South Asian creativityWriters’ voices are failing to persuade the region’s powers that be to sit for dialogue and peace
I have always been a staunch believer in South Asian creative sharing. The essence of the sharing lies in the geo-cultural mobility that transcends borders and talks about performativity, which can be seen in the rituals, folkloristic practices, music, dance and mimes. In addition, the reading of the classics, translation and dissemination of the great natyashashtra of Bharatmuni, tradition of annual performances in various cultural forms, memories of great university locations like Nalanda and Takshashila, foundation of the first Chishti Sufi order in Pushar Ajmer in India in the late 12th century, discovery of the Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini, Nepal, opening of the famous Indian Buddhist centres like Sarnath, Sanchi and similar places in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Afghanistan give a glimpse of that cultural fabric.
The greatest power of the South Asian sharing happens as a result of the cross-border travels by the very performers. They did so because they could travel without restrictions. Anyone who has given a little attention to the folkloristic forms, music and dances can easily see how creative cultural practices have been the objects of sharing in this region for millennia.
The free movement of the singers and performers guided by spiritual longings to meet great souls and encounter the mystical ‘god’ is what has been shared in the region for many centuries. A culture of what historians and interpreters call ‘fusion’ emerged in this region, which still can be seen powerfully in one practice called Sufism. But sadly, Sufi performers’ lives are at risk—risky knowledge in risky times. I see in them and others the essence of the power of South Asian creativity. We can also see the great sharing of creative skills in the South Asian architectural and sculptural forms. We can see the moments of ecstasy in sculpted stones, colonnades, turrets, roofs and yards.
Ironically, those who move and sing by transcending borders and restrictions are drawn into the ethics of the
selfsame borders and faiths. Politics, animosity, bigotry and xenophobia are all faiths shaped and strengthened by borders. Now we have reached a point in our regional sharing where you have to wait for sanctions to be lifted by polities and guards of faiths.
Around a week ago when I received a call from Ajeet Cour—about having to cancel the Jaipur Sufi festival which was going to be held in Diggi Palace from October 14 to 16—I was distressed but not surprised. In a very sad and tremulous voice, this senior, respectable Punjabi writer said to me, “Abhi, all my efforts are gone!” What I understood from the phone conversation was that India’s External Affairs Ministry had taken umbrage at the nomenclature Saarc in the context of the cancellation of the Saarc countries’ next summit that was going to be held in Pakistan. That is sad but understandable. Some of us returned the air tickets following her suggestion. But the very next evening, I was informed by Ajeet Cour’s assistant Sethi that permission was given to go ahead with the programme on the condition of changing the seminar title from ‘Saarc Sufi Festival’ to ‘South Asian Sufi Festival’. But we could not go because the air tickets were all booked for a month. I am very sad by this development; I did not even edit my paper prepared for presentation there, entitled “Sailing from big to small: some thoughts on native poetry in the light of Sufi poetics”.
However, this development did not surprise me much because I have believed all along that Saarc as an organisation is founded upon elisions. These are historical, political and ideological elisions that haunt anything that you create in this region in the name of political and economic bonding.
Words of peace
I have published my views in this paper previously. But my faith in the South Asian cultural or artistic bonding is invincible. I do not need to go to any conference, for that matter, to read Kabir and Bulle Shah, Dadu or to listen to Nepali gaines who appropriate poet Bhanu Bhakta’s Ramayana to create their own folk repertoire, and the
caryagiti of the Buddhist Newars of Nepal. The architectural, sculptural and performative affinities and boding of South Asia are chiselled permanently into stones and wood.
I know the respectable writer Ajeet Cour, whom I have seen working very hard to bring the writers of South Asia together for two decades, is naturally deeply anguished at having to drop the Saarc nomenclature for which she has given the best part of her creative life. I had attended the first conference in Delhi in which Ajeet Cour brought a whole group of Pakistani writers, some of whom like Kishwar Naheed, Ahmed Faraj and Famida Riyaz are still widely read in India.
What is our role in Asia as writers? This is a slightly challenging subject. In a paper at the Foundation of Saarc Writers and Literature (FOSWAL) seminar in Lahore in 2004, I called upon the big countries of South Asia—India and Pakistan—to work together and open avenues of regional peace, which nobody except them in the world could accomplish. The following day, the Lahore Dawn carried on the front page the gist of my paper and my longing for peace as a citizen of a small country, under the title “Pakistan and India advised…”.
Overjoyed to see that, I felt that the future of us all was very bright back then. In the evening, at a dinner given in our honour, the governor of Lahore said to us in his British-built building—“We politicians should be guided by you writers to work for peace.” I guess, now our voices for that purpose are perhaps getting feeble. Physically frail but spiritually courageous, writer Ajeet Cour, more than others, has seen how writers’ voices are failing to persuade the greats to sit for dialogue and peace. We would still want to see dialogue and peace from the core of our hearts! But the aforementioned South Asian heritage of cultural and creative sharing will always continue. Kudos to the great spirit of writers like Ajeet Cour!