Sunday, February 2, 2014

On the Sindh Festival

So the Sindh Festival opened last night at Mohenjodaro, but it didn't remain untouched by controversy: the accusation that the ruins were being damaged by preparations for the festival, including the building of a stage, construction of steel pillars, and other things that shouldn't be happening on or around delicate ruins from a five-thousand year old civilisation. In addition, the vibrations by the construction and the loudspeakers during the concert, and the bright spotlights would possibly degrade the site even further. Furore erupted on social media, petitions were signed, and letters written. The Festival went ahead as planned and by all accounts was successful, but it's still a sensitive subject as we wait to assess the impact of the concert on the site post-event.

The Sindhi journalist Amar Guriro who took the photographs of the stage being constructed at the ruins tweeted them to me last week. I was very concerned when I saw the photographs and I retweeted them so that people might pay attention to the issue.  The Festival organisers responded by claiming they'd had archeological experts both local and foreign approve the plans and help build the site in a safe way. What looked like construction on top of the ruins was actually protective scaffolding, and the ruins were the backdrop for the concert, not the actually site of the concert, they added. They also showed examples of similar shows done at the Pyramids in Giza and other world heritage sites in Morocco. I'm going to talk to the French archeologists who were there next week to find out the real story. Until then I'll reserve my judgment because I need more facts.

Interestingly I haven't heard of UNESCO responding to any of the letters or petitions sent their way (Update: This report in the Dawn states the UNESCO director of world heritage sites disapproved of the ceremony being held at Mohenjodaro. Dear Dawn, could you at least have printed this person's name and told us whether this was communicated by letter, email, or carrier pigeon?).

But what I would like is for the organisers of the festival to make public the reports from the archeological experts they consulted recounting the ways and means in which the site was to be shielded from damage. I'd like to see any communications from UNESCO to the organisers on the same subject. And I'd like to see reports after the concert about how the site was cleaned up and returned to its original state. This is vital in terms of transparency - and the festival organisers owe this much to the Pakistani citizens at least. The Dawn report also states that the site remains closed to visitors - while I'm sure they're cleaning up whatever litter, pollution, and other damage to the site took place at the opening ceremony.

I was asked if as a "native Sindhi" I wasn't upset about the possible devastation of Mohenjodaro. I thought about this and realised that Mohenjodaro is a world heritage site that should matter to all Pakistanis, not just "native Sindhis". A report emerged in 2010 that Mohenjodaro was falling into ruin because it was being neglected. The PPP which was in power then did nothing. But NOBODY else - not civil society, not other political parties - even cared or noticed this report. Even when Bilawal highlighted the plight of Mohenjodaro when he announced the Sindh Festival, nobody was bothered. So I doubt the sincerity of many of those who are protesting now. It feels more like a chance for political point-scoring and to even turn this into a Punjabi vs. Sindhi thing, which is disgraceful.

The larger issue of pouring money into the Sindh Festival that could be spent elsewhere, on education or what have you, is another interesting point. On the one hand we complain that our culture is being neglected and nobody cares about the arts in Pakistan. We bemoan the fact that the government doesn't support the arts and that our musicians and artists are starving and dying. But when this amount of money is poured into a festival (long overdue, I might add) we complain that it's a "waste". So which way do you want it? I would rather look at it as an investment in our culture, not a "waste".

Of course, we have bigger priorities, such as putting money into our healthcare and education systems, but frankly if that money was put into the systems as they are right now, it would disappear…and that would be the true waste. Those systems are in need not of cash injections but of complete overhaul from the ground up.

Governments all over the world earmark large sums of money for culture. There's the National Endowment for the Arts, there's the British Government's myriad arts grants and support. I attended a festival in Copenhagen last fall that was funded by the Danish government's arts council. The Pakistani government has put money into its culture, but Sindh is far behind. It would help of course if we got our due share from the centre because there would then be more money all around for development in Sindh, but that isn't going to happen anytime soon. The funds should be set aside for culture in a systematic way, but also made transparent so we can see where the money has gone.

In the meantime, we should evaluate the Sindh Festival objectively and look at its pros and cons, instead of using it for political point-scoring in favour of or against any political party, or just dismissing it as a waste of time and money. And using it as an opportunity to make fun of Bilawal's looks or personal life is honestly not adding anything healthy to the discussion.

UPDATE: I had the chance on Tuesday evening to speak with the French Embassy's Cultural Affairs Counsellor, who oversees the presence of French researchers in Pakistan. I asked her whether any of them had been consulted by the Sindh Government on the issue of safety at Mohenjodaro during the Sindh Festival. She told me that no archeologists or conservationists had been consulted; the only French people consulted were a private team of technical engineers who specialise in illuminating monuments. Furthermore, she said that in the Islamabad conference on the French Contribution to Pakistan studies, the archeologists were asked what they thought of the use of Mohenjodaro for the Sindh Festival opening concert. The word they used was a French one, "honteuse". I'll let you figure out for yourselves what that one means.

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