FESTIVAL: WITH STRINGS ATTACHED

February 16, 2020

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Photos: Tahir Jamal & Mohammad Ali/WhiteStar
Photos: Tahir Jamal & Mohammad Ali/WhiteStar

There were puppets that stood out in bright colours, in an area reserved especially for them: large, rotund creatures with huge noses, small festive horses and tall, thin men towering over them all. To many of the people roaming the 29th International Puppet Festival in Karachi organised by the Rafi Peer Theatre Group, these oddball, fantastical figures looked familiar.

They had fascinated them back when they were young; the tall ones would often be the heroes or wise old men while the fat, huge creations would be the pranksters or the djinns, cackling as they went about their mischief. They would be joined by a quirky menagerie of ducks, rabbits, parrots and monkeys, singing songs, cracking jokes and enacting magical stories from the Arabian Nights.

This sense of nostalgia, triggered by these characters as well as the name Rafi Peer itself, drew the people of Karachi to the Puppet Festival this year. Many had experienced the very first Rafi Peer puppet shows back in the ’90s, when the group had launched its career from this very city. In those days, these puppets would make the occasional rounds at schools, and would perform in shows that initially took place at the Alliance Francaise over the weekend and, later, in Karachi’s Planetarium. This was Pakistan’s first-ever live puppet theatre.

But a festival needs to offer more than mere nostalgia in order to hook its new audience, a contingent of young children diverted easily by electronic gadgets and with short attention spans. The Peerzada family, veritably Pakistan’s longest-active puppeteers, endeavoured to do so. The expansive Bagh Ibn-e-Qasim stood out in a whirl of colours and music. Three stages, set far apart from each other, rolled out a constant line-up of shows: men dressed as tribal warriors danced in the ‘Magic Show’ area, Rafi Peer’s puppets sang songs on the main stage and, in the folk puppetry corner, Kabare Pupala from Germany made mice, hedgehogs and foxes come to life with his string maneuvers, followed by a range of glittery Rajisthani characters enacting a traditional story to the melancholic wailing singing of Cholistan. Scattered around these stages were kiosks for food and face-painting.

After investing 45 years into the business, the Rafi Peer Group has constantly had to step back rather than move forward. With this year’s International Puppet Festival, the group is back in Karachi — where it all started from

“A lot of children in this city have never seen a puppet show,” observes Saadaan Peerzada, Festival Director and CEO of the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop. “This is our way of introducing them to this form of art. Setting up this festival has been a struggle. We have had to figure out logistics, and deal with finances and sponsors. We have been helped greatly by the Mayor of Karachi, Wasim Akhtar. Still, till the very last day, we were unsure, but then I decided that we just had to go on ahead with our plans!”

There was another obstacle that Saadaan was aware of: the people of Karachi were no longer entranced with puppets. As he pointed out, many of them, in fact, had never even seen a puppet show. The Rafi Peer group may have had once started off their careers in this city but they had long since then shifted focus to Lahore. Would they able to inspire their audience with a love for puppets, the way they had so long ago?

To some extent, yes. At the festival, the Rafi Peer entourage worked with full gusto and a steady crowd drifted in to see them. But there could have had been so much more. The puppet shows of yore would tell entire stories, staging popular fairy tales for performances that would extend to over half-an-hour. At the recent festival, the puppets were mostly seen in disjointed scripts and dances.

“We changed the format of our shows some time ago,” explains Saadaan. “Children these days often don’t want to sit through entire storytelling sessions. Our earlier puppet festivals followed schedules with different shows. People interested in a certain show would buy tickets for it and go see it in an auditorium. But for a long time now, I have opted for an open festival area, where shows are open to all and people can go see whatever they like, and for however long they want. Also, we didn’t have the sort of space here where we could put up shows in separate halls.”

Also, perhaps, there also weren’t enough puppeteers to set up a proper schedule. Where the festivals from long ago showcased an eclectic group of puppeteers from round the world, this three-day-long festival boasted just two international visitors: Charlotte Erwin from the Moth Theatre in the UK and Kabare Pupala from Germany. The remaining shows were by the Rafi Peer group itself and other local companies.

For audiences unfamiliar with the earlier Rafi Peer puppetry festivals, here’s a throwback: in the group’s heyday, puppeteers from all round the world would flock to the event. The fetes, splayed out in Lahore’s Gaddafi Stadium at the time, would be bolstered by heavy-duty sponsorships, and crowds that extended from the young to the old. There was never any doubt that the festivals were a success. The Rafi Peer group was lauded as a creative young group, admired for their commitment to the art of puppetry, music, dance and theatre.

I remember young teenagers flocking to their puppetry workshops that tended to be a part of the festival. Who wouldn’t want to be a puppeteer? Who wouldn’t want to be part of this dedicated, enterprising group of artisans? It was the ‘cool’ thing to be.

Aside from the festival on puppetry, the group has been known to organise a number of other mainstream events: the World Performing Arts Festival, the Youth Performing Festival, the Oslo Mela, the Lahore Amritsar Festival and the International Sufi Soul Mystic Music Festival. “We have organised about 82 international festivals in Lahore,” recounts Saadaan.

He agrees that there could have been many more had terrorism not struck them down repetitively. In 2008, three bombs went off at the World Performing Arts Festival taking place in Gaddafi Stadium. The fourth was intercepted and dismantled. Yet again, in 2010, a low-intensity bomb exploded at the group’s headquarters, Peeru’s Café, damaging the walls and windows of the café as well of the Museum of Puppetry, an extensive building lovingly curated by the late Faizan Peerzada, exhibiting puppets from round the world.

“Our confidence got shattered after the blasts. We couldn’t do the bigger festivals anymore. Sponsors also backed out,” says Saadaan. “It’s sad because, back in 2008, when the first attacks took place, we were at our prime. Our festivals were well-known round the world and artisans from all over would come to them. There was a time when as many as 700 delegates would participate.”

For a long time following the attacks, the group organised events on a smaller scale, in malls and at Peeru’s, with occasional festivals organised with great difficulty — sponsors were still hesitant and the government wasn’t much help. Their work remained familiar particularly to the people of Lahore, but the huge events that would make waves across the country were no longer taking place.

It was a pity and it made one wonder if cultural festivals would die out from the country with the Peerzada family losing heart. “We always knew that we had to go on but it has been difficult, and it continues to be so. We have invested 45 years into this business and, yet, we have constantly had to step back rather than move forward,” says Saadaan.

In 2018, a four-day International Puppet Festival took place at the Rafi Peer Cultural Complex in Lahore and now, the group is back in the city where it all started from, with this year’s puppet festival. “We would love to have a base in Karachi the way we have one in Lahore,” says Saadaan. “Have a puppetry museum, do regular shows. It’s difficult. We’re willing to invest our time, effort and share our skills with trainees but we can’t organise the finances for projects of such magnitude. Sponsors and the government need to realise the worth of what we’re trying to do and extend their support.”

But these are early days. One hopes that, following this year’s puppet festival, it leads to a bigger, better one next time. On the upside, it does seem that terrorism in Pakistan is now under control and maybe — hopefully — it is time for the Peerzadas to begin building a culture for festivals once again in a way that they only know.

At this year’s puppet festival, Charlotte Erwin, a young puppeteer from the UK, talked about how this was her first time in Pakistan and that her family had been worried. “I decided to come because the Rafi Peer group is well-known in the field of puppetry, and I have enjoyed interacting with the children here. I haven’t felt unsafe at any point.”

The festival did go on smoothly and safely, which means that, perhaps next time round, the Rafi Peer group could do more with it — stage longer, more coherent stories perhaps, or introduce greater diversity, if not from global visitors, then a better quality of local puppeteers, and plan out the festivals that they were once famous for, celebrating art and Pakistan itself.

They’ve done it before. They can hopefully do it again.

Published in Dawn, ICON, February 16th, 2020