Lyari Notes: Singing songs of change

  • Joanna Lobo, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 02, 2015 13:23 IST

A troupe of clowns jumps about on stage, having fun. Slowly, they separate into groups - the bullies, the bullied, and the bystanders. A new boy enters and won't join any of the groups. He goes off in search of something better.

This pantomime, titled A Bunch of Clowns, was staged earlier this year by a group of 60 underprivileged students from Lyari - a densely populated town in Pakistan's commercial capital of Karachi, marked by gang wars and bomb blasts.

It was staged at the prestigious National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA), and for the children - aged 11 to 19 - it was a rare opportunity to shine.

An opportunity made possible by the Music, Art and Dance (MAD) School started in 2010 by musician Hamza Jafri and his wife Nida Butt, a theatre director. For the past year, MAD has been offering free performing arts lessons to children selected from across the town.

A poster of the documentary Lyari Notes.

Four of the girls in this group - 11-year-olds Mehroz Ismail, Aqsa Pervez and Sherbano Karim, and 12-year-old Jamal Rauf - are now the subject of an upcoming documentary titled Lyari Notes, being made by independent filmmakers Maheen Zia from Pakistan and Miriam Chandy Menacherry from India, with money crowdsourced from donors across six countries.

The documentary tells the story of how music changed the lives of these kids, most of them children of clerks and small-scale traders, despite odds that included government curfews and parental opposition.

The trailer of the film shows one of the parents voicing a typical concern: 'I thought music was a sin. That's what it says in the Shariyat.' One girl's uncle was so sure it was un-Islamic that her parents only let her sign up after he had moved out of the house.'

LYARI NOTES crowd funding trailer from Miriam Chandy Menacherry on Vimeo.

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"Baloch families have traditionally been very fond of music," says Karachi-based filmmaker Maheen Zia, co-producer of Lyari Notes. "These girls' journey now serves as an inspiration for other children from the region, and other parents."

Since most parents were also concerned about the girls' safety, a van was arranged twice a week, to pick them up and drive them to the music school and back.

The initiative began when local educational NGO Kiran Foundation approached Jafri to conduct a music program for some of the children they were working with. A year ago, he expanded this into the Lyari Stars Program, selecting 60 students from across the town to learn acting, singing (in Urdu and in Balochi), and music composition.

When some parents expressed reservations, Jafri, Butt and a representative of Kiran Foundation met each family to answer their questions and put their minds at ease. The documentary, filmed over three years, shows the four girls growing up, from kids fascinated with their new instruments to self-aware, confident and talented pre-teens. "These four girls are best friends. They go to school together, play and study together. At the same time they are discovering who they are, their different personalities, and how to react to what is going on around them," says Menacherry, co-producer of Lyari Notes and director of Mumbai-based production house Filament Pictures. "They often discuss the political situation in their country."

For instance, after the Peshawar shootout in December 2014, where seven gunmen killed 132 schoolchildren at that city's Army Public School, the girls attended a candlelight vigil in Karachi and afterwards discussed what could have brought on such an incident, and discussed how the world had reacted to it.

"Music thus is like an intervention programme that is reaching out to them at a point where they are looking for a means of expression," Menacherry says. "It helps them grow. Initially you see them all quiet and shy and then they come out of their shells."

The parents are happy too. "Sheherbano's mother had wanted to study music when she was young but didn't have the opportunity. Now she feels she is living this dream through her daughter," Zia says. "They want them to apply for scholarships to study abroad. Even if the girls don't take up music professionally, it will always be part of their lives."

(Lyari Notes will be released in India and Pakistan later this year)

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