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A scene from the theatre on folktale Marui | Photos by the writer
A scene from the theatre on folktale Marui | Photos by the writer

There is old proverb in Sindhi: “Sach ta vetho nach.” It roughly translates as: “If you speak the truth, you can continue to dance with joy.”

Dance was among the intended casualties of the March 21, 2017 attack on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s shrine in Sehwan that left over 70 dead. I returned to Sindh anxious about the fallout of the attack but on the ground, I discovered some marvellous mega cultural festivals. These included literary, art and music events in Hyderabad, Jamshoro, Sukkur, Larkana and Karachi. Without a doubt, Sindh’s pluralistic and heterogeneous culture identity was at the fore again. In the fight against militancy, Sindh’s heritage is saving its people.

This vibrant art and cultural activism reminded me of the critical discussion on the status of arts in non-Western cultural settings in a course on World Arts in University of Bern in Switzerland. The key question of the group discussion in class was interrogating the Eurocentric idea about the development and status of art in non-Western cultures. It goes without saying that non-Western societies carry a strong tradition of developing and promoting art, literature, folklore oral history and critical cultural expressions stretched over centuries-old art and folklore history.

And perhaps, it is this history that resonates with the contemporary art scene. Plenty of cultural and art institutions in Pakistan seem actively engaged in creative cultural expressions and socially-engaged art, literature, theatre and musical practices. During my fieldwork in the months of December, January and February, I attended four mega literature, music and folk art festivals. This cultural and art activism in Sindh seemed like a conscious effort by progressive writers, literati, human rights and peace activists to own and reclaim creative cultural space by promoting and constructing the socially progressive, plural and secular Sindhi cultural identity.

A province once considered ‘secular’ and ‘tolerant’ is beset by rising militancy. Are festivals the force that will change mindsets?

Historically, the creative Sufi cultural expression has shaped the discourse of Sindh’s culture of plural and peaceful co-existence contained in Sufi cultural heritage. It has also defined the cultural identity of Sindh which has been projected by progressive Sindhi intelligentsia such as G.M Syed, Shaikh Ayaz, Rasheed Bhatti, Anwar Pirzado and Agha Saleem among others. The effective role of cultural institutions both formal and informal, and individuals, also has tremendous significance in the discourse of cultural identity.

Globally, the conscious and contentious use of socially-engaged creative art and cultural expression become a strong means to reassert human freedom and progressive public space against conservative social forces. Artists, writers and performers use art and culture for transformative purposes by creating critical knowledge and challenging the conservative power structures and status quo.

In the prevailing conditions of terror, violence and fear, creative cultural spaces and alternative voices have assumed greater significance. Celebrating art, culture and folklore now communicates an effective counter method to the spectre of conservatism.

“In Sindh, the discourse of pluralistic and heterogeneous roots of the Indus Valley culture also strongly dominates the construction of a cultural identity. Art and cultural events also project the idea of cultural diversity and plurality as the cornerstone of the development of cultural history and identity formation.

At a recently-held two-day Sindh Folk Art Festival, for example, speakers reiterated that “creative cultural spaces in the form of celebrating progressive literature, folklore, art, oral history, Sufism, music and dance are effective ways and mediums to reclaim and reassert the plural public sphere and identity in Pakistan.” The festival had been organised by the Institute of Sindhology at University of Sindh, Jamshoro in collaboration with the Sindh Culture, Tourism and Antiquities Department.

“At this moment, culture needs to be at the centre-stage to reclaim our creative spaces,” argued Dr Fouzia Saeed, a renowned writer, cultural and human rights activist at the Folk Art Festival. She also highlighted the need to organise, strengthen and reassert the “cultural constituency” through various cultural institutions and organisations. “We — as individuals and our cultural institutions — need to develop collaborations and take over the liberal, progressive space in Pakistan,” she contended.

Handicrafts of Sindh on display | Photos by the writer
Handicrafts of Sindh on display | Photos by the writer

The festival articulated the paramount importance of the interplay of creative expression and progressive cultural identity by displaying the Sufi performance of Qalandari Dhamal in the backdrop of the Sehwan carnage. By showing solidarity with the victims of the Sehwan terror incident, the festival conveyed a counter-voice against radicals through creative cultural expression and identity narratives.

A strong reflection of the interplay between cultural expression and cultural identity construction was seen in a theatre performance in the Folk Art Festival. The performance centred on a folktale penned by the great 18th century Sindhi Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai which is called ‘Marui’. This is one manifestation of cultural patriotism — infinite love for the land and its people.

Similarly, the session on extremism and counter-cultural narrative at the Folk Art Festival set in the context of the Sehwan carnage displayed a critically and politically informed debate on religious radicalism in Pakistan. The session was moderated by Saif Samejo, a young activist,Sufi/folk vocalist and founder of the band The Sketches.

The speakers in this session critically explained the historical repression of cultural expression and identity in Pakistan and the state patronage of religious extremist forces and tendencies.

“Terrorism in Pakistan and Sindh is the product of state policies and patronage, it is not a phenomenon of society itself,” argued activist Jami Chandio, before adding that the problem lay at the feet of failed state policies especially the Afghan policy. “The peoples’ popular and folk culture is the real culture which is gathered and seen in the folk festival today. Our culture is the culture of folk wisdom, music, poetry and heritage. Over the centuries, people have owned, patronised, celebrated and followed the Sufi poets’ message of wisdom in our society.”

In Sindh, the discourse of pluralistic and heterogeneous roots of the Indus Valley culture also strongly dominates the construction of a cultural identity. Art and cultural events also project the idea of cultural diversity and plurality as the cornerstone of the development of cultural history and identity formation.

Intellectually and politically, this idea is also discussed to challenge the monolithic and exclusivist version of religiosity and radical forces. Progressive writers, artists and activists articulate the inclusive cultural legacy of the Indus valley civilisation. “The Indus Valley civilisation’s legacy of pluralistic and inclusive past has multicultural layers of heterogeneity and diversity in the form of different religious and cultural traditions,” argued Dr Fouzia Saeed at the Folk Art Festival.

As I returned to Switzerland, I was also moved by the audience at the four festivals I attended: primarily young, both men and women. Then there were writers and poets from remote villages and towns who enthusiastically throng these cultural spaces and even purchase books from the stalls put up on the sidelines of the event. This phenomenon hinted at how effective culture’s response has been to uncultured happenings around us. While progressive Sindhi intelligentsia and civil society actors have pushed the plurality of public spaces, Sindh’s cultural and intellectual history, based on folklore and Sufi repertoire, have once again proven to be strong signifiers of indigenous counter-cultural narratives in the making of Sindhi identity.

The writer is an anthropologist currently pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Bern, Switzerland.

He can be contacted over email:

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 9th, 2017