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Published: Mon, 07/06/2009 - 07:27 Updated: Wed, 07/01/2015 - 11:45

The international Fez festival of music, spirituality and philosophy turns knowledge and hope luminescent. Yes, life's not so bleak anymore
Akshay Bakaya Fes (Morocco)/Paris

Now, where in the world is Fez? Or is it Fes? Like other modestly informed English speakers, I knew about the Fez cap that had made its way from Mediterranean shores to heads distant and varied, from Ottoman artillerymen to colonial regiments, from Suhartos and Sukarnos of Indonesia to achkan-clad Maulana Azads and khaki-chaddi Hedgewars of India.

But, besides being known for that conical flat-topped Turki topi, the magnificent imperial and spiritual capital of Morocco has other claims to fame. Home to the world's oldest operating university founded in 859 AD, the colourful, bustling medina of Fès is also the world's largest contiguous car-free urban area, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, perhaps as a model of wisdom awaiting a future where cities would be restored to humans again.

Reviving that tradition is what the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music seems to be about, in a world steeped in strife, for a planet faced with destruction. First held in 1994, its nightly concerts at the luminous Bab Al-Makina Gate at the royal palace remain its central feature. In the words of Armenian-French art director, Gérard Kurdjian, who programmes the music and dance: "Fifteen years ago a tree of melodies was planted, whose roots sink into the depths of the past, into rich soils of East and West, North and South. Its branches now soar in the sky, and at its annual bloom, songs and hymns blossom - a new 'Conference of Birds' that the Persian poet Attar would not have disavowed." Also harking back to a French tradition of planting a 'Tree of Liberty' in every village, he insists, "these sacred flowers that move and unite hearts are not offerings to any religion or doctrine, but daughters of liberty".

From the opening night, the artistic 'risks' promised were evident. The Lebanese Christian Marcel Khalife sang in Arabic with an international ensemble of instrumentalists, in homage to departed friend Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet whose coffin he shouldered last August. The Moroccans in the international audience were excited, indeed subjugated, by a rare apparition in the audience of Princess Lalla Salma, young commoner, IT systems analyst that the newly crowned Mohammed VI had wed in 2002. But they were soon egged on into a chorus with Khalifé who has made Darwish's poetry, known even in Hindi, familiar to the entire Arab world.

Chastised later by a zealous Moroccan journalist for not only devoting a song 'Oummi' (Mother) to Arab prisoners in Israeli jails, but also in Arab jails, Khalife said, "As an artist I am steeped in freedom, like a fish in water. You can hear what I say, or don't listen. It's all right".

Far from our gaze, Indian artistes too have enthralled audiences here: Ravi Shankar,  Madhup Mudgal, Bauls of Bengal, Kelucharan Mohapatra and Madhavi Mudgal, among others. Now it was Shantala Shivalingappa's turn to keep the audience hypnotised with her airy lightness and vivacious grace.

Her Gamaka recital was Kuchipudi, but, brought up in Paris, she has partaken of soils of East and West with Maurice Béjart, Peter Brook and Bartabas. Resorting to the inevitable YouTube, I find a mesmerising solo she created with Pina Bausch in Wuppertal.
In 2001, with the UN listing the Fez Festival as a "remarkable event contributing to  the dialogue of civilisations", the Spirit of Fez foundation introduced the 'Fez Encounters' - languorous mornings of conversation under a giant old oak in the courtyard of the Al Batha palace, now a crafts museum.

The language of music and dance made short shrift of words, allowing 'conversation' (literally 'pouring together') beyond borders, despite risks taken. But this June's edition of the talking heads event too, where one hitherto discoursed solely in the universal language of humanity, that is French, dared an innovation -  getting Indian thinkers into the conversation. Nadia Benjelloun, Moroccan-French philosopher and director of the Fez Encounters, sent invites to Krishna Kumar,  educationist and NCERT director, and Purushottam Agrawal, erstwhile JNU professor.

Earlier editions had focussed on the 'Wisdom and Folly of Men Interpreting the Sacred', searched for a 'Soul for a Global World', weighed the 'Sacred against the Modern', and so forth. But this 15th avatar embodied a fully mature realisation of the profane origins and nature of the 'sacred'. The word itself (from sacré, 'consecrated') is a past participle of a verb, the outcome of a human act of consecrating something as worthy of devotion.

"The sacred need not come down from the sky," explained Benjelloun. It was time to consecrate as worthy of the devotion other 'absolutes' like love thy neighbour, and the principle of ahimsa in all human endeavour, insisting on their sacrosanct nature. So, samsara more than impenetrable satya, majazi ('this-worldly'), more than haqiqi ('real'), was the focus of attention under the old oak, fully in its role as the tree of life and knowledge. Fifty philosophers, astrophysicians and art critics engaged each other and the audience in conversations instructive and elevating.

The big bang and divine explanations of the origins of the universe. The origins of man - creationism and evolutionism. Contemporary disputes on life and death. The sanctity of life. The sacralisation of woman. What struck you, tragically, about this meeting of brilliant and passionately open minds was the rarity of such salutary conversations, when, truly, they ought to be at the centre of public debate, indeed, of educational curricula across the world.

Krishna Kumar finally could not make this year, but the presence of the sole Indian discussant, Purushottam Agrawal, was significant. In a gripping discourse devoted to the "search for the sacred in the secular", he announced that though he would be touching upon Kabir's poetry as also Krishna's conversation with Arjuna, that is, the Bhagawad Gita, he would mainly speak about a man of our own times. A man who took up the most utterly profane of activities, politics, as a sacred quest. Gandhi.

The moment the magic name was pronounced, many slumbering in the audience, suddenly anticipating illumination, rushed to get their earphones for translations. They were not disappointed, though left overwhelmed and hungering for more after this personal and all-too-brief exposition. Something one was groping for seemed suddenly within reach, feasible, a living tradition waiting to be revived in a young country a billion strong.

It would be worth waiting for the Fez papers to be published, but what became clear was that Gandhi was neither a saint who had strayed into politics nor a politician using religion. He had simply received the Bhagavad Gita's message that every earthly act was a sacred act. Responding to a suggestion that as Mahatma, he ought to be far from the madding crowd, in the quiet of the Himalayas, he had said, "This is my Himalaya, the streets of Delhi where the blood of humans flows, this is where I walk the spiritual path. If I fulfill this spiritual quest, this adhyatmik sadhana, in the midst of human suffering, you lead the way and I will walk behind you, up into the Himalayas."

Back in Paris, I dreamt of something as luminous as the pioneering Fez experiment with truth and beauty. The court at Fatehpur Sikri near Agra was home again to eager conversation, Qawwalis blended with Egyptian voices at Salim Chishti's dargah nearby and Nayyara Noor of Pakistan sang a sacred ode to life by Faiz Ahmad Faiz as the Rauza-e-munawwara, the 'Illumined Tomb', better known as Taj Mahal, shimmered as backdrop. Our IT whizkids had set up giant screens all over, and crowds sang along...

Aaiyé haath uthaaein ham bhi, ham jinhein rasm-e-dua yaad nahi, Ham jinhein soz-e-muhabbat ke siwa, koi but, koi khuda yaad nahi. Aiyé arz guzarein ke nigaar-e-hasti, zahr-e-imroz mein shirini-e-farda bhar de... (Come let us raise us hands in prayer too, We who have forgotten every rite of prayer, We who remember no lord, no idol, but the god of love. Come let us pray that the god of life pour the nectar of tomorrow over today's poison..."

With the maturity demonstrated by the people of India, who have refused to act according to identities ascribed to them by birth and poll pundits, a people quite uninclined to the 'salutary, sacred violence' of Godses and Stalins despite all efforts, and with the declared devotion of new renouncers of office to the task of reviving the Mahatma's tradition in a popular movement, the chances of turning such dreams to reality seem less bleak.

The international Fez festival of music, spirituality and philosophy turns knowledge and hope luminescent. Yes, life’s not so bleak anymore Akshay Bakaya Fes (Morocco)/Paris

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This story is from print issue of HardNews