Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Lok Virsa: Striving for cultural resurgence

MUHAMMAD MAHTAB BASHIR
ISLAMABAD
mahtabbashir@gmail.com

The preservation and promotion of the traditional culture, folklore and folk arts are instrumental in strengthening a nation’s identity. Pakistan, like most other developing countries of Asia and Africa, is in a transitional phase. In addition to being faced with the challenge of preserving its cultural heritage, Pakistan has to meet the needs of a nation in the modern industrial world. Tradition and change should go together. These are like two wheels of a carriage that must move in unison for advancement. No nation can afford to progress in science and technology at the cost of its culture.

Lok Virsa, also known as the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage, was established in 1974 for research, collection, documentation, preservation and dissemination of Pakistan’s folklore, oral traditions and regional culture. Within the span of a few years, Lok Virsa has grown from a fledgling endeavour to a full-fledged initiative, whose projects and activities span the entire country.

Over the past centuries, an urban monopoly on art and culture overshadowing the regional and rural tradition, along with an enormous cultural influx from the West, has led to a slow and gradual severance from the roots of indigenous culture. As a result, Lok Virsa was established as the much-needed platform to systematically preserve and strengthen a fading identity. This does not imply holding back progress or turning back the wheels of time, but merely to institute protective measures against the disruption of our own being.

With the advent of modern mass society and an age of cultural diffusion and invasion from the technologically advanced nations, the traditional customs, beliefs, arts and crafts are being rapidly obliterated. The process is almost like a hurricane sweeping down on us. In the absence of adequate protections, it is likely to completely wash away our cultural heritage.

The rediscovery of Pakistan’s historical tradition and its integration with modern elements require extensive knowledge of the roots of this heterogeneous culture. Scientific research and collection of data is necessary for every project that Lok Virsa undertakes. Film footage, field surveys, magnetic recordings, phonographs, researches, dissertations, original monographs, ethnological artifacts, rare manuscripts and microfiche are all stored in Lok Virsa’s central archives for reference and research. Verbal legends and songs, folk romances and tales, children’s games and rhymes, beliefs and rituals, traditional festivals and celebrations, sayings of sages and age-old customs, which express the true genius of the people of Pakistan, are the subject of Lok Virsa’s investigations.

Lok Virsa has focused on documenting Pakistani folklore because it represents things inherited as against things acquired. It is significant because our own awareness and national consciousness must precede everything else. To do this, Lok Virsa conducts cultural surveys in villages, towns and districts of Pakistan. Mobile recordings and filming units have been set up for active field research, documentation and collection of the material and the ideological components of our indigenous traditions. Lok Virsa initiates measures to identify and categorize individuals or groups of notable masters and practitioners of traditional arts and skills to ensure ways and means of their continuance by providing suitable incentives.

In modern times, arts are becoming an industry, and no longer an individual act. A developing country like Pakistan is at the consumer’s end. We are compelled to import art products like films, books, magazines, videos and audiotapes. The result is rapid transplantation of alien art forms, to the detriment of our own cultural traditions. Lok Virsa, in cognizance of the situation, aims to strengthen the national art industry for the propagation of Pakistani art forms. Lok Virsa is an affiliate member of UNESCO, the World Crafts Council, International Council of Music, the Asian Cultural Centre for UNESCO, the International Council of Museums and similar other world organizations for the dissemination of art products abroad.

The Museum has grown from a small sub-section in 1974 into an integral division of Lok Virsa since 1981. The museum galleries house a rare collection of folk arts and ethnological artifacts, each of which has been chosen by an expert as a prime example of a unique artisanship and its features. The displays are imaginatively arranged and keep changing during a year to accommodate new additions. Since the museum documents living arts, it calls upon all artisans to bring their crafts annually to the artisan festival. This festival is held each year in the month of October at the museum complex in Islamabad. Over 100,000 eager participants come to the festival. Lok Virsa supports the craftsmen by giving cash awards to them and recognizing them as living national treasures. The festival also features folk entertainments, puppet shows, folk dance, music concerts and an exotic craft bazaar.

It would not be unjust to call Lok Virsa the cultural storehouse of literature pertaining to Pakistani traditions. Original search works in all regional languages of Pakistan along with Urdu renderings of the regional text are published. Patronage has expanded from scholars to the general public, as the centre now publishes two books a month. Over a hundred books have been produced by the centre in a series, including Folk Songs, Folk Tales, Folk Romance, Epics, Folk entertainments, Folk Poetry, Sufi Poetry, Cultural Information, Cultural Gazetteers and Surveys, Folk Classics, Oral Traditions and Rare Reprints.

The publishing house aims to make regional folk literature available in the national language to promote greater understanding and closer fraternity amongst Pakistanis and to make cultural literature available to schools, colleges and universities and social scientists. Many a Lok Virsa publication is prescribed as part of the course of study in major universities at home and abroad. A number of publications from Lok Virsa publishing house are national award winners. The centre also publishes professional quality recordings on video and audiocassettes for storage, reference, and projection of our authentic musical heritage. Lok Virsa is already the largest folk music publisher in Pakistan.

Lok Virsa since its inception in 1974 has placed great emphasis on audiovisual documentation of rituals, customs, festivals and traditions that are dying out. A professional video studio has been established by the centre at Islamabad. The well-equipped mobile units of the centre can reach any part of the country to capture an event and yield a quality production. Whether enjoying a musical journey through Pakistan via the ABU prizewinner The Circarama Box or being immersed in a fascinating study of the ancient civilization of Moenjodaro, the sound-slide kits produced by the centre are a pleasure to experience. These inexpensive and creative educational kits consist of slides synchronized to a sound track with a booklet as background material. The educational institutions are offered free screenings. The media centre also offers professional documentaries and video programmes to television networks, universities, and other institutions for home consumption on rental as well as on sale.

Lok Virsa follows a policy of involving all talented Pakistanis in the implementation of its policies and programmes. Lok Virsa is the only institution offering grants for cultural research to scholars and students, particularly from remote areas.

Many existing facilities of Lok Virsa such as the Heritage Museum, Heritage Library, Sound Archives, Research and Publishing Centre and Virsa Media Centre are all educational facilities based on the interest of students and researchers. Lok Virsa has been provided a new mandate under the new charter that requires the institution to develop a new vision and vistas in broadening its horizon. These new areas principally include socio-cultural education, training, workshops, culture industry, broadcasting, telecasting, NGOs and community services. Lok Virsa under the leadership of Mr. Uxi Mufti, Executive Director of Lok Virsa, along with sheer commitment of Mr. Anwaar-ul-Haq, Programme Executive, and other team professionals must strive harder to distinguish itself in these new areas as a viable self-support organization.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad

Published in dilay DAWN on 23rd June, 2006 & in The Post on 25th of June, 2006


MUHAMMAD MAHTAB BASHIR
ISLAMABAD

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