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SOUTH ASIA: The Ties that Bind: Artists, Writers Forge Peace

Irfan Ahmed

CHANDIGARH, India, Nov 18 2009 (IPS) - Imagine writers, scholars and folk performers from eight South Asian countries coming together to share their common heritage and culture while promoting peace and harmony at the same time.

That is precisely what 200 members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) did early this month, prompted by a collective aspiration to pursue their common objectives.

The move—which took place in this city—was deemed highly significant in a situation where the political leaderships of these states had been unsuccessful in making any major breakthroughs towards peace.

“The initial SAARC charter does not mention culture as a tool to promote dialogue among the member states,” Ajeet Cour, president of the Foundation of SAARC Writers and Literature (FOSWAL), told IPS. “It was FOSWAL that made SAARC realise its importance in improving inter-state relations.”

FOSWAL, which organised the event in collaboration with the Ministry of External Affairs under the Indian government, has been in existence since 1975. The foundation aims to bring the people of the region closer to each other through literature and cultural exchange. The group also holds the unique status of SAARC Apex Body, authorised exclusively to hold literary and cultural programmes under the SAARC banner.

The event—dubbed ‘SAARC Folklore Festival’—brought together representatives from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. It kicked off in Chandigarh on Nov. 6 and continued till Nov. 9. It was also extended to the picturesque hill station Shimla, in the north, for two more days to give the locals an opportunity to exhibit the beauty of their culture.

The task of gathering these participants in Chandigarh—a north Indian city famed for its impressive architecture and landscape—was by no means easy, Manmohan Singh Mitwa, chief coordinator of the event, told IPS. He adds that the SAARC member states are very cautious in issuing visas to each other’s citizens due to security concerns. “But we hope things would improve in the future, and the people would move more freely across the borders,” he said.

Established on Dec. 8, 1985, SAARC originally comprised seven of the currently eight member states. Afghanistan joined the body in April 2007. Envisaged by the founders to function as a strong regional bloc, the association has yet to achieve its goals mainly due to the mutual conflicts among the member states.

The event had two components—an academic seminar on regional folklore and literature and cultural performances at the city’s Tagore theatre. Day performances were organised in different colleges of Chandigarh to familiarise the youth with the rich culture of the region.

“It’s a great opportunity to trace our glorious past and find similarities among ourselves,” said Dr Azizuddin Ahmedzada Panjshiri, the first Afghan director in SAARC secretariat in New Delhi and a participant of the event.

Dr Panjshiri cited Balkh, for instance. This ancient city of Afghanistan was a source of certain influences that spread to other parts of the South Asian region. It was the centre of civilisation 1,500 years ago and known in history as ‘Ummul Balad’ (Mother of Cities). Its destruction by Genghis Khan resulted in the loss of treasures of knowledge and wisdom documented by contemporary scholars, he recounted.

Panjshiri said that while the world knows Afghanistan today as a state in disarray, the fact is that it was once a centre of Buddhism and then Sufi thought—a blend of Islam and mysticism—which was introduced in the other parts of the region. Many Sufi saints travelled from Balk to the India-Pakistan border, and influenced people with their philosophy of love for mankind regardless of religion, cast and creed, he added.

The exchange of knowledge goes on even today, Khanzada said, adding that the Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a graduate of Shimla University in Shimla, India.

Raza Rumi, a writer and scholar from Pakistan, said the common folklore and culture across geographical boundaries bind people stronger than anything else. “The geographical divisions of this chunk of land cannot efface the memories of the centuries-old common past and history of people, chronicled in their epics and folklore,” he added.

The people of the SAARC region, he said, have common customs, myths and beliefs, and they relish each other’s music even if they do not know the language. He added that during the academic seminar, the scholars and performers from SAARC region shared their folklore, preserved in oral form and passed on from generation to generation.

He said FOSWAL realises the need to document the precious folklore and literature of the region, and translate it into different languages without losing the original flavour. Similarly, the cultural performers from the region are reviving the dying arts and playing musical instruments that are losing popularity day by day, Rumi said.

On the whole, the academic seminar seemed focused on finding ways to undo the “damages” inflicted by colonial powers and political leaders of the region. In the words of Prof Abhi Subedi, a poet and expert in folklore documentation from Nepal, the people of the SAARC region “are of one mass, disintegrated, cut and divided by politicians and colonial powers.”

Some of the attractions of the festival were the performances of the Mauj Folk Band and Shafiq Mureed Musical Group from Afghanistan, Sufi trance dance by a ‘malangs’ (Sufi dervish) from Lahore, recital of mystic poetry by devotees from the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in Sindh, Pakistan, peacock dance from Nepal, dance performance by Poddar Nachon group from Bangladesh, leather shadow puppetry from Andhra Pradesh, India and folk performances from Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives.

In interview with IPS, Nisar Ahmed Chaudhry, president of the South Asian Fraternity, Pakistan chapter, said it is hard to differentiate the people of the region according to their nationalities. An outsider cannot differentiate an Indian from a Pakistani if it is not for the attire they are donning, he said.

“What we all are trying to prove here is that the differences, if there are any, are among the states and not the common people, who have more than one reason to relate to each other,” said Chaudhry, The movement of people across the borders can be stopped or controlled by the state, but the feelings of love and compassion transcend all boundaries, he added.

Selina Hossain, a prominent writer from Bangladesh, which was part of Pakistan prior to December 1971, said fundamentalism is the biggest problem of the sub-continent. To her, the promotion of people-to-people contact and tolerance for each other are keys to the well-being of the region and its populace.

Peace may have proved elusive in the region. But that is no reason why scholars, writers and artists cannot collectively explore the ties that hold them together—and hand in hand walk the path to peace, however long and arduous that journey might be.

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