x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Festival under fire

Security and financial concerns may bring down the curtain on Pakistan's 2009 World Performing Arts event.

A lack of funds and the increasing instability in Pakistan is threatening one of Lahore's most prestigious arts festivals. Organisers of the annual World Performing Arts Festival have asked Pakistan's government for Rs40 million (Dh1.7m) to make up a funding shortfall and ensure the festival, planned for the end of this month, can take place. The Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop group that puts together the WPAF says bomb attacks at last year's event and deteriorating security in Lahore mean it hasn't been able to find the level of funding it normally secures.

During a press conference appeal for funds, Rafi Peer's creative director, Faizan Pirzada, said political and security issues have damaged participation and funding, denting the numbers of international performers usually expected to attend and discouraging financial backing and sponsorship. "Our sponsors vanished after last year's event," says Pirzada. "We had used some of the same sponsors for years, and even turned down better offers from others. The security in Pakistan means we are losing our backers. Last year's event was put together using a lot of our own money."

Three bomb blasts rocked the penultimate night of last year's festival, resulting in casualties and prompting a huge response from Lahore's emergency services. Pirzada recalls: "We wanted to create an event to celebrate our art and culture. We suffered attacks last year from those who see the event as un-Islamic, but it is not. Militants and attacks cannot stop this festival. The event will go on."

Time, though, is running out - the 2009 festival was due to start around November 22. In the WPAF's 25-year history more than 16,000 performers and artists from over 80 countries have taken part in the event, which showcases folk, classical and emerging musicians, theatre productions, musicals, dance troupes and puppetry over 10 days. Musicians and dancers from Europe, India and Sri Lanka have featured prominently.

The event has been praised for providing a platform for fading indigenous art forms and for bringing international art and performance to Lahore. Exposure through the WPAF has often served as a launch pad for emerging Pakistani artists, some of whom have gone on to find international acclaim. Pirzada says that between 30 and 40 directors from international arts festivals attend the event in Lahore every year, often inviting the Pakistani artists they have seen performing at the WPAF to attend festivals overseas.

Performers involved in previous WPAF festivals have spoken of their experiences and commented on the success of the 2008 event, which took place at Lahore's extensive Alhamra arts complex. Speaking at last year's festival, the Norwegian electro-pop artist Ingrid Kindmen, whose set mixed electro beats with guitar and drum music from Pakistani artists, reflected on the WPAF's international outlook. "It's very colourful, very exciting, and it is the best chance to come to meet everyone from the Pakistani music scene and the other European visitors. You play a lot and mix different instruments and styles."

The internationally recognised Pakistani musician Arieb Azhar reflects on the WPAF's ability to amass diverse Pakistani talent: "Last year's festival for me was very educational on an individual level because I had a chance to meet and interact with musicians from all over. Any venue that brings together a bunch of different types of talented musicians is representative of Pakistani music. "The bomb blasts at the end of the festival also made us realise that art is always political, whether it means to be so or not."

The singer Saeen Zahoor, the winner of the 2006 BBC Voice of the Year, has said in the past that the WPAF is vital to the success of Pakistani music on the global stage because of the international attention the event attracts - far more than many other arts programmes in Pakistan. The event has propelled artists who are famous in Lahore, such as the dhol drummer Pappu Saeen, on to the world stage. Saeen plays a host of events and regular dates on the Lahori calendar and also teaches the dhol at western universities and schools.

He has said the WPAF is instrumental in encouraging international tourists and artists to attend music events in Pakistan and in bringing classical Pakistani arts such as tabla playing and qawwali singing to an international market. The event is vital to Lahore also on a financial level because of the number of visitors attracted by the city's reputation as an architectural and performing arts hub.

Alongside a burgeoning cafe culture and a rise in the number of designer shopping malls in Lahore, the city's festival atmosphere and cosmopolitan outlook attracts business investment and tourists. Tour guides are a common sight at Sufi music nights and classical concerts. The lack of financial backers for this year's event is as worrying for the artists as it is for the Peer Group organisers. "The WPAF is very important because it gives a chance for musicians from all over Pakistan to interact with each other and with foreign artists as well.

"The festival can never go on to the next level until the musicians themselves are made to feel that the festival is for them - until they are given their due respect and remuneration."  Azhar, who performed a number of shows at least year's event, highlights the significance of the festival for the future of the country's musicians and their artistic development. He says: "I personally am very sorry to hear that the festival might not go ahead this year. I would like to see government institutions and powerful corporations actively supporting the festival.

"It takes several years for a festival to build up a respectable reputation in the eyes of the audience and the performers. If the festival is cancelled it will be another blow to the motivation of artists in this country." Lahoris are also concerned about the effect losing the festival will have on the city. Sabir Shah, a senior news journalist with the Lahore-based paper The News International, says government and popular focus has been drawn away from cultural events in the wake of the recent upsurge in violence across Pakistan.

"Rafi Peer is asking for funds from the government, along with security. The government is in no mood to listen to any such thing at this juncture. Things are just easing out after immense tension over the last two weeks. I don't think we will have any cultural activity until the end of December at least." Estimates suggest that almost 200 people have been killed in Pakistan so far this month in a string of bomb and gun attacks across the country that are viewed by many as a militant response to the Pakistan army's military offensive against the Taliban in the South Waziristan tribal agency.

The resultant suicide blasts and attacks on government and security institutions have become so widespread that Pakistan closed its educational institutions last week. Says Shah: "If the World Performing Arts Festival is not cancelled yet, it will be, courtesy of the situation in Pakistan. The attacks last year injured three at the event. Pakistanis are living in a state of despondency and fear." He also fears the economic damage that will result if Lahore loses the large-scale events for which the city is renowned.

"Businesses have suffered and jobs have become insecure. The already ailing economy is unable to absorb the shock. GDP, investment and exports are falling. With the loss of the WPAF and other significant cultural events, the cultural life in Lahore will shrink and investment within the city may decline further still." Following the Rafi Peer group's appeal for funding, members of the Punjab government have said that they do recognise the positive effect the WPAF generates.

Ministers have pledged that attempts to support the organisers will be made, but those at Rafi Peer say the funding needed to stage the event has not been forthcoming. Pirzada says: "We have spoken to the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, who has pledged to help us and to help deliver a letter to the government to ask for financial aid", but he adds nothing has been received by the Rafi Peer organisation.

The organisers have also warned that even if it becomes possible to hold a 2009 festival, the numbers of those performing will be much smaller that in previous years. "We have less than a month to finish organising the event and even if we can put just a small homage to the WPAF together, we will not have any international performers," Pirzada says. "We had 163 overseas performers due to arrive but they have all backed out."

He says that the Rafi Peer group has even considered moving the festival overseas to preserve the WPAF as a platform for indigenous arts. Organisers at Rafi Peer have been travelling to Dubai to try to generate financial backing for an arts festival on the same scale in the UAE. "We wanted Dubai to be the event's next home, but again we couldn't raise the money and we couldn't find an arts sponsor. It is very sad - we wanted an event that also incorporated arts from across the emirate."

Pirzada said though that in the short term, the lack of interest in the arts in Pakistan means the deficit caused by poor security and fading sponsorship will almost certainly prevent a 2009 WPAF from opening. "The government has no infrastructure to support the arts. I think we will not even be able to hold a small event now. We have warehouses full of equipment and technological support that is just going to be sitting there," he says.

"I think we will only be able to go to the site where the event is usually held and just light a candle on the night the festival was supposed to open."