Lahore World Performing Arts Festival

At the Banks of Annemarie Schimmel Bay

The Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop has been organising Lahore's International Theater and Dance Festival since 1992. Inspired by his stay in Germany 75 years ago, Peer had then introduced modern drama to the subcontinent. Elisabeth Einecke-Klövekorn reports

The Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop has been organising Lahore's International Theater and Dance Festival since 1992. Inspired by his stay at the Max Reinhard Seminar in Germany, Peer had then introduced modern drama to the subcontinent. Elisabeth Einecke-Klövekorn reports from Lahore

image: Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop
Rafi Peer (Rafi Peerzada), the "Father of Modern Theatre in the Sub-continent"

​​When in late November dense fog descends over Lahore, the former capital of the Punjab and now the most important cultural city in Pakistan, temperatures drop to a chilly level. Beneath the damp canopy of mist the exhaust fumes of thousands and thousands of three-wheeled-rickshaw engines combine and accumulate. In comparison with this, the notorious air of Bangkok seem as pure as the air in a mountain health resort.

The lovingly painted rickshaws of Lahore are the cheapest and fastest way of getting around the deafening and stinking streets of this city, which has over 1 million inhabitants. The fact that a main street on the banks of the narrow canal that winds its way through Lahore bears the name of Annemarie Schimmel, the renowned German scholar of Islam who used to lecture in Bonn, and is situated directly opposite Goethe Quay proves how important German East-West mediators are in far-off Central Asia.

Anyone who comes here from the West quickly learns to stop being a slave to time: "five minutes" is a very flexible time span and can mean anything but the pledged five minutes.

Tourists as a main attraction

Tourists are a rare commodity in Pakistan at the moment. A western foreigner visiting the old Fort in Lahore or the huge Badshahi Mosque quickly becomes the main attraction for hoards of boisterous school children, a popular photo opportunity for anybody with a mobile phone/camera, and a prized guinea pig on which to practice their knowledge of English.

The fact that the grounds of the Lahore World Performing Arts Festivals 2004 are protected around the clock by a small army of well-armed police officers standing three metres apart speaks volumes. It is helpful that the cricket stadium that belongs to the huge Alhamra cultural centre (the resemblance to the name of the era of Islamic dominance in Spain is intentional), which comprises a popular city theatre, a museum of modern art, and a colossal arena, is named after the Libyan president Gaddafi, who once made his legendary speeches there: at least all the Rickshaw drivers know the name.

The father of modern drama on the subcontinent

Rafi Peer, the man who inspired the Lahore international theatre festival, on the other hand, is not very well known, despite the fact that huge billboards and countless banners advertise the event all over the city. Peer, who studied in Berlin 75 years ago, got to know European theatre there, and played in Max Reinhardt's ensemble, is the father of modern drama on the Indian subcontinent.

His children, all of whom work in the arts, founded the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop after his death in 1974. The workshop is also the organiser of the Lahore festival. While the festival is in fact a private initiative, it can rely on public support since it attracted theatre people from all over the world to Pakistan for the first time in 1992.

To date, a total of 18 international meetings have taken place: puppet theatre, music, dance, drama, and several youth projects have attracted guests from 67 countries and, according to the festival flyer, over 2 million viewers over the past twelve years.

The twins Faizan and Saadaam Peerzada, who together with their two brothers and sister are managing the 2004 festival, admit that things have become more difficult since 11 September 2001.

Theatre groups from around 25 countries

Between 26 November and 7 December, there have been 12 large open air music events in the arena, 88 performances by 44 dance and theatre groups from about 25 countries in nine locations, as well as 20 film showings on the fringe. The opening event was attended by countless city dignitaries and foreign diplomats as well as the Prime Minister of the Punjab.

The organisational team employed about 100 people for the opening event as well as twice as many people for the strict security checks at each entrance. The festival's main sponsor is a mobile phone company. The concerts in the arena have to bring in a lot of money: the concerts – tickets for which are not inexpensive – are by local pop stars who attract a good 3,000 fans every evening and sometimes get them dancing.

No expense was spared on the laser lights. You just have to accept the fact that the drone from the batteries of loudspeakers, which have been turned up to the max, completely drowns out the gentle tones in the six theatre tents. The same goes for the fact that members of the audience come and go as they please and rarely watch an entire performance.

Artists from India and Pakistan

Not very many western groups made the journey to Lahore in 2004 and hardly any are here for the first time. Most of the artists and – with the exception of one youth group from Uzbekistan – all dancers are from Pakistan and India. Over half of all the puppet theatre productions, which has been an important part of the festival for many years now, come from outside the Indian-Pakistani cultural circle.

The Peer family is so fond of puppet theatre that it recently opened a beautiful puppet theatre museum with its own open-air stage just outside the city. Puppets from all over the world are on display on the four floors of the museum. Germany is represented by the Berlin-based "Fliegendes Theater" (flying theatre) and a magical piece of children's theatre.

In terms of drama, the only groups not to come from India and Pakistan come from Switzerland and Germany. The Wall Street Theatre group from Cologne/Aachen with its Anglo-Saxon two-man artistic comedy show is perfect proof of the fact that comical humour of this sort hits a nerve all around the world.

German group plays Rafi Peer play

The Euro Theater Central, which is playing in Lahore for the fifth time, is housed in a small, warm, and dry theatre under the arena. This privileged spot is much bigger than the theatre in which they usually play in Bonn. The fact that the group brought the play "Liebesgeflüster" (Raaz and Nias) by the festival's sponsor Rafi Peer from Bonn to Lahore attracted a huge amount of attention. The German ambassador even made the journey from Islamabad for the Pakistani premier.

Happiest of all, however, was the matriarch of the Peer family: an incredibly vivacious, white-haired old lady. She considered it a huge gift to see a play written by her husband in a production from Germany. Peer's 79-year-old German daughter, who lives in Moers, was unable to make the trip to either Bonn or Lahore for reasons of ill health. Nevertheless, she sent the Euro Theater's proprietor, a long letter of congratulation to take with her to Lahore.

The three performances, which were almost completely sold out, were very well received. The Pakistani audience enjoyed the ironic twists and turns of the plot and remained seated for the duration of the show in order to see the exciting comedy right through to the end. The actors had learned their lines in English especially for this performance. The governor of the Punjab gave a special reception for this unusual production.

It goes without saying that all travel and transportation costs had to be borne by the visiting artists themselves; the tight festival budget left no room for paying the performers. This means that the Lahore Festival requires a lot of personal conviction on the part of the performers.

The official language in Pakistan, English, is the medium used for general communication. In view of the high level of illiteracy in Pakistan, Urdu, the language of culture, remains reserved for the upper classes: an elegant group of people, who strolled here and there on the festival campus and attended the sophisticated theatre performances with relish.

Displacement of Muslims and Hindus

Even though we did not understand Hindi, unlike many of the Pakistani viewers, we were touched by a brilliantly performed Indian play about the brutal, mutual displacement of Muslims and Hindus during the political separation of the Bengali border states from the Indian motherland.

There is still a lot to reappraise; in Lahore there is an astonishingly open ideological forum for which the Peer family has worked hard to bring together a network of renowned personal East-West network from Norway to Portugal, from Russia to the USA, from the Maghrib to the Iran, and across the entire subcontinent.

The fact that a few crazy western freaks of dubious artistic talent can be found among the artists is all par for the course: anyone who has the courage and the money for the trip to Pakistan and enough sensitivity to deal with the cultural clash is welcomed with open arms.

Elisabeth Einecke-Klövekorn

© Elisabeth Einecke-Klövekorn

Elisabeth Einecke-Klövekorn is a freelance journalist, lecturer for theatre studies at the University Bonn, Germany, and chairwoman of North Rhine-Westphalia's union of theatre associations.

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

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