Spotlight: Lahore Festival

Razi Ahmed explores the civic importance of literature festivals as a place for dialogue across societies

The Lahore Literary Festival was founded in 2012 with an aim to steer and enrich public discourse through writing and the arts, in intellectually-stimulating directions. LLF explores the dialogue and interface between literature and the arts that shape our cultural, social, economic, and political frameworks. The Festival aims to bring together, discuss, and celebrate the diverse and pluralistic literary traditions of Lahore—a city of the arts, activism, and big ideas.

Lahore is widely known for its cultural and literary past; from Massenet's Le roi de Lahore to Kipling's Kim and Bapsi Sidhwa's The Croweaters. Yet, in the decade before we launched, Lahore's public spaces had diminished and free speech been a direct casualty of that. The city's rich niches of creativity were isolated and there was no cohering framework to talk to each other. We felt that by exploring the gloriously cultural heritage of Lahore we could make the present more fertile for creative expressions and civic debate.

Through LLF we have married the city's disparate threads of creativity and cultural freedoms in a common pool of ideas, discussions, and dissent. Artists, musicians, theorists, architects, food writers, historians, filmmakers, and writers from Pakistan and abroad come together at the LLF to share ideas in vibrant sessions that help speakers and audiences alike explore new angles and cross-disciplinary collaborations. 

Lahore's past traditions of diversity, tolerance, and a cosmopolitan ethos have been foregrounded annually at the festival. Shared experiences of feminism across the Muslim world and South Asia have been presented before the audiences. Thought-provoking sessions on cultural preservation and saving heritage have been organised to underscore our cultural identity. And we have prominently featured in our programming minorities, such as the writer Sidhwa and columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee (posthumously) in a series on what constitutes being an ideal citizen in Pakistan to underscore a broader, heterogenous collectivity of Pakistan, but also to stimulate debate on the state and its morphing sense of ideal citizenship especially in light of a faith-based polity.

LLF brings a phenomenal feel-good vibe among the city's citizens and visitors

The LLF, as a free and open-to-public festival, in Lahore draws tens of thousands of attendees. It has become the city's premier cultural event and brings a phenomenal feel-good vibe among the city's citizens and visitors. The success of the LLF is greatly attributable to the passion of its volunteers and the gusto and civic pride that the citizens manifest, for instance, in queuing up for the sessions, a sight which one may not come across that easily especially in other public spaces in Lahore.

In October 2016 we launch a London edition of the Lahore Literary Festival that aims to show Lahore as a construct of ideas, as a city of openness and inquiry; that is confident and curious to embrace diverse voices for a more sophisticated understanding of the troubled world we live in. Unless and until we look beyond our immediate community and boundaries, how can we thwart provincialism that is a recurring phenomenon in today's world with borders becoming yet more reinforced?? The LLF London sessions bring in a mosaic of Pakistan's creativity in writing, poetry, politics and reportage to present the cultural and political make-up of a dynamic, young country (with over 60% of the population at or under 25 year olds) for the world to appreciate its complexity in spite of the weariness of terrorism and challenges that the Pakistani state faces. LLF builds its programming around citizens' perspectives, ordinary people's stories, and the sense of the city. With a history spanning millennia, Lahore has many such histories and stories, visual, oral and textual, that have to be taken beyond our borders to serve as the totemic reference to not just Lahore, but modern-day Pakistan. 

About Razi Ahmed

Razi Ahmed is Founder and Director of Lahore Literature Festival. Lahore Literary Festival in London takes place on Saturday 29th October 2016 at the British Museum. For more information, see http://www.lahorelitfest.com/llf-london-2016/

Read on: In Pakistan, Literary Spring is both Renaissance and Resistance, NPR

Want to continue the thinking? Watch Liz Berry and Benjamin Zephaniah discuss regional identities and the role of a festival in place-making from Birmingham Book Festival. If you work professionally anywhere in literature, join the conversation.