Hilal For Her

Setting New Standards of Excellence in the Field of Culture

I was jolted out of my sleep by a phone call in the middle of a cold February night, in Washington, D.C. The screen showed 2 a.m. and an unknown Pakistani number.  An electric wave passed through my body: “Could it be an emergency?” “I hope my parents are okay.”  
“Hello”, I said in a whisper.
“Congratulations!” said a loud voice from the other side, “You have been appointed as the head of Lok Virsa. We all are ecstatic here in Islamabad.  In such politically gloomy times, this is one ray of hope. The right person for the right job!” I continued to receive calls from friends throughout the night as people do not take into account the eleven hours’ time difference. I was elated at having been chosen for this post. Lok Virsa had been my favourite cultural institute since I was in college. But now I had to explain this sudden

switch in my plans to my American hosts. At the time, I was a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Centre, finalizing a book on women’s social movements in Pakistan. Leaving in midstream was embarrassing, but my argument helped them understand the importance of revitalizing cultural institutions as a way of healing our bruised nation after decades of violence. This was not a job; it was a call for me to serve Pakistan. I told them that the timing was perfect as the military had already started to clean out the nests of militants.  
I emphasised that a cultural revival was crucial for healing our wounds from the past, as well as averting intolerance, violence, and militancy in the future. People were tired of being the victims of militancy. I said Pakistanis were hopeful and ready to draw strength from their roots to reclaim our land of diversity through peaceful co-existence. I was able to convince my American hosts, but I still had to see if I would be able to turn this dream of building strength from our own culture into reality.

I received a warm welcome from folk artists and cultural scholars in Islamabad upon my return to Pakistan. However, I soon realized Lok Virsa had deteriorated more than I had expected over the years. Other than one annual mela, which had also become quite commercialized, there was hardly anything going on. Then I learned that ninety per cent of the budget was being spent on salaries and basic operations like utilities, with a pittance left for programs. Corruption had seeped in at all levels with most employees holding at least one other job outside the institute, using their government post as a free stipend along with unauthorized allowances, bonuses, salary raises, etc. I knew immediately that I would have to fight on many fronts if I was going to turn the institute around.  Fortunately, women specialize from an early age as multi-taskers.  
I also knew I could draw upon my experience as a social activist to mobilize volunteer support from people concerned about cultural values. Pakistanis are a generous people. I immediately got English teachers and computer experts to volunteer, in order to build my staff capabilities. I got cultural experts to help me design new programs on the ground.  We worked hard to make sure that the program costs were minimal.
Then I started to gradually open the institute to the public. We invited community groups to partner with Lok Virsa to produce programs to benefit all. Within months, the array of new programs created a buzz in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. We invited schools to bus their children to attend week-long courses with master crafts persons in pottery, truck painting, weaving, stone carving and others. Language specialists volunteered to help us run summer language camps for children so they could become familiar with regional Pakistani languages like Wakhi, Balochi, Pushto, and Siraiki. The response was overwhelming. The children had great fun.  Many more parents asked to get their children into next year’s program. We started nationwide talent hunts to find new musicians and singers, both among children and adults. We also ran special programs to revive the dying art of traditional storytelling.  
People started to sense a new spirit at Lok Virsa. Television channels started flocking to film our programs and interview the artists. Lok Virsa had returned to its old position as a colourful hub of cultural activity. I also wanted to move away from the thinking that Lok Virsa’s audience is limited by its physical location. Artists come to Lok Virsa from all over the country; so I decided to make the whole country our audience. My team set up a system to live stream every event over the internet. This step helped me to build links with provincial cultural bodies. From those early beginnings, we started to produce joint programs, highlighting unique instruments, artists and practices found in the different regions. Lok Virsa started to be talked about, and our programs watched, even in the most remote parts of Pakistan.  
All this new activity encouraged women crafts persons, singers, and artists to come forward. They connected with me as a woman, and I made full use of this opportunity to groom and empower them in their business and professional ventures.
Women are the true repositories of our culture. As such, their work must be highlighted. I had begun an ambitious plan to renovate Lok Virsa’s buildings. I organized media splashes to announce the naming of each renovated hall after a famous woman singer. We chose Zarsanga from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Bali Jatti from Punjab, Mai Bhagi from Sindh, and Hani Baloch from Balochistan. Each hall now has a large plaque bearing the name of the singer near its entrance to remind people of these legends and of the invisible role women play in nurturing our culture. People were pleased to see this and many commented saying, “Only a woman director could do this.”
Yes, I completed many of my objectives, but I did this in the face of huge hurdles. When I started exposing unauthorized pensions and other benefit schemes, the disgruntled staff fought back in many ways. First, they started by cutting power lines and blocking water pipes just before major events. When they saw that didn’t work, they started inventing scandalous news stories, targeting me as a woman. I faced many court battles, even getting an FIR registered against me by a qabza group illegally occupying our land.  
I was determined that nothing would stop me from cleaning out the system. I even succeeded in getting PEMRA to levy a fine against a television channel for airing lies about me. However, I used most of my energies on my work. I felt I had to return Lok Virsa to its original purpose of serving our youth so they can find pride in our diverse heritage and let go of these violent tendencies that have invaded our culture.  
The progress at Lok Virsa began to capture the attention of the international community as well. The UN organizations, EU and many embassies started to hold their events at Lok Virsa. Even the Smithsonian Institution, one of the most respected cultural institutes in the world, came forward to help digitize decades of Lok Virsa’s recording archives. I organized teams of young people working in three shifts to finish this humongous task. Now this searchable treasure of rich archives is available to all scholars for research. 
The formulation of the national cultural policy will be my lasting contribution. I had seen how culture has the power to heal when I invited the Hazara community to Pakistan’s first official Nowruz celebration. I saw how emotional they became when they realized an institute of the national government had recognized them and their culture as a part of the national culture. I realized then that we needed an official policy to articulate the government’s support for our diverse culture. 
To start the ball rolling, I got permission to organize a series of eleven dialogues across the provinces, involving over one hundred scholars, administrators and practitioners of culture. For me this was like a dream come true. I had been a part of similar exercises in the past, but this time I was in charge. The earlier ones, some dating back 70 years, never achieved a consensus. This time we had political support and the first official cultural policy of Pakistan finally gained federal cabinet’s approval. I remain hopeful that the current government will use this opportunity responsibly.  
It is clear Lok Virsa’s transformation sparked the cultural revival going on today.  Now many cultural institutes in the provinces have begun to have an impact. Music festivals, live performances, craft shows and cultural research have been revitalized.  Dots keep getting connected. Now private groups, musical bands, government cultural institutions, TV programs, film revivals are working together to build a momentum that can take our country forward to becoming the pluralist Pakistan dreamt of by our Quaid.
The best part has been the opportunity to see so many women becoming active at all levels in this cultural revival. You see many now coming forward as heads of institutes, artists, crafts persons, singers and designers. This participation by the women of our country will lay the foundation for a more pluralistic, tolerant, progressive and developed Pakistan. Like the Quaid said, “No nation can rise to the height of glory unless your women are side by side with you.” HH

The writer was the Executive Director of Lok Virsa, the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage, from 2015-2018.
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