It’s Friday night and in a slinky black dress and heels too high, for anything other than considered steps, I head up to the private function room of the Aagrah restaurant in Bradford.
Inside, the rows of seats facing the elaborate stage are filling quickly with south Asian men and women, in traditional dress. Shit…the exposed, wonderfully tanned and toned, calves beneath the dress seem too provocative for this audience. I pull my shawl across my shoulders, it is hand embroidered from Pakistan.
I am attending a mushaira, hosted by Yorkshire Adebee Forum on the opening weekend of the now spectacular Bradford Literature Festival. Mush-what? you are asking me. I know because I have tried, in vain, to lure many a plus-one to this event and this is often the first response I received. By the time I’ve uttered the words – Urdu and poetry, I’ve used two more words that guarantee I’m flying solo tonight. The mushaira has been a huge part of the culture of the Indian subcontinent for centuries. A forum for poets to share their love of language and appreciate the craftsmanship of each other’s literary efforts. A place for intellect, creativity and self-expression. I imagine lavish mushairas, with beauties studded with jewels, poised and delivering words with precision and power… I have always been prone to over dramatisation but you get the gist.
Although my peoples may not have taken up my invitation tonight, there is no shortage of attendees at the event. There’s around 300 here tonight and my friend Ghazal Ansari, chairwoman of Yorkshire Adabee Forum, informs me that the event has sold to full capacity and that they have had to refuse folk entry at the doors tonight. The crowd is mostly conservative, middle-class Pakistani. The owner of a conglomerate of Asian media companies is in the audience. I overhear there is a Pakistani General and his beti (daughter) in the room and there are various doctors who seem to be regulars at Yorkshire Adabee Forum events as they receive shoutouts from the hosts, Ghazal and Mr Mir, throughout the night. The female VIP’s are presented with a bracelet made of fresh red and white flowers. This is a tradition from Pakistani weddings where colourful, fragrant flowers are used to adorn the bride, women of the family as well as homes and the marital bed. I am surprised when a young woman approaches me to tie a bracelet onto my wrist a little into the evening. “From Ghazal”, she explains and I feel better about my outfit choice.
The poetry is everything that Urdu shahyari (poetry) is, elegant, rich, complex, frustratingly unreachable and then in the next moment perfectly reflecting my innermost parts back to me. The themes include the usual suspects of love and heartbreak. The words are so beautifully constructed and poignant that my heavily fortified heart is besieged and I risk ruining a decent application of eye makeup. The poets speak of patriotism, intolerance and religious extremism. My favourite of the night speaks of gender inequality imploring young women to rise up and resist the pressures and burdens of unsuitable and exploitative marriages.
I’m unsure of whether the poets are a diverse group. On the face of it yes – there is a young women from Yorkshire, another from Scotland and a Brummie too. The female to male ratio is low but we are represented. There are men in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s and beyond, hailing from London, Sheffield, Manchester and places inbetween and an ‘angry young man’ from Germany. Yet I get the impression that they are all part of the same clique. It’s privileged, conservative and international. Contrary to all my ideas about the universality of art, it seems understandable that privilege is a prerequisite for those who engage in creating this art form. Urdu poetry is incredibly complex and those who reach any kind of competence will have studied the form for many years. In Pakistan where the adult literacy rate is at 56% and the female adult literacy rate is 42% it is the elite who have the academic and economic freedoms to play with words in this manner.*
The words may be highbrow but I witness a convention of mushaira that reduces the space between performer and audience. The experienced audiences are extremely vocal in their appreciation of a good verse. In fact, they are rowdy and loud, engaging in what I would describe as positive heckling. Shouts of waaah are accompanied by an exuberant upward flick of the hand and forearm. I heard many times an incredulous questioning, “kya kerai hai?” Which literally translates to “what are you saying?” More accurately means something like, what a line! At times members of the audience repeat back the lines that the poet has shared or ask the poet to repeat their prose. It’s a wonderfully joyful appreciation of the art form.
The evening finishes with a dinner that, typical of south Asian timing, is served much later than expected and a Punjabi songstress. A songbird of the diaspora, she seamless swings from soulful Punjabi classics like Terai yai Naina to Stand by Me. The familiar dohl beats and words of my ancestors stir up a desire to move inside of me. I look over the audience and can easily spot others like me, itching to defy the no dancing convention of this gathering, swaying, clapping and moving to the beat while in their seats. It’s past midnight as I say my goodbyes and I would come again, especially as Ghazal’s daughter, Madiha, promises me a dance next time.
*UNESCO Institute for Statistics http://en.unesco.org/countries/pakistan