As the governments quibble over whether or not to meet and talk, a dialogue, albeit limited in its scope and spread, is happening between the people of India and Pakistan.
Some activists call it an ‘exchange for change.’ An exchange it indeed is; the desired change a forlorn dream still for want of official push. Contact between people isn’t an ornament on the mantelpiece in our turbulent ties. It’s a beacon of hope that’s being allowed to burn. Mercifully!
A couple of events in recent days gave the optimism that all isn’t lost despite terror strikes, inflamed borders and failed attempts at NSA-level discussions. The turnout was huge for a dinner Pakistan’s high commissioner Abdul Basit hosted to mark a fashion fiesta, Shan-e-Pakistan, where chefs from Pakistan and India cooked live as a celebrated quwwal from across the border, Amjad Farid Sabri performed live.
Sabri had made headlines recently when he questioned the ‘unauthorised’ use of his ancestors’ evergreen composition — bhar do jholi meri ya Mohammad — in Salman Khan’s sub-continental blockbuster, Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
The happy symbolism was that he was in India and sang the number on popular demand at the concert.
The spectre was reminiscent of a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan show in the 1990s when bilateral ties were as much strained. Undeterred, people turned out in thousands for the musical evening at the Saarc trade fair.
As the cross-legged maestro took to the mike, his audience riveted, a young man in the gathering threw up seizures. There was commotion. People rushed to help the man in convulsions. But he quickly regained composure, standing up to shout: “Ustaad, Ali, Ali karr…”
The legendary quwwal obliged without demur, bursting into the popular eulogium for Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law celebrated by Sufi mystics. Some broke into jigs, throwing themselves at the singer’s feet.
The governments weren’t talking then, like they aren’t talking now.
If Sabri came and performed, so did Madeeha Gauhar’s Ajokha, the theatre group that in 2013 was prevented from staging a play on Sadat Hassan Manto as part of NSD’s theatre festival in Delhi. That was the year the two countries were commemorating the centenary of the short-story genius who stood up against fundamentalism and captured in his writings the horrors and angst of the Partition.
In tandem with the NGO, Routes2Roots, Ajokha held a theatre festival at the Kamani auditorium the centrepiece of which were its productions on Dara Shikoh and Manto — titled Kaun Hai Ye Gustakh.
The plays, including Lo Phir Basant Aayi, were staged before a packed audience. People stood and sat in aisles in rapt attention. One could even hear a pin drop.
In the sub-continental context, so much of Dara’s story is Ajokha — that in English means contemporary. A tragic figure of history, he was the Sufi, the secularist, the pacifist done in by the imperial ambition of his younger brother, Aurangzeb, who recently had his plate pulled down from a Delhi promenade.
Dara was an assimilator declared a heretic to Islam by the state-crafty Aurangzeb. What stayed with the audience was the scene of his deposition in the Shariat Court where he talks of syncretic interaction between religions, similarities in the Upanishads (he translated to Persian) and the Quran and his duty as the crown prince towards his subjects irrespective of their religious persuasions.
Equally well-enacted were passages on Dara’s composite wisdom acquired from mystics, sages, scriptures across faiths. Many who watched the performance felt Delhi should have enthroned Dara on the road from where it ousted Aurangzeb!
Vinod Sharma is the Political Editor, HT.