From Russia with Love
by Beena Sarwar

In any bustling metropolitan business centre of 15 million in today's world, there should be nothing unusual about a night out at the theatre or ballet. But in post-Zia Pakistan, even our largest, most cosmopolitan city Karachi remains starved of any regular classical entertainment.
Barring the still under-construction auditorium at the Arts Council, the city lacks even a venue where such events can be held. And so it was that an event as breathtaking as the performance recently of the "stars of the Russian opera and ballet" had to take place under a makeshift tent (beautifully decorated though it was), on a restrictively small makeshift stage, at the DHA Golf Club - where the gradient of the ground sloped away from, rather than towards the stage. The venue's incongruity aside, it is also incongruous that such events in this country can take place only if done as private charity
fund-raisers, but not as public entertainment for ordinary culture-starved populace, even if the price tag for such events restricts their attendance.

But let's be grateful for small mercies. Chalk up points for the very fact that such an event took place at all, in Islamabad and Karachi, before hundreds of people, thanks to the singer Shehzad Roy's Zindagi Trust ( which organised this fund-raiser in collaboration with Intermach of Russia and Mercury Group of Companies of Pakistan, the Russian government which facilitated the performance, and the Volunteer Women's Organisation of Islamabad which managed the event. The artists came together at this occasion from various institutions, including State Academic Bolshoi Theatre, Tchaikovsky Moscow State conservatoire, Kremlin Ballet theatre and state Academic theatre of Classical Ballet The magic of the performance, once it started, compensated somewhat for the irritants, that included, besides the venue, the unforgivably late start of two hours after the scheduled time of "2000 hours" stated on the card, which also carried the stern reminder that "Doors shall be closed upon commencement of the programme and the late comers (sic) will not be admitted".

The host for the evening, Sohail Hashmi, who has become a well-known FM radio voice, did a good job of covering up his own irritation of having to walk back and forth to make his announcements. Only after the intermission was the sound and light system fixed so that he could stand up at the corner where he was seated and make his announcements.

The welcome addresses were thankfully brief. The Russian Consul General in Karachi, Vladimir P.Mikhaylov, made a particularly thought-provoking speech, observing that "Russia's might lies not in her nuclear arsenal but in her rich culture… We shine with our achievements in culture,
science and education".

In terms of culture, ballet, now an integral part of Russian culture originally came from the West centuries ago and was assimilated in the fertile ground it found there, explained Mr Mikhaylov. This reminder of the ever-evolving nature of culture counters the possessiveness of some
forces about culture that they would rather keep stagnant. He also noted that this was the 60th anniversary of the war over fascism, in which Russia played a decisive role, sacrificing 30 million of her sons and daughters. "Let us remember those who made it possible to enjoy a peaceful life, freedom, prosperity, democracy." As he wished Pakistan "peace, unity and prosperity", he tactfully did not mention the growing fascism in this country, in the form of vigilantes using the garb of religion to further their agendas.

His closing words, "let guns be silent, let the music be loud" were a poignant reminder of the threat to even music in Pakistan from these vigilantes. Thankfully, they were not in evidence at the occasion. The tight security outside, including guests having to leave their cars at a parking lot and take a van to the venue a kilometre away, took care of that, or the dancers with their elegantly low-cut, figure-hugging outfits may have had trouble pirouetting about. It is noteworthy that Russia's enmity with Nazi Germany did not lead to a ban on the music of German composers like Mozart. His Serenade of Don Juan was magnificently rendered by the opera singer V. Osipov, who acknowledged applause with a curtsey and graceful gesture of touching fingertips to throat. This is the second time that this troupe, managed by the Russian businessman Gleb Fomin of Mercury, has performed for Zindagi Trust fundraisers in Pakistan. The smallness of the stage and the Pakistani audience's unfamiliarity with this form of dance led to them choosing to present brief scenes from several classic stories rather than one cohesive story -- Giselle, Esmerelda, Don Quixote and The Nutcracker (rendered with an interesting "Indian" touch), besides the ome more innovative and modern Last Tango in Paris.

One last irritant that must be mentioned is the Pakistani audience's typical stinginess of applause. The performers after each scene made elaborate bows and curtsies before fluttering off… but the applause tended to die down while they were still on stage, sending them off in an awkward silence. One reason for this may have been how the audience was seated, spaced out around large round tables, rather than packed closely together in chairs focused on the stage, a setting that may have generated louder and more sustained applause. Besides the beauty of the performance, a plus point for the organisers must have been the substantial pledges for donations that Mr Hashmi managed to elicit for the cause of education of underprivileged children. For this, and for the performances, a big hurrah.

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