The Dawn: Mar 6, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Basant: yellow fields and Lahore’s colourless sky

Mushtaq Soofi 

It has almost become a habit with us to go against nature. The fields are yellow colour with ‘sarhun (a kind of mustard) creating an audio landscape whispering the secrets of botanical resurrection.

Early spring wind with its joyful noise sings of earth’s rebirth. Birth or rebirth deserves celebration.

Celebrations in times of death and destruction, through which we pass these days, may seem odd, even insensitive.

But let’s not forget that life process is inexorably driven by contradictory elements, visible and invisible that sustains us and what is around us. Forces of destruction and regeneration are constantly at work.

Destruction is as much a source of sorrow as is the regeneration that of joy. Sadly in socially evolved structures because of their skewed nature, we tend to be overwhelmed by what is highly visible; the destruction.

Regeneration works in imperceptible ways and is thus less noticeable. That is one of the reasons we humans live constantly surrounded by sense of doom and gloom.

Nature continues to remind us through its seasonal signals that there is no end to life and the consequent joy that accompanies it. ‘Joy and playfulness is what is the divine has endowed us with’ says the sixteenth century poet and saint, Shah Hussain. Lahore’s Basant, which now lies freshly buried in the dust of remembrances of the things past, was a people’s festival, full of joy and playfulness.

Basant marked the end of winter that laid the natural and human landscape drab and barren with its biting cold. It heralded by the same token the arrival of spring ‘breeding the lilacs out of dead land’. Our lilacs are our ‘Sarhun’ with its enchanting yellow blossoms.

The traditional clothes donned on Basant derived their colour from the shades of blossoms. The point to remember is that Basant was a seasonal festival in a land, fertile and productive, that impregnated the imagination with fecund symbolism.

Its seasonal nature gave it an undeniable secular tinge in a multi faith society that at times lost its sanity in a series of subdued but unending communal tensions.

The season having no faith worked its mojo on all and sundry bringing them together in a state of abandon regardless of faith, creed and class.

The open gathering in the spirit of a carnival used to have a swelling urge to celebrate the change of season that promised better days ahead with the prospect of fresh agricultural produce. What they would celebrate it with? Kites! Kite though frail and perishable, developed into an enduring metaphor of longing to scan the limits of limitless sky, reach the unreachable and thus to be on the edge of beyond.

With his foot on the ground and the strings of flying kite in hand, the man endeavoured to end the distinctions between what was above and below with his subconscious urge to unite heaven and earth. It surprises no one when Shah Hussain, the greatest son of Lahore, employs the images of kite as transcendental symbol/metaphor in his verses.

‘With my multiple strings I fly’. In another verse he says’ I am a kite/beloved’s hand holds me’.

Massive crowd or big carnival in a modern metropolis emitting unmistakable signs of frenzy has the propensity to go wild with unanticipated consequences.

That is what scares the authorities since a large number of people gathered in a festive mood are not an arboretum. They are rather like a jungle, unexplored and unmeasured, that can spring up surprises difficult to handle.

Authorities always find it difficult to face the difficulties. So they go for quick fixes which are little more than short-cuts. Lahore’s Basant has been a victim of such an administrative practice.

Some years ago when it developed into an international cultural event attracting people from foreign lands, mishaps happened resulting in some causalities.

The reason was that some twine makers having little scruple started churning out twine laced with lethal material such as cut/crushed glass in an insane effort to make kite flying competition, a game full of fun, dangerously thrilling.

Against all the norms metal wire too was sold with a view to make the cutting of competitor’s kite easier. This proved to be a disaster for motorcyclists and consequently for the game.

Pieces of lethal twine and razor like metal wire in a freefall hit some motorcyclists slashing their throats.

The deaths caused hue and cry, rage and fury. The administration went into overdrive and on the pretext of dealing with the situation found a shortcut; it simply banned the kite flying.

It was like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The shortcut was the ‘unkindest cut of all’ as it not only destroyed a popular cultural tradition but also rendered thousands jobless associated with the business of kite making and the Basant festival. No one in the echelons of power had time and wisdom to think through the problem.

Instead of squeezing the culprits, the twine makers, they decided to punish the people of Lahore by depriving them of their day of joy.

The people took centuries to evolve this cultural asset and a gang of philistines comprising the Lahore administration threw it in the dustbin of history with an indifferent wink.—

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