The Lahore Literary Festival pays homage to the rich literary tradition of the Subcontinent every year with the characteristic vibrancy that defines the true spirit of Lahore. The usual venue of the festival – the Alhamra Arts Council – is dotted with bookstalls, food stations, colourful adornments and enthused attendees. As the balmy winter sunlight bathes Alhamra’s freshly mowed lawns, awash with glistening dew drops, literary enthusiasts start thronging the Alhamra Arts Council with gusto to attend the exciting lineup of sessions that boast some of the brightest icons of literature, art, cinema, drama and academia. The hustle and bustle continues into the crisp, misty night, sparkling with lights and resonating with the sound of intellectual banter, laughter and music.
The sessions present a buffet of different discussion topics spanning a plethora of intellectual disciplines and modes of expression. Over the years the festival has become an integral part of the city’s cultural activities, popularly going by its acronym LLF, and year after year, the festival has grown from strength to strength. Moreover, with the festival making inroads internationally, it has truly established itself as a force to be reckoned with.
The festival began on an ambitious note, according to Razi Ahmed, the CEO and the brains behind the successful ‘LLF’ brand who has overseen its gradual evolution into a platform for international speakers.
“In our first year, we hosted internationally recognised luminaries from Lahore such as Bapsi Sidhwa, Mohsin Hamid, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Ayesha Jalal, Ahmed Rashid, and Tariq Ali. The next year, we drew a healthy mix of foreign speakers, and in the following years, with the write-ups in international press, the mosaic of foreign and local speakers became even more intricately established.”
The management team of the festival has galvanized its efforts towards ensuring that the festival is on par with any international literary festival, as highlighted by chairperson of the LLF Organizing Committee, Nusrat Jamil. Razi who was only aged 27 at the time approached a PR guru and a prominent social activist, Nusrat, who is popularly known as Nuscie, with the idea of the festival. She has been a dynamic force behind the festival, acting as a robust pillar of support in its administrative machinery. Describing the festival as a labour of love for all the unpaid volunteers who work tirelessly to make the event a success, Nuscie underscores how the festival is an ode to the rich cultural heritage of Lahore. “I think Razi saw an urgent need to reclaim public space which in the past decades had eroded. Historically, Lahore especially has been a centre of learning, ideas and intellectual movements. It was an attempt to re-establish its premier position as a city of intellectual debate & discourse.”
In the vulnerable socio-political climate of Pakistan, putting together a festival on the scale of the LLF, is bound to be challenging, as happened during last year’s event that had to be truncated at the last minute and shifted to a smaller site. Furthermore, logistical arrangements require extensive planning and meticulous execution as expressed by Razi, who also laments how the city’s premier cultural institution – the Alhamra Arts Council – is hardly living up to the legacy of its name, and has fallen into disrepair.
Operational impediments fail to dampen the spirits of a group of people who are charged with the conviction of achieving excellence, suggests Nuscie Jamil, who makes it a point to steer clear of mediocrity. “The benchmark for us has always been the international standards that the best festivals and discourse have in the West. There is no ‘third world’ slip shod standards practiced. We are already known for starting punctually even at 9 am on a weekend!” asserts Nuscie.
Suffice to say, the Lahore Literary Festival has even gone a notch higher by breaking into the international circuit in 2016, and successfully holding a festival in the United Kingdom and the United States. Given that our part of the world is often seen through a negative lens in the Western world, projecting Pakistan’s vibrant culture and talent comes as an important step in the direction of amending the narrative relating to South Asia in the West. The New York programme was collaboration with the prestigious Asia Society, and was widely acclaimed. The format of the show in this edition was molded differently from that of Pakistan. “Since the overseas editions of the LLF are designed on a day-long format and are free of parallel activities, the resultant sessions have to be discerningly chosen. We seek critical inputs from authors for framing the programme, and ask them to be judicious with time and resources, and yet keep a program that is original, thought-provoking, and context-specific to the city,” says Razi.
With LLF making waves both nationally and internationally, bookworms and culture vultures eagerly anticipate the fifth installment of the Lahore Literary Festival, which is slated to be bigger and better than before. Moreover, the second edition of the London and the US chapter of the LLF are also in the offing, which affirms the commitment of the LLF team to carve out a sustained international presence for the dynamic festival.
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