ISLAMABAD // Fears of fundamentalist violence have driven sponsors away from South Asia's largest annual performing arts festival in the Pakistani cultural hub Lahore, forcing organisers to stage the 11-day festival on their own in what they see as a vital defence of freedom in defiance of religious extremism. The World Performing Arts Festival, running from Nov 13 to Sunday in Pakistan's grand old eastern city of 10 million people, is marking its 25th anniversary with this year's showcase of puppetry, dance, film and theatre from 14 countries.
But just 25 days before the festival's silver jubilee, the sponsor - a large corporate entity whom organisers have declined to name - pulled out of a 35 million rupee (Dh1.6m) commitment, citing commercial non-viability in Pakistan's climate of suicide bomb attacks and economic malaise. "We were at the venue with all our gear when the sponsor backed out. They said it is an unstable time and security is not good in this particular time frame, and such a huge festival commercially cannot be supported [at this moment]," said Faizaan Peerzada, the festival president.
"But for us this is a very important festival. We are making a statement by not bowing to any threat of terror. At a time like this we feel strongly that such activities must go on." Lahore is traditionally Pakistan's arts crucible. The Mughal-era city is home to its most vibrant artistic communities, such as the bold Ajoka Theatre Group that often challenges religious fundamentalism, the saucy Lollywood film industry and the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop, which organises the festival each year.
The Workshop and the festival are a family affair, run by the children of late playwright, actor and director Rafi Peerzada, Pakistan's first modern dramatist. His five sons and daughter are all arts professionals: Salman directs, acts and makes films; Usman is an actor, director and chief executive of the theatre company; Imran acts, writes and directs; Faizaan is a puppet designer, set designer, painter, and festival president; Tasneem writes puppet shows and handles the media; while Saadaan worked with puppets and is a key festival organiser. The festival started in 1983 as a puppet show.
Hugging the Indian border at the opposite end of the country to the Taliban-infested western frontier, Lahore had been immune to most of the militant violence scourging Pakistan in response to US forces' presence in Afghanistan and their attacks on Pakistan's tribal areas. But like the once-bucolic capital Islamabad, that immunity has been shattered in the past 12 months. In March, three suicide bomb attacks in downtown Lahore on the Navy College, Federal Investigation Agency headquarters and an advertising agency took 35 lives. A suicide blast at a marketplace in August killed 11 people. Last month three juice shops were bombed, leaving five injured. The shops had received threats about the use of their cabin-seating for "dating" by unmarried couples.
Three days, later on Oct 10, dozens of merchants at the central Hall Road market staged a public bonfire of allegedly "blue" CDs and DVDs after anonymous threats of bombing unless they shut down or destroyed their "vulgar" stock. The public burning was organised by the local traders' association, reportedly with police encouragement, to stave off any attacks. The traders' association at the time complained that theatre, cable TV and cinema offered more nudity than its CD vendors.
"We live under threat all the time," Mr Peerzada said. "Last year there were a few letters sent to us. This year there has not been a specific threat. But that doesn't mean anything." The filmmaker and critic Omar Ali Khan feared the public CD burning was the start of a wider attack on artistic expression. "I figure that in the natural progress of things the theatre and cinema and TV and radio will be next," he said. "Our lifestyle is under threat. Lahore is the heart of Pakistani culture. If people in Lahore are ready to burn CDs because they're scared of getting blown up, it shows how terrified they are."
Nevertheless, 350 international artists, including 150 from India, have travelled to Lahore to perform. Puppeteers from Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France, Ireland, Iran and the Netherlands; dancers from Austria, India and Romania; and actors from Afghanistan, Britain, Germany, India, Italy and the US have joined their Pakistani peers to stage 110 separate performances spread across nine marquees and an open-air stadium.
"We believe that even without a sponsor and with all the troubles, this festival should go on. It is a global platform for 11 days every year in November," said Tasneem Peerzada, the spokesman. "People wait each year for this festival and they come to see so much expression of art. We have created the audience. It has become a tradition." Organisers have deployed a heavy phalanx of security, assembling private security guards, state police and two intelligence agencies.
Turnout on opening night was low, but organisers blame the dropping of the traditional gala opening and VIP guestlist in exchange for a low-key launch. "There is a slight difference in turnout this year. There is a fear of coming out in public places. But the present economic difficulties also play a role," Mr Peerzada said, referring to Pakistan's 25 per cent inflation and 30 per cent currency drop.
The loss of sponsorship had to be partly passed on to audiences. "We have absolutely no funding, other than some assistance from the Norwegian Embassy. We made applications to the prime minister's office and the provincial government but they didn't go through, so we are literally on our own. It had to be from our own pockets, otherwise the festival would've been lost. We did not want this to die."