Lahore Literary Festival's virtual edition amid COVID-19 crisis spurs cross-border exchange in absence of red tape

The transition from physical to digital has opened up a unique opportunity for the Lahore Literary Festival to reach Indians and Pakistanis living all over the world.

Chintan Girish Modi February 18, 2021 10:24:59 IST
Lahore Literary Festival's virtual edition amid COVID-19 crisis spurs cross-border exchange in absence of red tape

The Lahore Literary Festival (LLF), which was founded in 2012, is all set to host its ninth edition in a virtual format from 18-21 February. The transition from physical to digital has opened up a unique opportunity for this annual extravaganza to reach Indians and Pakistanis living all over the world. While the LLF has made consistent efforts to promote cross-border dialogue by hosting writers, artists and scholars from India, the privilege of getting a Pakistani visa stamp on their Indian passport has been available to very few Indians due to a restrictive visa regime. Pakistanis who want to visit India have to face similar bureaucratic hurdles.

Razi Ahmed, the founder and CEO of LLF says, “This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic persists, we have been able to bypass the barriers that bar us from free exchange of people and ideas here in South Asia especially as right-wing forces gain more currency. We are delighted to be hosting eminent fellow South Asians from India and the diaspora. All these interactions will set the tone for widening our circles to talk to each other for fashioning a more tolerant and diverse neighbourhood.” The itinerary features an impressive list of speakers including Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, Farrukh Dhondy, Shrabani Basu, Ayesha Jalal, Sugata Bose, Nikesh Shukla, Fareed Zakaria, Kamila Shamsie, Vali Nasr, Hisham Matar and Yann Martel.

Delhi-based architecture conservationist Sunita Kohli will join Pakistani art historian FS Aijazuddin in a session commemorating author Ved Mehta who passed away on 9 January 2021. Peace activist Syeda Hameed and playwright Shamim Hanfi, both from Delhi, will join Pakistani writers Nasir Abbas Nayyar and Harris Khalique in paying tribute to poet-critic Shamsur Rehman Faruqui who died on 25 December 2020. Hanfi will also be part of a session with Pakistani writers Asghar Nadeem Syed, Dr Fatima Hassan and Nasir Abbas Nayyar, held in memory of writer-translator Asif Farrukhi, who died on 1 June 2020.

One of the books being launched at LLF is Desi Delicacies: Food Writing from Muslim South Asia. Claire Chambers, the editor of this anthology, says that the experience of putting together this book helped her “appreciate the culinary heritage shared by Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis” to a greater extent than she had before. Although the cuisine is extremely diverse, one of the commonalities she noticed had to do with “forces pulling towards nostalgia for a long and proud tradition of ‘authentic’ food heritage, rubbing up against a desire for convenience, fusion, and labour-saving — especially for women.”

Writer-historian Rana Safvi, who lives in Delhi, is a proud contributor to this anthology. She thinks of food as an element of culture that binds people. She reminisces about the similarities between local cuisines in Delhi and Lahore. “Those who migrated to Karachi from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar cook their food using the same recipes we use here,” she says. Though she is glad to participate in “a literary festival where bridges are being built, even if digitally,” she hopes to attend the LLF in person someday.

Crossing the border is a dream that many Indians and Pakistanis nurse in their hearts. The wars between these countries, and frequent tensions along the Line of Control, have not diminished people’s curiosity about each other and their longing for peace. Safvi recalls JP Dutta’s Bollywood film Refugee (2000), and adds, “The song by Javed Akhtar — ‘Panchhi nadiya pawan ke jhonke/ Koi sarhad na inhein roke (Birds, rivers, gusts of wind/ No borders can stop them)’ — is so fitting for a digital literary festival. No more worries of visas and checks.”

Similarly, Raza Rumi, the founding editor of Naya Daur Media, a publication for “Pakistanis at home and abroad”, believes that “the digital age with all its warts and inequities has successfully demolished the iron curtain raised by Indian and Pakistani governments.” He is going to moderate the launch of the volume edited by Chambers.

A lot of Pakistani authors are being published in India. Has this created more awareness among Indians about lived experiences of Pakistanis, and challenged jingoism? “Literature goes beyond borders, and helps people understand each other’s point of view,” says Sherna Khambatta, a Mumbai-based literary agent who represents Pakistani author Osman Haneef. He will speak at LLF 2021. She adds, “Pakistan has a book ban from India, so it was impossible to have the book available in Pakistan. There are two editions — Blasphemy (published by Readomania in India) and The Verdict (published by Reverie Publishers in Pakistan). There are a few changes to the book in keeping with the laws and cultural norms in Pakistan.”

The protocols and paperwork that frustrate citizens who wish to travel to the other side could spawn a multi-volume collection of stories. However, some people just won’t accept defeat come what may. Pakistani art historian Salima Hashmi has been at the forefront of several cross-border peace initiatives. At LLF 2021, she will be in conversation with Kavita Singh, professor of Art History at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Their session is titled “Decoding the Artistic Process: The Making of Miniatures in the Mughal Courts.” (The conversation was pre-recorded and will be played at the festival.)

Hashmi says, “Last year, we had tried to bring Kavita to Lahore for this session but it couldn’t happen for the reasons we are all familiar with. As we talked, all impediments fell away and our interaction was just so palpable. It seemed like a precious gift in these troubled times. The talk had been designed in such a way that Kavita spoke of miniatures from the Mughal era, which address more than what appears obvious. The artist manages to speak of concerns other than what the patron desired. I attempted to show how the contemporary miniaturists also tackle similar subjects, sometimes in an equally oblique way.”

How can the study of painting in Mughal courts help us appreciate our shared cultural heritage? When Prof Singh teaches the history of Mughal art, she finds that “students can instantly recall the appearance of the mausolea where Humayun, Akbar, and Shah Jahan lie buried, but not of Jahangir.” Why? She cannot think of any reason apart from the fact that Jahangir's mausoleum is in Lahore. She adds, “While we have seen photographs of ‘our’ monuments since childhood, we simply haven't been interested in monuments that lie beyond our borders. There is a strong connection between monuments and rootedness. Paintings are different. They are mobile by design, meant to pass from hand to hand.”

Unfortunately, Mughal history is invoked in contemporary India to talk about Muslims as outsiders even though the Constitution guarantees them equal rights. Would it be accurate to say that art can provide a different vantage point, and replace hostility with understanding?

According to Prof Singh, hostility does not arise out of things that are materially present “out there”. Therefore, she does not think that there are other things “like beautiful artworks” that can “be a cure” for hostility. She says, “If one is determined to be hostile towards a culture or a phase of history, then one can learn even to hate its beauty for being beautiful. The problem lies in our hearts, and its solutions lie in our hearts as well.”

The sessions of LLF 2021 will be accessible on YouTube and Facebook Live. More information here.

Chintan Girish Modi is a writer, educator and researcher who tweets @chintan_connect

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