Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is making culture hip.
[dropcap]B[/dropcap]ilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 25-year-old patron-in-chief of the Pakistan Peoples Party, announced the ambitious Sindh Festival in December. This festival kicks off Feb. 1 and continues for 15 days across the province as a mass, pluralistic celebration of Sindhi and Pakistani culture. We spoke with Bhutto Zardari, whose party governs Sindh, over email recently about the festival he founded, his motivations, and his hopes for the future. Excerpts:
How did you come up with the idea of the Sindh Festival and when did you put the plan in motion?
The Sindh Festival was conceptualized three months ago when I visited the UNESCO World Heritage site of Moenjodaro on Eid, and saw the disrepair and neglect it had fallen into. But being sad or sorry was not enough. I realized that our heritage sites needed emergency preventive intervention, and made a plan to raise funds for this through a festival. And it’s not only about Moenjodaro. The broad aim of the festival is to preserve, promote, and protect our cultural heritage, which is also under threat. The festival is also a process where we hope to help fight for the societal space that has been ceded to the extremists. Organizing and executing the Sindh Festival is a mammoth task, something that Pakistan has never seen before, but I am excited and optimistic that the Sindh Festival will wow.
What do you hope for the Sindh Festival to achieve nationally and internationally?
Sindh is known as Bab-ul-Islam—the Gateway of Islam. It was in 3000 BC that Sindh gave birth to the Indus Valley Civilization, and the Sindh Assembly was the first to pass the resolution for Pakistan. Over the last decade Pakistan has been in a state of war where terrorists and extremists have forced their version of Islam, history, and culture on our society. It is time that, as a nation, we reclaim our glory, our culture, our history, and our identity. Through the Sindh Festival I hope to unify people across ethnicities and borders. And internationally, I hope to demonstrate that Pakistan is more than just bomb blasts and terrorism. I want the world to see how much more Pakistan has to offer. In any case, the way we look at it, the Sindh Festival is not just about Sindh. It is about the cultural idiom of celebrating diversity and pluralism within a national narrative of inclusion. Culture is like a great river, but like all renewable resources, it needs nourishment, fresh ideas, and new air to breathe in. Our great Sindhu civilization flourished around such a great river. We cannot let it run dry.
How’s the response to the festival been so far?
It has been extremely heartening, the response we received from across the country has been overwhelmingly positive. I am very encouraged.
This is the first initiative that you’re spearheading as the Pakistan Peoples Party’s patron-in-chief and it has energized the party’s rank and file in particular. Did you expect this “Cultural Coup” to have such an impact?
It has had a fantastic impact. We were worried that people wouldn’t appreciate the satirical aspect of the “coup” setting [in the Sindh Festival TV promos], but everyone seems to have appreciated the concept. We focused on cutting costs by trying to make our ads unique and interesting so they are played repeatedly [for news value as well], and we achieved that. While it is up to the government to establish the writ of the state and fight territorial battles, it falls to us, the citizens of Pakistan, to fight and reclaim the cultural and social space ceded to extremists. We all need to do our bit.
What does founding and launching a multicity, multievent, half-month-long extravaganza entail? Do you get to sleep?
It is a very ambitious task to pull off an event of this scale, to pull off something that Pakistan has never seen before—especially given the restricted timeframe. Such an event entails 100 percent dedication to the cause, and meticulous planning. We have put together a fantastic team which has been working day and night for the last few months to ensure that the Sindh Festival is a success. But you’re right: this does mean we all get very little sleep. It has been worth it, though.
The events are fairly diverse, and adventurous. How long did it take you to finalize the program and what were some of the events you may have nixed?
Well I don’t want to give away some of the fantastic events we plan to add next year, but with the limited timeframe we obviously had to make some hard decisions about what could and could not be achieved in our first festival. However, I am extremely confident that this is going to be the best festival Pakistan has ever seen. And once Pakistan sees what we can pull off in three months, I think everyone will be incredibly excited about what we can achieve in the second festival with an entire year to plan it.
How is the festival funded and what’s the estimated budget and manpower dedicated to it?
The total budget for the festival is around Rs. 450 million. Of that we had a budgetary allocation of Rs. 250 million from the [Sindh] culture department, which was to be our seed money for the festival, and we planned to raise Rs. 200 million from private sources. However, from the outset I made it clear that I did not want this festival to be a burden on the taxpayer and promised that we would pay every rupee back to the Sindh government, which needs money for vital services delivery in the social sector. And we are on course to do that. Through ticket sales, donations, sponsorships, and the Heritage Card we will pay back the Sindh government this Rs. 250 million, and the extra money raised will go toward carrying out the very purpose of this festival: to preserve, protect, and promote our culture and heritage sites, like Moenjodaro, Makli, and Harappa.
Your political rivals derided the “Sindh Card,” what they called earlier recent efforts to reawaken Sindhi pride in culture, as having run “out of credit” and being a veiled threat of secession. The Sindh Festival demonstrably employs soft power to globalize and make appealing all things Sindh. How did you view previous efforts, like Ajrak Day, when they happened?
Sindh is not a “card.” The very people who use it are trying to reduce the second most populous province in Pakistan to irrelevance. I appreciate all previous efforts made to promote Sindh’s and Pakistan’s heritage and culture. We need even more efforts like Ajrak Day and like this Sindh Festival to preserve our important history and culture. And next year, the Sindh Festival will expand its remit beyond Sindh and become the Sindhu Festival, encompassing the entire scope and breadth of the Sindhu civilization throughout Pakistan.
The Punjab government is also proceeding with their youth festival. What do you say to those who see this as competition, as a zero-sum game?
The Sindh Festival’s purpose is to preserve, promote, and protect Sindh’s cultural and physical heritage and we hope to achieve this through a celebration of our history, our rich musical traditions, traditional Sindhi sporting activities, our talented handicraft and artisans, and many other exciting cultural events. Any festival which seeks to promote, preserve, and protect Pakistan’s heritage should be encouraged. The Sindh Festival has its own mission and is linked to a charitable cause. We are not just having a festival for the sake of a festival. We are not competing with anyone. I don’t know much about the Punjab Youth Festival or what it’s about, but I wish them well and appreciate all such efforts.
What is the most moving thing you’ve heard or come across after you announced the Sindh Festival? And what’s been the most bizarre criticism?
After the Punjab government decided to ban kite-flying, Alamgir, a lower-middleclass man packed his bags and decided to relocate to a city where he could still practice his childhood love of kite-flying. Alamgir works at a printing press in Karachi. He has to work very hard to support his family; they live life paycheck to paycheck. Yet every weekend he and several other kite-flyers in Karachi seek an open space to practice their childhood passion. Alamgir is not alone for leaving the Punjab because of the kite-flying ban. Many like him had to restart their lives so they could have the freedom to do what they love to do. Alamgir presented a human-sized kite, which he made himself, to me on Dec. 15 at the unveiling of the Sindh Festival [at Mohatta Palace, Karachi]. Alamgir requested, and was given, money by the organizers to pay for an open-air truck to transport the kite from his residence to the venue because he could not afford the Rs. 800 fare. This is a rich heart of a poor man, with a passion and desire to soar in the skies through his kite. Alamgir and many like him were delighted when we announced Basant was coming to Karachi, and that we would hold a beach Basant, the first ever in the history of Pakistan. The most bizarre criticism has to be the “Sindh Card” question brought up by your esteemed magazine.
Some have pointed out on social media that the fashion, cricket, and film components of the festival are being led by Punjabis. How Sindhi is the Sindh festival, and is this question even relevant?
Look at the events taking place at the Sindh Festival—the Horse and Cattle Grand Prix, Sindhi Mushaira, Sufi Night, the Sindhi Music Mela, the list goes on. The festival comprises a mix of mostly Sindhi events but includes [broader] Pakistani events too. The Sindhu civilization crossed provincial boundaries and so does our festival. We are proud of the fact that we have volunteers from all provinces in Pakistan coming to help preserve, protect, and promote Pakistan’s heritage. In fact, we encourage the mix.
Your Sindh Festival TV spot with the Ajrak as flag and you in a Bhutto jacket was very prime ministerial. Did you plan it that way?
It was not supposed to be taken like that at all. It was a satire of the form our past coups took in announcing themselves; we just parodied it and at the same time used the media space as a call for action for a “cultural coup.” We are trying to come up with new, unique ideas for communication, as we have a very limited advertisement budget and want to [stretch] the money that we are spending. In fact, this ad proved so successful that we managed to get it played on every TV channel for free. That’s an eight-minute primetime spot costing almost Rs. 50 million that we could not burden the government with.
What can we expect on opening night, Feb. 1?
Well, I don’t want to give too much away just yet—that would spoil the surprise. But let’s just say that you will witness a show unlike anything Pakistan has ever seen before. Our biggest stars will help us bring Moenjodaro—the “Mound of the Dead”—back to life for the first time in 5,000 years.
Would you agree that you can’t critique your party or its governance without a federal case being made out of it or without sparking rumors of a family row?
We are a democratic party and there is always room for debate and introspection. We are currently engaged in closed-door reviews. That is a healthy, timely, and proper thing to do. As for the ridiculous rumors spread in a gossip column about rows in my family, these have absolutely no basis in fact whatsoever. But then fiction has wings, and facts struggle for space in the modern media marketplace.
What would you like to see the Sindh government do in terms of securing, preserving, and rehabilitating Sindh’s ancient historical heritage?
The Sindh government has been very forthcoming in preserving the heritage sites, especially after the devolution of cultural sites to the province under the 18th Amendment. They have been very supportive of our initiative with the Sindh Festival, but the aim of this festival is to make the people of Sindh and the people of Pakistan take ownership of their own heritage and culture. That is why the festival is paying back every rupee it has borrowed from the Sindh government.
The mass celebration of culture is critical to reclaiming space lost to extremism. But given your outspokenness on Twitter and in your speeches, has anyone tried to dissuade you from going ahead with the festival?
Of course there are very legitimate security concerns. Terrorists attack our schools, our mosques, and our marketplaces. We can’t stop going to school, we can’t stop going to the mosque, and we can’t stop living our lives. Otherwise the terrorists have already won, even before they attack. We are taking every possible security measure to secure the public but Karachi is a resilient city, Sindh is a resilient province, and Pakistan is a resilient nation. We continue with our daily lives despite threats. The same is true for the Sindh Festival.
Tell us something about the civilizational heritage of Sindh that very few people may be aware of.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned recently about the Sindhu civilization comes from the fascinating story of Moenjodaro itself. In Egypt, a civilization of comparable age, it took 1,500 men about 10 years to build a tomb for one man. However at Moenjodaro, it took 1,500 men 10 years to build a city for 50,000 people—a city that had sewerage and waste services for every household, something that would make many contemporary cities jealous. It is fascinating to me just how advanced in their views of society this civilization was; in many ways it could be argued that it was one of the first proto-democratic societies.
How concerned are you about the security for the festival and audiences?
Security is one of our primary concerns and we need to take all possible precautions for every event and the people who will be participating. The Sindh government has put in place a comprehensive security plan and is taking every step possible to ensure that this festival, Inshallah, will go well. We deserve to live our lives. We are sick and tired of keeping everything on hold. We can’t live in limbo forever. Life must go on.
What projects do you have in mind to pursue once the festival concludes?
Wait and see. My generation is yearning for reform, both political and societal, and we won’t just sit back to become couch critics. We will be the change we want to see.
From our Feb. 8, 2014, issue.