with beautiful artwork. It's a welcome change, and has one wonder how else art can create an impact

I Am Karachi has answered the question in more ways than one, most recently at the just concluded City of Lights Festival.

A consortium of artists, writers and thinkers, I Am Karachi aims to promote harmony and unity in the city through the arts. Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP)’s Karachi City of Lights festival thus also aimed to provide reminders of the city's glorious yesteryears through a taste of the visual and performing arts. The festival took place at the Fomma Trust-Art Centre at Zamzama Park from June 5 to 7.

Lighting it up

Although Day One of the festival kicked off at around 5pm, the park came alive after the sun had set and the temperature went down. With more than 10 art installations placed at different points in the park, the arrangement of lights imparted a beautiful glow to the event's ambience.

Post sunset, fairy lights gave the environs a beautiful glow — Photo by Zoya Anwer
Post sunset, fairy lights gave the environs a beautiful glow — Photo by Zoya Anwer

Time travelling: Mobile museums and oral histories

The festival served as a good reminder that the country's financial capital is also rich in culture. Karachi is home to architecture that dates back to the British Raj, and festival attendees were able to learn about the history of some of these famous landmarks from CAP's mobile museums. With information written both in English and Urdu, the museums aimed to attract children with a jigsaw puzzle, a peek into a miniature version of a building and boxes with fun facts about the legacy of another.

The history of the Mohatta Palace explained — Photo by Zoya Anwer
The history of the Mohatta Palace explained — Photo by Zoya Anwer

While we were disappointed to see that the mobile museums placed at Karachi Zoo last month were quite worn out, the museums at this weekend's festival were in mint condition. These mobile museums can be visited according to the buildings they represent namely, Mohatta Palace, Karachi Port Trust, Safari Park, Karachi Zooo, and Frere Hall where they had been placed in May.

One of the most needed activities was CAP’s oral history project, which is preserving tales of the partition. It was a popular installment that allowed listeners to hear all about the days when Waheed Murad visited Radio Pakistan or when Karachi boasted many bookstores and cinema halls.

Portraying Karachi: Historical, chaotic and ultimately beautiful

The art installations, including audio and pictorial stories, moving images from old Karachi as well as projects showing unique aspects of Karachi, gave an insight to how the city is perceived by different artists.

Moving images from old Karachi — Photo by Zoya Anwer
Moving images from old Karachi — Photo by Zoya Anwer

The most gripping installation was ’12 seconds’ by artist/architect Marvi Mazhar, who had dedicated her work to a friend lost in that duration of time.

A screen shows a conversation on Whatsapp — Photo by Zoya Anwer
A screen shows a conversation on Whatsapp — Photo by Zoya Anwer

“The idea revolves around 12 seconds when you have to stop at the signal and the uncomfortable feeling that comes over leading many to rush as soon as it is opens, which symbolises an organised movement to a disorganised one. Chowks are point elements, we refer to them all the time like, Teen Talwar or when an unfortunate incident happens, we say ‘let’s meet at Press Club and move to Numaish’," said Mazhar.

A traffic signal— Photo by Zoya Anwer
A traffic signal— Photo by Zoya Anwer

"It is an important element as to how signals and chowks are related. The composition is all about layering and defines Karachi as it is a cube whose corners do not meet just like the city we live in which is growing organically.”

Different chowks in Karachi— Photo by Zoya Anwer
Different chowks in Karachi— Photo by Zoya Anwer

She added that the cube was made in such a way that from each point a different image would be seen.

A jukebox titled 'Karachi Dance-athon' playing different tunes from the old days also attracted attendees but the music was inaudible due to technical issues.

Karachi Dance-athon would have been a hit with music junkies— Photo by Zoya Anwer
Karachi Dance-athon would have been a hit with music junkies— Photo by Zoya Anwer

Tapu Javeri’s ‘Karacchakra’, a cyclic exhibit of different buildings in Karachi, was also put up with CAP’s miniature rickshaws and buses alongside it.

Karacchakra— Photo by Zoya Anwer
Karacchakra— Photo by Zoya Anwer

“I added roses and chai because they are inseparable from Karachi. It represents a journey around the city,” explained Javeri.

With buggies nearing their extinction in Karachi, artist Maliha Hasan Gazan’s work ‘Happy Buggy Ride’ shed light on the lives of buggy drivers as they reminisced about the times when the rides were loved by city dwellers, and foreigners and locals alike would use it to commute to different places:

The pictures of buggies were complemented by stories of the drivers — Photo by Zoya Anwer
The pictures of buggies were complemented by stories of the drivers — Photo by Zoya Anwer

“The reason I decided to focus on these riders was that they had so many stories to tell, like one of them shared how the then Prime minister Benazir Bhutto gifted him a new buggy which showed that the art was respected then,” said Gazan.

Re-imagining realities and revisiting the past

An octagonal glass structure ‘Reimagining reality’ by Arusha Siddiqui was yet another intriguing installation as all those who stepped inside could see parallel images. Although the glass creaked a little, it was a must for all to take pictures inside it.

'Reimagining reality'.— Photo by Zoya Anwer
'Reimagining reality'.— Photo by Zoya Anwer

Another fascinating aspect of the festival was the live painting of old Karachi by painter Faiz Rahi, who once painted cinema billboards.

“I decided to recreate these images because they can’t be found anymore. This is Paradise Point and it used to be one of the most important landmarks in Karachi,” shared Rahi as his fingers worked swiftly on the canvas.

Of music and laughter

While people looked around at the artwork, around 80 attendees crowded into a small room where musicians Yousaf Kerai and Shehroze Hussain gave a tabla and sitar workshop. Starting with a short performance of 'O Laal Meri', 'Ankhiyan Udeekdiyan' and others, the duo then discussed major and minor notes in music upon which all harmonies depend. The crowd including children responded to Kerai and clapped to the music with almost everyone in awe of the 17-year-old prodigy Hussain.

Yousaf Kerai and Shehroze Hussain— Photo by Zoya Anwer
Yousaf Kerai and Shehroze Hussain— Photo by Zoya Anwer

This was followed by a performance ‘Two Views of a Bridge’ by improvisational troupe Platoon, which poked fun at the city’s conditions and relationships. The crowd thoroughly enjoyed the work presented in both English and Urdu.

Swaleha Alam Shahzada, executive director of CAP, shared that the aim of the festival was to give room to tolerant activities through the arts:

“Our aim is to see a Karachi, which was once tolerant and peaceful, but then very quickly it all changed. I saw Karachi go from a very lovely and peaceful city to curfews, riots, political parties, etc. I lived through that era and the '80s changed the city completely, economically, politically, socially and most importantly, morally. The purpose of this exhibition is not only to promote a more forbearing Karachi but to encourage the youth that it is up to them to take its ownership.”