Bring down the wall

Students from Lahore's Beaconhouse National University recently attended an arts-and-culture workshop in Chennai, where they interacted with India's greatest artistes without speaking a word of English. Qudisa Rahim reports on the rare experience

Bring down the wall
It took just a week to decode a new language, enabling them to access a resource full of Gurus, such as Birju Maharaj, the leading exponent of Lucknow Kalka-Bindadin Gharana of Kathak dance; Girija Devi, a renowned classical singer of the Banaras Gharana; Margi Madhu Chakyar, who received his Koodiyattam training from the late Padmabhooshan Ammannoor Madhavachakyar. Other gurus included Gopika Verma of the South Indian Mohiniattam dance form; Shivkumar Sharma on santoor; the dhrupad singer F. Wasifuddin Dagar, who performed live during an overnight concert; and Padma Subramanyam, who performed the Bharatnatyam dance.

These were some of the delights sampled by the bright-eyed students of Beaconhouse National University, who recently participated in a SPIC MACAY “intensive” in Chennai, a set of training programs that foster appreciation of indigenous South Asian arts and crafts. It was no ordinary training. Unanimously terming it mighty difficult, the students spoke of beginning with a communication breakdown where all electronic modes of interaction had to be surrendered. Also, the English language was prohibited. Tamil had to be attempted, and it was the only way of accessing their gurus, who had designed a regimented program that covered everything from food to sessions of music, poetry and theatre performances. The Pakistani students simply had to be there as the gurus’ schedule demanded, when it demanded.

But rewards came their way, and many students ultimately went away with what they called a “life-altering” experience. This was no simple affair. 1500 participants, including those from India, were able to experience, observe and learn from Indian culture through a gamut of forms such as dance, theatre, music and traditional crafts.

This inquisition relating to someone or another’s culture, traditions, arts and crafts has helped the Pakistani students expand their understanding of what is their “own”.

Pakistani delegate Aiman performing Mohniattam
Pakistani delegate Aiman performing Mohniattam

This is not the first time such an experiment has occurred. Champions of cross-cultural exchange on both sides of the border, such as art educators Salima Hashmi and Naazish Ataullah and former Indian Prime Minister IK Gujral, have travelled this road for many years. Perhaps it is fair to say that they paved the way for such possibilities when their efforts for peace between the peoples of India and Pakistan created a space where such moments could become possible.

The complexity and commonality of our relationship with our neighbors is where the beauty of such an experience lies. Especially for students who are undergoing such an experience for the first time, the discovery of human connections, shared histories, traditions and ethnic threads across national borders can be very inspiring. Under our ever-darkening political clouds – and especially in our age of darkly imagined “others” – forming such links can be radically illuminating.

Pakistan delegates with Ottanthullal artist Kalamandalam Mohana Krishnan
Pakistan delegates with Ottanthullal artist Kalamandalam Mohana Krishnan


[quote]"The South Asian region is a sleeping giant that continues to be drowsy!"[/quote]

All this raises a potent question or two for Salima Hashmi, an avid campaigner of cross-border dialogue.

“I take my cues from my family history, which is a history of belief in conflict resolution as a way forward for all our people,” she says. “The South Asian region is a sleeping giant that continues to be drowsy! If it does not wake up to it’s potential, it is doomed to leave its people mired in poverty and despair for generations to come.

“To realize the goal of development one has to rely on the young. They are not burdened by the pettiness of conflicts, squabbles of so many kinds. The advent of new technologies offers the opportunity of collaborative thinking about common issues and finding innovative solutions to the impossible problems we face.”

Hashmi goes on to describe how she and Naazish Ataullah first arranged for a group of ten artists and thirty students from NCA to go to India for the International Art Exhibition in 1986. “It was an unheard of initiative,” she says, “but we pulled it off with the support of the diplomats from both sides who were as keen as us to make it work!”

Such efforts do, in the long run, pay off, as is evidenced from this remark by a BNU student who went recently to India: “It felt like we are all one and some one has divided us by putting a tall wall in between and everyone is trying hard to reach out and touch from on top of the wall.”

[quote]"Why should there be animosity or hostility between us?"[/quote]

Similar feelings prevail on both sides. Harsh Narayan, the coordinator and director of SPW HAY (Society for the Promotion of World Heritage Amongst Youth) for SPIK MACAY, India, says, “All this effort started seven years back, somewhere around the year 1997, when I was a mere student volunteer at SPIC MACAY’s Patna chapter. Since then I have had the conviction of connecting with students of Pakistan on a cultural platform, to understand their music and art... There was this great dream of mine that the youth of both the countries could come closer and understand each other through exchange of culture and heritage. After all, we had a common past and were of the same stock, so why should there be animosity or hostility between us?