Building Understanding between Communities through the Arts
By Salina Nasir
Pictures by Annie Athar
The Pakistan Arts Council of the USC Pacific Asia Museum and LA Grand Performances are two separate Los Angeles-based organizations with a similar mission: To build understanding between communities through the arts.
The Pakistan Arts Council, a special-interest organization aimed at promoting Pakistani culture, worked in conjunction with award-winning concert series Grand Performances to introduce the greater Los Angeles community to the beauty of Sufi devotional music.
On August 22, 2015, a crowd of 1,500 people experienced solidarity through music as the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali group transformed the amphitheatre into a space for cultural exchange. As the harmonies of the East merged with sounds of the West, it was evident that both organizations had successfully fulfilled their missions of widening horizons and bridging gaps.
“ That night, [the concert space] became a church, a temple, and a mosque,” said Ayesha Kamran, President of the Pakistan Arts Council. “[The performance] brought our hearts, minds, souls, and senses to the most highest form of prayer.” For enthused attendees, the event did even more: It transcended religious boundaries, and placed a heavier emphasis on spirituality and humanity — things we all share.
“For 25 years, the USC Pacific Asia Museum and the USC Pakistan Arts Council have been working together to create memories and experiences through unique and diverse programming that celebrate the people and culture of Pakistan,” said Michael Fritzen, Head of Education and Public Programs at USC Pacific Asia Museum . “ Partnering to bring Qawwali musicians Rizwan and Muazzam Ali Khan to Grand Performances is one of many examples of our work together.”
Comprised of an active and hardworking team of board members, the council works to fulfill its goal of “stimulating, exciting, and entertaining” while sharing Pakistani arts and culture with people. For the council’s events, Kamran and vice-president Samira Saleh aim to “work locally, but think globally” — a tactic also employed by Grand Performances.
Michael Alexander, Executive Director of Grand Performances, explained that the nonprofit organization seeks to inspire community among Angelenos by offering free performing arts events that “reflect the best of global culture.”
“Art is not only a universal language, but also a universal entry point to understanding other people,” said Alexander. The mission overall, he explained, is “to bring people together to teach them that, among us, there are a lot more areas of commonality than difference.” Though differences exist, Alexander hopes that Grand Performances’ events can remind citizens how to be respectful of such variances.
“Art helps people understand cultural difference in ways that straight book learning cannot,” he said. “By simply coming to Grand Performances and sharing space with strangers, you can ask questions about the work. Even if you don’t understand the words, you can appreciate the music and other performance elements so it can create moments that are interesting and comfortable for you.”
The event, which featured devotional songs sung in the Urdu language, gave attendees from outside of the Pakistani community the chance to discover something new. “When Pakistanis [saw] non-Pakistanis enjoying the event, they had a chance to know that their art is of interest and important to people. And when the non-Pakistanis [saw] the Pakistanis responding positively, they [witnessed] an authentic and a legitimate expression of the culture of those people.” Alexander believes that there is a need for both groups of people to be in the audience in order for it to be a very fruitful experience.
The Pakistan Arts Council and Grand Performances have a long-lasting relationship, as the two organizations previously worked together to host the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali group in 2004 under the leadership of then-president Perveen Ali. The council is especially appreciative of Grand Performances for providing them with the platform to share Pakistani culture in a creative, entertaining fashion, and it hopes to continue furthering the partnership in the future.
Kamran stated that the event could not have been made possible without the diligent efforts put forth by the council’s board members and also its donors, including Amina Adaya and the Al Ameen Foundation, American Dawn and the Adnan and Habib Rawjee families, Salim and Yasmin Adaya, Perveen and Ahmed Ali, Tahira and Shabbir Ali, Anjum and Razaq M. Chaudhry, Ghazala Khan, Shaheen and Anil Nanji, Firoze and Jameela Fakhri, Laila, Jamal, Nina and Zayn Jaffer and several anonymous donors.
The Pakistan Consulate of LA was also a major donor whose contribution made a significant impact in bringing the event to fruition. Deputy Consul General Malik Qamar Abbas Khokhar believed that the event was a great way of projecting a “soft image” of Pakistan, which he considers to be the greatest service that the Los Angeles Pakistani-American community can provide to its country of origin. “The performance exhibited a facet of Pakistan which is less known to people in the West,” said Khokhar. “The Consulate General of Pakistan will continue to facilitate such events in the future.”
Actor Iqbal Theba, most famed for his role on the Fox television series Glee, was also a guest during the performance and felt especially grateful for those who organized the event. “I love Grand Performances for bringing the centuries old Sufi music tradition to [Los Angeles],” said Theba. “I also love the fact that the Consulate General of Pakistan and the Pakistani community helped make that amazing musical evening possible. Bravo!”