Lahore Literary Festival in New York enthralls the audience

(From right): Dr. Azra Raza, Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee and Ikhlaq Hussain. Photo by Elena Olivo.

NEW YORK: The day-long Lahore Literary Festival at the Asia Society here, on May 6, reiterated the potent force of culture, music, books and the arts, in binding the people of India and Pakistan together. The superbly-curated festival saw some eminent writers, artists, and musicians come together to put on a memorable show for people who were lucky enough to get a ticket for the meet.

There were several standout sessions, which on its own was worth the price of a ticket for the entire festival: an amazing rendition of Hindustani classical music by the hugely talented Pulitzer Prize winning author of ‘The Emperor of All Maladies’, oncologist and scientist Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian American; playing with the sitarist Ikhlaq Hussain, moderated by oncologist and author Dr. Azra Raza, who broke into poetry too. The interactive, riveting performance brought the house down, with a standing ovation for the trio.

Then there was a fascinating discussion, interspersed with plenty of humor, with two of the most eminent Pakistani contemporary novelists – Mohammed Hanif (author of the satire ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’) and the reclusive Nadeem Aslam (author of ‘The Golden Legend’), who writes mostly in isolation and in long hand. Moderated by Dwight Garner, literary critic of The New York Times, the discussion was provocative and hugely satisfying as Garner slowly brought out the personalities of the two writers to the fore.

Here’s an example of their remarkable insight into the phenomenon of President Donald Trump, without saying his name out aloud.

Aslam – “The gloves are not coming off, the mask if coming off,” as a follow-up, after giving an anecdote of racial abuse in England, where he moved with his family as a teenager.

Hanif – “All dictators have style issues,” he said, describing Trump’s dress sense, adding amidst guffaws from the crowd: “He has a weird style of dressing.”

Aslam, 49, who stunned the crowd with his revelation of a strict disciplinarian – he writes every single day, sleeps afternoons and evenings, starting work after midnight and writing through the night – informed candidly that his new book will be out in 2019, part of a trilogy.

He admitted to gasps from the crowd that he plans his novels sequentially, announcing: “I’ve planned enough works till the age of 65.”

Hanif, a noted columnist too, on the other hand, said he’s more laid back. Remarking on Aslam’s dedication and astuteness to their common calling, quipped: “I’m amazed by Nadeem; his sacrifice and dedication. I can’t even sacrifice Facebook.” He added: “I pretend to write every day of the week.”

There were several notable personalities in the audience.

Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United Nations Maleeha Lodhi started off the proceedings in the morning, declaring that Lahore does not sleep at night too like the Big Apple: “Just like New York, Lahore does not either.”

Lodhi added: “In a world beset with turmoil and strife, the ‘soft power’ of culture can also serve as the most powerful bulwark against the walls of hatred, division and xenophobia. It is soft and not hard power that helps to create a sense of our shared destiny.”

Founder and CEO of the festival Razi Ahmed said of the city: “Lahore has historically been the firmament of big ideas, a home to the arts since the Mughal empire.”

Art segments at the festival included a video presentation of a collaborative art project by Shahzia Sikander – the best known Pakistani American artist who is a MacArthur Fellow, with Ali Sethi, a Pakistani singer and writer and Dun Yun, a Pulitzer Prize composer, titled ‘Disruption as Rupture’; and an engaging discussion between eminent Pakistani art historian F. S. Aijazuddin and Indian American Navina Najat Haidar, curator, Metropolitan Museum of Art. They delved into the commoners and kings who made Lahore what it is today.

Adding a touch of the modern was a discussion on ‘fake news’, moderated by Amna Nawaz of ABC News, with speakers Ahmed Rashid, author of ‘Taliban’, Ambassador Robin Raphel, a former US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, and Tom Freston, former CEO of Viacom giving their take on the issue.

Two highly enjoyable sessions included a discussion by Pakistani journalist Raza Rumi, with famous Pakistani singer Tahira Sayed, who has followed in her even more famous mother Malika Pukhraj in keeping alive the tradition of Sufi music, specializing also in ghazals and folk songs. She wowed the crowd singing the evergreen Hindi song ‘Abhi To Main Jawaan Hoon’, made famous by her mother.

The festival ended on a high note at night: a lovely soul-stirring performance of qawwali by Fareed Ayaz, Abu Muhammad Qawwal and Brothers enthralled the audience.



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