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Folk heritage enriched

February 08, 2018

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A FOUR-HOUR audio-visual recapitulation in Islamabad last week of what Lok Virsa (The National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage,) has been doing for three years merits attention as it should generate a discussion on the priorities in the conservation and the promotion of folk arts and culture.

When Dr Sania Nishtar’s term as health minister in the federal caretaker government of 2013 concluded, she produced a fairly comprehensive record of what issues relating to national health she had inherited from her predecessor and what she had done for the promotion of best policies and practices. Prof Salima Hashmi, health minister in the Punjab caretaker government during the same period, also threw light on some questionable drug-import policies.

These are commendable practices whereby holders of public offices offer their work for public scrutiny and accountability, and also help their successors with an up-to-date portfolio analysis. The exercise may not be without an element of self-projection but that will not matter so long as the claims of accomplishments are duly substantiated.

Now Dr Fouzia Saeed has presented a record of Lok Virsa’s performance during her three-year term as its executive director. There is no need to go into the history of Lok Virsa, especially after the departure of its first director, Uxie Mufti, who had exercised considerable autonomy in putting his personal stamp on the institute’s work, while designing the institution’s scope and its priorities.

There is little doubt that Lok Virsa appears to be a more attractive and crowded place than ever before.

The first objective the outgoing director had set for herself was to enable Lok Virsa to become a repository of the folk arts, crafts and cultural traditions of all the geographical/ administrative units of Pakistan and of the various communities inhabiting them. This led not only to inviting folk singers, dancers, musicians and craftspersons, men and women both, regardless of their creed or caste, to perform on the Lok Virsa stage, but also to recognition of their achievements and performances as a part of the national repertoire. It also led to inclusion in the board of governors (created for the first time) representatives from all the four provinces and Gilgit-Baltistan. The same principle was observed in the recruitment of the staff that included one person from Azad Kashmir as well.

This achievement of Lok Virsa should be ranked along with its efforts to promote pluralism, such as celebration of the festivals of Nauroze, Holi, Diwali, Christmas and Basant, and this year a Bahai day. This goes beyond a vague and passing acceptance of diversity and amounts to acknowledging pluralism as a dynamic force.

But Lok Virsa was not content with offering its stage in the national capital to artists from the four corners of the country; it had to also explore possibilities of taking folk heritage to the people in their homes. Three means were utilised: resumption of regular programmes on TV channels; participation of folk artists in events organised by like-minded organisations in different parts of the country and abroad (China); motivating provincial directorates of culture to hold joint events; and forging functional linkages with over 150 art and culture organisations.

One of the organisations benefiting from Lok Virsa support is the Indus Cultural Organisation that has been holding annual festivals of mother tongues and has honoured and offered publications in more than a score of Pakistan’s lesser known languages.

In order to move beyond the narrow confines of conservation of heritage and ensure its progressive continuation and enrichment, children from all parts of the country were encouraged to learn traditional crafts and the performing arts. Thus, the audience could see a Baltistani boy dancing with abandon and a girl from Rawalpindi merrily singing Jugni and playing on the chimta as a professional. They were followed by young singers from the different federating units to display their commitment to keeping their folk traditions alive.

By way of extending the space for itself, Lok Virsa launched what is perhaps Pakistan’s most popular film club, Mandwa, with the cooperation of the national film industry through the efforts of writer-director-producer Syed Noor and Aijaz Gul, one of the country’s few promoters of film art who graduated in the subject from the University of California.

There is little doubt that today Lok Virsa appears to be a much more attractive and crowded place than ever before. What is more important is the feeling of belonging to and ownership of the institution that artists performing here demonstrate.

Perhaps one of the outgoing director’s most outstanding gifts to Lok Virsa is digitisation of its precious archival record. Despite the upheavals at the institute, this record survived neglect but was lying scattered in old tin boxes and was available only to the staff of the institution or extraordinarily stubborn researchers. Thanks to the Lok Virsa team and its collaborators (Smithsonian Institute of the USA and Lahore’s Interactive Arts) the entire stock is now available to the public online. As a sample, the audience was treated to recordings of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Pathaney Khan, Farida Khanum and Ustad Zahoor (his very first recording).

Add to all this two excellently produced coffee table books on the country’s heritage (edited by Fouzia Saeed herself) and its cinema (by Aijaz Gul and Jamal Sohail), plus Khwaja Najmul Hasan’s introduction to three musical instruments. 

There will always be persons who will argue that something more could have been done or this activity or the other could have been conducted better. That is the fate of all doers but anyone who sees this retrospective on Lok Virsa’s last three years is unlikely to disagree with the Islamabad audience’s roaring approval of the presentation. 

By all accounts, Lok Virsa now seems equipped to scale new heights as the promoter of the country’s folk heritage. It has a good body of work to build upon and it possesses a team of workers capable of rising higher. But if this institute does not flourish in the years ahead, nothing will save the government from becoming a laughing stock.

Published in Dawn, February 8th, 2018