“The younger generation definitely has a desire to transcend borders and tap into a new audience. Music is the key to unlocking a lot of pressure and stress points because you’re engaging on an intimate level.” – Natasha Noorani
“We have a very shuttered view of what India should be. Centuries ago, borders were fluid and we had different sort of arts coming in from all sides. I think we need to have this discussion and to increase exposure to art forms from across the border once again.” – Vaishnavi Kumari
“There is a sense of pluralism among the common people, they are united. But extremists want to completely stifle or negate the existence of Sufism. I think it’s a great cohesive force not just in its philosophy but also for its spaces of catharsis in a deeply conflicted, fractured society.” – Reema Abbasi
“Democracy is learnt behaviour and we have very little things around us teaching us democracy every day. In fact, we have everything eroding more of it, we are unlearning democracy every day.” – Avni Sethi
These were some of the thoughts and opinions heard during the panel discussion titled ‘Trust Economy: Empowering Communities Through Business and Culture’ at eShe’s Indo-Pak Peace Summit Led by Women.
Moderated by Lahore-based art and culture journalist Sonya Rehman, who is also the founder of the culture platform From Lahore with Love, the panel saw stimulating conversations about history, heritage, and even conflict-resolution and the meaning of democracy.
Accomplished women with long years of work reviving South Asia’s crafts or using art and music to heal conflict came together to discuss their journeys and to suggest solutions for lasting peace between India and Pakistan.
Sanya Dhir, Delhi-based creative director of couture label Diva’ni, with flagship couture stores in Delhi, Lahore and Dubai, talked about the challenges she faced as a cross-border retailer. “This is our fourth year of operations in Pakistan. The trade ban between the two nations did affect us badly. For a while, the stocks lying in the Lahore store were the only ones they could retail. Naturally, the overall political climate does affect buyers’ sentiments too.”
But two factors helped them stay afloat: “The essence of the brand is based on preserving the shared craft of the subcontinent. So audiences on both sides could resonate with the brand very well. Secondly, our partners in Pakistan played a very important role in coping with the situation.”
Echoing Sanya’s regret about the lost opportunities due to closed borders, musician and ethnomusicologist Natasha Noorani said, “South Asian classical music is all pretty much the same despite for an arbitrary border put in between us. There’s so much space on the classical spectrum.”
Sharing how the new generation seeks to transcend borders and have access to newer audiences, Natasha, who is co-founder of one of Pakistan’s most popular music festivals, added, “Music transcends all social and political barriers.” With both countries sharing the same language and colloquialisms, there is much room for music collaboration and festivals, she said: “At least music can be shared despite Covid or politics.”
Award-winning founder of the Royal Fables exposition, former journalist and PR professional Anshu Khanna spoke of the importance of erstwhile royal families in keeping the artisanal heritage of this region alive. “The Indian royal families have been conservationists of culture, craft and cuisine. Their lives teach us how to coexist between communities and also give us an idea of the rich cultural heritage of India and this region,” said the Nari Puruskar awardee.
Taking the discussion forward, Vaishnavi Kumari, princess of Kishangarh, talked about the need for cross-border art festivals where traditional arts from both sides could be showcased and new techniques shared. The founder of Studio Kishangarh, who is trying to revive and evolve the old art of miniature paintings, feels Indian artists have reached a stagnation point and could do well to learn from their peers in Pakistan. “Only when I went to England did I find out what’s happening in Pakistan; in India it’s just not talked about. You can Google it but it’s not there in the curriculum, so I feel education is important,” said the art curator.
Reema Abbasi, senior sociopolitical journalist, author, peace and human-rights activist from Pakistan, talked about her learnings while researching for her book Historic Temples in Pakistan: A Call to Conscience: “This book came at a time when Pakistan was particularly troubled, we were going through a time of great upheaval, losing a lot of people to extremists, and so on. This was an attempt to talk about the futility of how the supremacy of a singular faith is – it’s completely not suitable for a region like this.”
She went on to share her experience of visiting a 1500-year-old Hindu temple in Peshawar. “It left us with some amazing memories of the basic pluralism that exists in our people, how united the residents are. These kind of (divisive) questions are more political than societal,” she said.
For her part, Avni Sethi, interdisciplinary artist and founder of the Conflictorium Museum in Ahmedabad, talked about conflict and the lack of avenues we have to address it in society. “We imagine that conflict is a bad thing and as a response, we shut the conflict under the carpet, let it ferment, and then it ferments and comes out in the form of violence. My position on conflict is that we are not going to manage a conflict-free society and that’s probably not even the point,” she said.
She went on, “I often think that conflict is sign of a living culture, that we’re breathing and thinking and making and therefore there will be conflict. But as a culture and as a people, are we equipped with conflict resolution? If there is conflict, can we talk through our conflict, can we make art through our conflict, can we dance through our conflict – can we do these things and not choose the route of violence, which is the easiest way? And this is the way we have chosen for years on end.”
The fact is that without dialogue there can be no conflict-resolution and peace. eShe’s Indo-Pak Peace Summit was just the first step in a long journey to a unified South Asia.