CULTURE: THE MYSTIQUE OF FAIZ

Published March 3, 2024
The festival celebrates arts and culture and also hosts discussions on issues facing the country
The festival celebrates arts and culture and also hosts discussions on issues facing the country

The crowds were adrenalin-infused, but then that is the norm at any Lahore festival. The premises overflowed, but then Lahore is a city where life is actually lived. The food court was a hornet’s nest with sweetened and spiced aromas, but then Lahoris live to eat. The Alhambra sprouted a rainbow of sounds and sights, but then spring was also in the air.

When Faiz Ahmed Faiz — people’s poet, populist, ideologue and romantic, in the eyes of some an incorrigible rebel, winner of the Lenin Peace Prize and yet, a man endlessly stalked and hounded in his own land — died in 1984, his name itself wore a shroud.

It was also sometime in those years that Iqbal Bano braved the wrath of an unwarranted law by singing the poet’s iconic “Hum Dekhain Gey” to a charged audience. It didn’t end with just state censure. When he was a young child, one of Faiz’s grandchildren came home and asked his mother what his grandfather had done, because his classmates were turning their noses up at Faiz’s mention.

Fast forward and February 2024 is another story, another country, where brand name Faiz is a resonant mantra reborn. While Faiz the poet has continued to ride the waves of acclaim, it is the festival named after him that has raised questions, leaving in its wake a large interrogative mark on our collective conscience. What, after all, is the secret behind the meteoric rise in the unprecedented commitment of the public to celebrate his creativity and with such gay abandon?

Eleven years since its inception, what is it about Lahore’s Faiz Festival that continues to draw more and more people to it?

The festival is, after all, still very much a family, friends and fans affair. Slow and steady in the initial years, it has risen sphinx-like, to emerge as a spatial, seasonal landmark. It is Lahore’s new reality — the literary, social and cathartic doyen of a city already overfed with back-to-back festive activity. Could Lahore take more festivity?

Lahore’s public spaces are booked back-to-back in February, so did we really need another festival? Was there enough space in an already jam-packed season that hosts a festival for everything from spring to the world and its wife? Would people have the energy to think Faiz, given that the Faiz event is entirely curated by the family, though the fan base has a marked presence too?

The Faiz brand has national and international presence but what, after all, is the secret behind the meteoric popularity of the festival in Lahore? Zoom through 2011 to 2024 and the vague idea following the Faiz centenary celebrations has become homing ground for just about everybody who is a somebody or, more importantly, a nobody. Is it a case of mystique, of magic, or the indomitable Lahori spirit to trademark an opportunity to question itself and others, to find catharsis?

“The Faiz Festival was never designed to deify the man. He was an ideology and the festival had to display that ideology, that inclusivity,” says Adeel Hashmi, secretary general of the Faiz Foundation.

While the festival content ranged from entertainment to intellectual discussion to gourmet delights, this year saw the marked presence of Faiz’s picture on posters all over town.

But, there is a section of society that thinks that Faiz enjoys more of a social cult following and even people who have no idea of his poetic worth just like to be connected with him because it is an elitist, fashionable thing to be seen talking about him. They think the festival is a drama concocted by his family and friends out to make a name for themselves; they say the festival is not really worth all that hype.

But what really added a zesty piquancy to the event, turning a festive meet into a phenomenon, was the demographic group born after Faiz died. The youngsters are reading Faiz and were drawn to participate in a festival attributed to him in an age when AI [artificial intelligence] is the thing. The Faiz Festival holds charisma for the new under-25-year-old generation who were born, bred and educated in a climate far less claustrophobic and repressive than their parents.

The Faiz Festival pays homage to a beloved poet by offering creative activities to young and old in Lahore | M Arif/White Star
The Faiz Festival pays homage to a beloved poet by offering creative activities to young and old in Lahore | M Arif/White Star

They came to put uninhibited questions to panellists because, like Faiz the man, the festival allowed them the right to query and, in a lot of cases, get answers. Faiz’s inclusion in school syllabi has turned him into a panacea for their dilemmas.

Another segment of participants in the milling crowd were the upper middle class, which came simply out of frustration, when broken dreams and harsh realities made them realise they needed a space to vent those frustrations. They came in the hope of meeting others who are just as broken, having realised their bubble has burst.

They melted into the awaam drawn from Faiz’s audience in his masterful Intesab. This was a class forced once again to walk fettered in chains of unfair burdens. Of course, the seniors, as always, were the few left over from the days of Faiz, so they came in wheelchairs and their walking props, just to pay respect to Faiz’s creativity.

In the finale, this was one festival that spelt family, friends and fans. Shorn of political presence, officialdom, VIP culture, of reserved seats, it was an awaami delight in totality.

Managing this inclusive sophistication at such a massive scale was perhaps the greater challenge for the festival’s designers. Had they prioritised just literature, book readings and launches, debate and dialogue, there was small chance that Faiz’s real fan base would have felt at home in the Alhamra.

The addition of dance and music, the fun activities and street entertainment, and the charade of inviting people to actually write letters to Faiz were, however, a clarion call addressed to the awaam, and the awaam made a statement by arriving in droves and dancing to the beat of drums.

Maintaining logistic and intellectual balance between literary and entertainment segments this year, the Faiz meet was a showcase of national and international panellists engaging in dialogue. It became an informed package of debates and dialogue, focusing on topics as far connected as the remnants of Partition to the joy of Urdu in a multilingual world.

Spiritual catharsis came through a mushaira and a qawwali. The open air drum circle evoked abandon. Recitations, a tableau by school children and engagements on Palestine as well as cross-border relationships brought mental engagement.

The Faiz centenary in 2011 had been a page-turner because that day, as friends and family came to publicly pay homage, possibly for the first time since his death, a vague idea, rather slapdash in its genesis, came to haunt two persons as they conversed randomly. One was family, the other a fan. And the Faiz Festival was born.

The grimness of logistics, economics and programming the festival would have put lesser souls down, but not his family. Wild schemes such as selling off family jewellery to fund the festival were voted for and vetoed out, until word got around and sponsors started trickling in. “But that first year we were not able to pay off the event managers for twelve months,” says Moneeza Hashmi, trustee and chief organiser of the Faiz Festival.

The grim reality remains, however, that every festival requires an immense cash flow. All events, save a few, remained free as per tradition. Yet detractors would have you believe the Faiz brand is being cashed in on and exploited.

But as Faiz said, “Chalo phir se muskurayein” [Let’s smile again]. That, incidentally, has always been the official theme song of the festival.

The writer is a freelance journalist, translator and creative content writer.

She has taught in the LUMS Lifetime programme.
X: @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 3rd, 2024

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