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‘Jadle Azal’
‘Jadle Azal’

"The beauty of a festival is that you may stumble on a performance that is extraordinary,” says Zain Ahmed, the artistic director of the National Academy of Performing Arts (Napa). “There are different performances every day that have been selected by an accomplished jury, and you may like what you see on stage. But there’s also a chance that you may get completely bowled over.”

Zain’s words ring true for performing arts festivals in general but, at this point, he is particularly referring to the sixth edition of the International Performing Arts Festival that has recently wrapped up in Karachi. The 20-day-long festival featured a diverse line-up, boasting music, dance and theatrical performances that varied from classical genres to modern improvisations, socially relevant storylines and shows for children. There were shows by performance troupes who had flown in from Sri Lanka, Italy, Australia, France, Germany and Iran, and a motley crew of local thespians — longstanding veterans as well as Napa impressarios on the rise — that took over the stage.

Among the latter lot, for example, there was the eloquent Zia Mohyeddin holding centre-stage and Joshinder Chaggar twirling magnificently to the tune of an Australian dance, a powerhouse group of female actors reinventing the classic ‘Heer Ranjha’ with the Heer Project and director Meesam Naqvi poking fun at marriage with Raaz-o-Niaz. Just as Zain described, there were performances that received applause — and others that were the stuff of standing ovations.

Napa’s Sixth International Performing Arts Festival brought together a diverse array of stage, music and dance performers to celebrate art over commercialism

“The performers and directors are not at all bound by commercial constraints,” says Zain. “The focus is on exploring new ideas and artistic creativity. Even the jury, when selecting the work to be incorporated into the festival, doesn’t really consider commercial viability.”

With artistry being the predominant concern, there were shows that dabbled with innovative concepts. In Oh My Sweet Land, Corinne Jaber stood in a kitchen, cooking a traditional Syrian dish while narrating her journey from Paris to Syria, recalling the realities she witnessed in Syrian refugee camps — a lone woman, albeit a powerful one, on a stage. Wahala, a contemporary Sri Lankan dance performance, depicted slavery in today’s world.

And Heer Project, by Zain Ahmed and Bakhtawar Mazhar, retold the Heer Ranjha story from a woman’s perspective. “I had staged Heer Ranjha about a year-and-a-half ago and since then, had been thinking about exploring the story from a different angle,” says Zain. “This was also an appropriate time to stage the play because audiences are beginning to realise the importance of creating female role models. I hoped that they would be able to understand the narrative underlying the play.”

One very popular session that took place towards the beginning of the festival was a talk conducted by Ustad Nafees Ahmed with two celebrated musical veterans: singer Nayyara Noor and composer Arshad Mehmood. “It was a special talk because Nayyara Noor hardly ever makes public appearances,” recalls Zain Ahmed

There were other plays that also centred round female protagonists and their emotional journeys. Aqeel Ahmed’s Bari, for instance, touched upon gender discrimination and gender violence, through the stories of four women sitting inside a prison cell.

Nayyara Noor and Arshad Mehmood
Nayyara Noor and Arshad Mehmood

Most of the performances, however, were only staged for a day or, at most, two days. Heer Project, for instance, won rave reviews but refrained from cashing in on the hype with another show that could have attracted audiences who had got intrigued by the reviews.

“Perhaps we will show repeat performances later or maybe in the next festival,” says Zain. “The festival went on quite for long, regardless. We want audiences to keep coming in and over the past six years, we have seen a growing interest in theatre. Ticket prices are deliberately kept affordable — 600 rupees for adults and 300 rupees for students — because we want theatre to educate, entertain and touch the lives of everybody. We can’t charge astronomical rates and restrict it just to the elite.”

Six years ago, the first festival by Napa had focused entirely on local theatre. The event has now progressed to include international participants and incorporate other forms of performance arts as well. “Dance was included because we wanted to stress that it was also a form of performing art. And we already teach music at Napa, so incorporating it into the schedule made logical sense.”

‘Heer Project’
‘Heer Project’

One very popular session that took place towards the beginning of the festival was a talk conducted by Ustad Nafees Ahmed with two celebrated music veterans: singer Nayyara Noor and composer Arshad Mehmood. “It was a special talk because Nayyara Noor hardly ever makes public appearances,” recalls Zain. “She and Arshad Mehmood share a long musical history, and they talked about life, their experiences, values … She also said something very important. She said that it is important not to focus on fame but to focus on art and its authenticity. If it is meant to be, the fame will follow.”

Those are words of wisdom for the modern-day generation of artists. They also resonate well with Napa, an academy that continues to silently build a small, resilient community of artists, connecting people and cultures and orchestrating festivals where art is the primary focus. The fame usually just follows.

Published in Dawn, ICON, April 7th, 2019