Report: The Sacred Amritsar 2023 - Hindustan Times
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Report: The Sacred Amritsar 2023

ByChintan Girish Modi
Apr 06, 2023 07:14 PM IST

Revolutionary poetry, discussions on books based on the city, great food and music were all part of the first edition of this immersive cultural festival

When I landed at the Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee International Airport in Amritsar on March 24, I wondered if it was a wise decision to show up for an arts festival with Khalistan back in the news, Amritpal Singh Sandhu on the run, and the possibility of violence lurking in the air. Fortunately, the driver who picked me up had a reassuring sense of humour and my fears were dispelled by the time I arrived at The Earth, Urban Haat, venue for the opening reception of the first edition of The Sacred Amritsar – a festival of music, poetry, storytelling, food and heritage.

Singer Rabbi Shergill performing at Gobindgarh Fort (Courtesy The Sacred Amritsar) PREMIUM
Singer Rabbi Shergill performing at Gobindgarh Fort (Courtesy The Sacred Amritsar)

The first event, featuring diplomat-turned-translator Navdeep Suri and singer-composer Harpreet, was built around the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre that took place in Amritsar on April 13, 1919. Suri read excerpts from his English translation of Khooni Vaisakhi, a 900-line poem in Punjabi written by his paternal grandfather Nanak Singh to bear witness to the event in which British troops led by Colonel Reginald Edward Harry Dyer killed Indians who had gathered to protest the Rowlatt Act, which empowered the police to arrest without a warrant. Nanak Singh was one of those protestors. He survived the bloodshed as he lay unconscious among the hundreds of corpses that filled Jallianwala Bagh.

Sanjoy K Roy in conversation with actor Deepti Naval at the Gobindgarh Fort (Photo courtesy The Sacred Amritsar)
Sanjoy K Roy in conversation with actor Deepti Naval at the Gobindgarh Fort (Photo courtesy The Sacred Amritsar)

Khooni Vaisakhi lays bare the brutality of the British empire; no wonder it was banned soon after its publication in May 1920. Harpreet set the poetry to music, and his powerful voice combined with the melancholic notes of his guitar evoked the memory of those who died and the grief of those who lost their loved ones. “We must know our history. We are way too complacent without this knowledge. Learning history in school is a mechanical process. Most students forget what they study. Sometimes, poetry and novels can be a far more powerful medium to impact people’s consciousness than a sterile history textbook,” Suri said. Emphasizing the need to look at history through stories of humanity in the worst of times, he spoke of how Nanak Singh’s work – novels, plays, short stories, poems, essays – captures snapshots of pre-Partition Amritsar where Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs celebrated festivals like Eid, Lohri and Diwali together.

Harpreet also sang poems written by Waris Shah, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pash and Maheep Singh.

Shabnam Virmani and Swagath Sivakumar at The Earth Urban Haat (Photo courtesy The Sacred Amritsar)
Shabnam Virmani and Swagath Sivakumar at The Earth Urban Haat (Photo courtesy The Sacred Amritsar)

On March 25, the programme began with the soothing strains of the peacock-shaped taus played by Sandeep Singh. He grew up in a family of Sikh devotional singers called raagis who render shabads from the Guru Granth Sahib in various ragas.

This was followed by a performance called Songs of the Mystics with singers Shabnam Virmani and Swagath Sivakumar offerings poems of Kabir, Gorakhnath and Mirabai set to music, which they learnt from folk singers during travels and field visits to Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Kutch for the Kabir Project and the Ajab Shahar Archive. Virmani gave a gist of what the poems meant so listeners could appreciate them fully.

Valentina Trivedi and Askari Naqvi at the Earth Urban Haat (Photo courtesy The Sacred Amritsar)
Valentina Trivedi and Askari Naqvi at the Earth Urban Haat (Photo courtesy The Sacred Amritsar)

Next, Askari Naqvi and Valentina Trivedi presented Dastaan Miyan Azaad Ki based on the Urdu classic Fasana-e-Azad written by Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshaar who sought to recreate post-1857 Lucknow through its festivals, rituals and linguistic richness. Even those who could not follow the language were able to appreciate the sombre mood invoked through Soz Khwani and the joyous spirit that came alive through songs of Basant.

A sumptuous breakfast of Amritsari delights such as chhole-kulche and parantha-lassi was followed by a guided heritage walk through Katra Ahluwalia and Dharam Singh Market to learn about Amritsar’s sarais, akharas, gurudwaras, samadhis, shops, memorials and fountains.

In the evening, the action shifted to Gobindgarh Fort where conservation architect Gurmeet Rai gave a talk about the significance of material culture and built heritage in understanding our past. Rai has worked on the conservation of several heritage sites in Punjab including the Gobindgarh Fort, Rambagh Palace Garden, Town Hall and Office of the District Magistrate.

This was followed by a conversation between actor-filmmaker Deepti Naval and arts entrepreneur Sanjoy K Roy around Naval’s memoir A Country Called Childhood. She read excerpts from the book, and recounted various anecdotes from her formative years in Amritsar. It was poignant to hear Naval speak about her parents’ love for pre-Partition Lahore. She also read a poem she wrote in memory of actor Smita Patil, who died at the peak of her career.

The evening took on a cheerful turn when mother-daughter duo Dolly Guleria and Sunaina Sharma regaled audiences with Punjabi folk songs like Bajre da sitta, Latthe di chaadar, Shava charkha channan da and Ambarsare de paapad. The atmosphere was electrifying and people who were, until then, sitting quietly, got up and danced.

Aruna Sairam brought the evening to a magical close with her concert Maargi: Traveller Across India. Apart from showcasing her brilliance as a Carnatic vocalist, she sang in Dogri, Gujarati and Hindi, calling her performance “a musical parikrama of Bharatvarsha”.

On March 26, the programme at The Earth, Urban Haat, opened with a concert of Vidushi Dr Kamala Shankar playing the slide guitar. Her instrumental rendition of Waris Shah’s Heer was received with enthusiastic applause. This was followed by singer-songwriter-composer Chinmayi Tripathi and composer-producer Joell Mukherjii’s presentation of the poems of Kabir, Amir Khusrau and Bulleh Shah through music based on traditional tunes with a contemporary twist.

Aruna Sairam performing at Gobindgarh Fort (Photo courtesy The Sacred Amritsar)
Aruna Sairam performing at Gobindgarh Fort (Photo courtesy The Sacred Amritsar)

The afternoon was reserved for a visit to the Partition Museum in the Town Hall, which houses photographs, letters, documents and video testimonies of Partition survivors. Looking at the objects people carried when they left their homes, and art installations that captured the enormity of the tragedy of 1947 was a moving experience.

Lunch was at Rang Punjab, a farm-to-table restaurant that serves traditional recipes like Kujje Wali Dal, Aloo Wadi, Bajre di Roti, Shardai, Gur Wale Chawal, Bharwan Karela, Palak Bathua Raita, Brahmi Badam, Bazoori, and Kurkuri Bhindi.

At the last evening of the festival at Gobindgarh Fort, Purushottam Agrawal, a scholar who writes about the poetry and politics of Kabir, gave a talk interspersed with poems of Kabir set to music and sung by Vipin Heero. Instead of putting listeners to sleep with a long boring lecture, Agrawal decided to poke fun at scholars who think Kabir was critical only of religious pundits and not academic ones. He emphasized the need to engage with poetry written in languages from different regions of India in order to understand the pulse of the people, the struggles they have to face on a daily basis, and what they are angry about.

The highlight of that evening was singer-songwriter Mohammad Muneem, the frontman of the band Alif. He got audiences screaming, whistling, swaying, head banging and wiping tears with his songs in Koshur and Urdu, punctuated with some translations and commentary in English. There were songs about nostalgia, grief, solace and hope. He also brought paper boats as gifts for the delegates. When I unfolded mine, I found a poem inside – a poem that conflates the Jhelum with the river of emotions that flows inside each human being. It is an invitation to plunge within and find resilience, strength, peace and love.

Mohammad Muneem, frontman of the band Alif performing at Gobindgarh Fort. (Courtesy The Sacred Amritsar)
Mohammad Muneem, frontman of the band Alif performing at Gobindgarh Fort. (Courtesy The Sacred Amritsar)

The grand finale was a concert by singer Rabbi Shergill, who sang poems of Baba Farid, Shiv Kumar Batalvi, Jaswant Singh Zafar, Bulleh Shah and Gulzar. He called out politicians and institutions that divide people along the lines of caste and religion, spoke about farmer suicides, and highlighted the need to preserve Punjabi language and culture. Calling himself “a part-time Sufi” who is “more into rock and roll”, he concluded with his popular songs Tere Bin, Bulla Ki Jaana Main Kaun and Challa with audiences cheering, hooting, singing and dancing with him.

Organized by Sleepwell and Teamwork Arts, the first edition of The Sacred Amritsar Festival was impressive. In future editions, it might be a good idea to make visits to the Golden Temple, Jallianwala Bagh, the Attari-Wagah Border and Bhagwan Valmiki Tirath Asthan an integral part of the itinerary so delegates can have a more immersive experience of the city. Those who are visiting from outside Punjab would certainly find that even more rewarding.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer

The views expressed are personal

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