JAAG festival: Drawing from the past to create something new

JAAG: a festival for Panjabi and Pahari-Pothwari language and literature took place in Birmingham in May 2023, with support from NCW’s Visible Communities programme.

JAAG was envisaged as an inter-generational space, emphasising the value of perspectives and experiences that all generations have to offer.

Kavita Bhanot
2024, JAAG festival will take place on Saturday 22nd June at South and City College and Handsworth Library.
Read Anam Zafar’s interview with the organisers, Kavita Bhanot and Farah Nazir about the whys and hows of this inaugural festival.

 

The word “jaag” has more than one meaning. While the most familiar is “wake, awake, or arise”, it can also mean “an acid substance such as sour milk used to coagulate fresh milk.” Put together, these meanings capture the essence of JAAG: a festival for Panjabi and Pahari-Pothwari language and literature. Organised by the JAAG Collective, the festival first took place in May 2023 in Birmingham. It will be returning in June this year to the same venue: South and City College and Handsworth Library.

 

This ambitious event, the first of its kind in the world, attracted a huge intergenerational South Asian crowd from the West Midlands and beyond and brought together literary and academic circles. But how does sour milk relate to awakening? In the run-up to the Festival, the JAAG Collective explained their name on their Instagram account: “We look to draw from the past to create something new… Awakening is critical to our transformation as individuals and communities.”

 

The Festival aimed to dive into a host of challenging topics including: “Can we have conversations within, rather than performing always for the mainstream? Can our politics engage with layers of oppression rather than binaries? How can we honour our emotional connection to fragile and precious languages and literatures that are so often devalued, while being open to considering how and who these might continue to hurt?” And this it did, with a wide-ranging schedule of talks, workshops and performances that left the audience with a healthy-sized take-home bag of questions to continue pondering.

 

To give you a taste, Koonal Duggal discussed the historical erasure of Dalit Bahujan artists in popular Panjabi music; Rinkoo Barbaga, a Deaf multidisciplinary artist, performed an excerpt from “Made in India Britain” which narrates his experiences of facing ableism and racism; Farah Nazir and Karamat Iqbal discussed how “living within a monolingualising ideological state has impacted [their] languages and the role of education within it”; and Nabeela Ahmed ran a multilingual poetry workshop, inviting participants to consider poetry as “a space where instead of leaving much of themselves at the door, they must bring all of them to the page”. My highlight was “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”, a conversation between Aaisha Akhtar, Kavita Bhanot, Pakeezah and Jasber Singh examining “the ways in which ‘brown’ ‘love’ stories can reinforce harmful beliefs which malign those on the margins further” (all quotes from the Festival’s programme).

 

JAAG Festival might have been the first of its kind in the world, but I hope it’s the first of many. I was delighted when Kavita Bhanot and Farah Nazir agreed to discuss the whys and hows of this event with me. We hope this interview will provide a theoretical and practical groundwork for the future events it will undoubtedly inspire.

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Anam: What did the JAAG Festival seek to achieve and how did the idea come about? What was the significance of it being described as a festival for both Panjabi and Pohari-Pothwari language and literature?

 

Kavita: I carried the idea of JAAG Festival for a long time. Its seeds are perhaps in Sangat (itself inspired by a long-term monthly gathering in Lahore), which I initiated in SOAS, in London, in 2015 and facilitated with poet Amarjit Chandan and academics Navtej Purewal and Radha Kapuria. Every month we would get together to discuss a different Punjabi poet, listening to live and recorded renditions of their poetry and closely reading a poem. Around fifty people, of all ages, would turn up at each of these meetings, although we hardly promoted them – just the name of the poet was enough to draw an audience. I saw at that time what a great thirst there was for spaces where we could discuss this shared literature and culture.

The seeds of JAAG also come from my fifteen-year long search for spaces of learning and reflection, regarding our inherited languages and literatures – as I travelled between the UK and India, seeking out teachers, conversations and connections that turned into precious friendships across generations. I am from a generation in Britain that was encouraged to assimilate, and I often felt isolated in this enquiry. In recent years I have started to feel this changing with conversations around decolonisation: more and more people are setting out on a similar journey.

 

While recognising the importance of learning from our elders, I often resisted the form this can be expected to take within our communities, of uncritical absorption. This, along with feeling insecure and self-conscious, may be a reason why young people can end up avoiding such spaces and relationships. JAAG was envisaged as an inter-generational space, emphasising the value of perspectives and experiences that all generations have to offer – including young people increasingly questioning normalised oppressions. It was also a space for bringing together those who are from the subcontinent with those who are formed by their location in the diaspora, in particular Britain.  The intention was to form a two/three/four-way dialogue, with generations (in terms of age and immigration) learning from each other.

 

It was also to create a nuanced inward-looking space that was self-reflective and centred on-going hierarchies rather than flattening and performing identities. We wanted to avoid the uncritical, performative celebration of our languages, cultures, literatures that can also be another manifestation of an internalised white gaze for a white/mainstream audience.

 

Farah: The idea of having a language and literature festival for Pahari-Pothwari has been a visualisation I’ve been imagining forever it seems, but especially in the last few years, since my work has expanded out of the formal linguistic boundaries.

 

Anam: How did the JAAG Collective form, and who is in it? What is the relationship between the Collective, the Festival, and JAAG’s parent project Literature Must Fall?

 

Kavita: It was Aaisha Akhtar and then Farah Nazir who brought in the vision of bringing overlapping and distinct Panjabi and Pahari-Pothwari communities, languages and literatures together, with a keen understanding of the hierarchical relationship between these; Pahari-Pothwari is often erased, absorbed or minimised under the Panjabi label. Naming these as distinct was a powerful way of acknowledging and confronting these hierarchies, engaging with specificities as well as bringing communities together.

 

Naming ourselves (the team that ended up organising the festival) the JAAG Collective was almost instinctive, perhaps borne of a desire to counter the individualism and hierarchies around us. Meanwhile, ongoing conversations since the festival have led us to reflect more deeply on what it means to work collectively, on how difficult this is when working on a time-bound, high-pressure project such as a festival, alongside other jobs and commitments, and with every aspect of the society we live in pulling us in a different direction – towards non-collective hierarchical work structures. To work differently requires a great deal of reflection, undoing and in many ways resisting existing assumptions, expectations and ways of working. It is not impossible but requires substantial work in itself, prior to organising any event such as a festival. I don’t want to set anything in stone regarding how we will work going ahead, beyond continuing to explore fair and equitable ways of working together.

JAAG is a branch of Literature Must Fall, organised through the organisation and an extension of its critical framework, which centres critical engagement with all literature – including that by writers of colour.

Farah: As for my relationship with Literature Must Fall (LMF): I came to the LMF festival in 2019 as a solo attendee and quietly enjoyed how in that space, I felt seen and heard, and that I was part of a larger community. Post-festival, I connected with a few people from the Birmingham scene including Aaisha Akhtar, who invited me to JAAG with the idea of connecting Pahari language and literature discourse with Panjabi. What we sought evolved as we worked together, which ultimately led us to working as a Collective. Our aim was to share a space with communities that are otherwise separated by language, religion, caste, and culture to celebrate, make space, and practice criticism and reflection on all things connected to literature and language in our communities.

 

Anam: In the Festival’s welcome speech, Kavita mentioned the importance of having an in-person event, which is why it was not held online during the pandemic. Why was this important? What was the significance of holding it in Birmingham?

 

Kavita: The significance of holding the festival in Birmingham – specifically Handsworth, more specifically Soho Road and even more specifically the college and library – was about being located and rooted: in a space with a certain history and associations, with a complex present, within community(ies). It was about facing a certain direction and certain audiences, with respect, awareness and nuance. It was about creating a space of connection and warmth: allowing people to meet, talk and learn, reviving old relationships and forming new ones, with the possibility for future collaborations. None of this would have been possible if the event had been online.

 

Honestly, it felt like such a relief to hold the festival in person, after these recent years of isolation. The enthusiasm, excitement and joy in the space was palpable. We were able to create a sense of warmth and welcome, whether through the free cups of tea that Shuranjeet Singh from Taraki distributed at the entrance (how many times I heard people say “that’s the first time I’ve been welcomed to an event with a free cup of tea”), the enthusiasm of organisers and volunteers, or the interactions, conversations and sharing between speakers, performers and attendees.

 

Farah: An in-person event supports JAAG’s aims to not only be celebrative, but interrogative; seeing each other face-to-face, speaking with each other, hearing our languages allow for the creation of personal connections and interactions. This ultimately creates trust and a sense of community. I grew up in Leeds in which the South Asian community is not as diverse as Birmingham, so starting JAAG in a multilingual city like Birmingham was ideal, particularly because of its diverse South Asian diaspora community with respect to class, caste, religion, and language. What I learnt about the Birmingham community is that it is ahead of the time!

Anam: The Festival webpage says: “JAAG [is] not about fixing & fetishising language, literature & culture – we have to constantly interrogate these.” How did you ensure the Festival didn’t cater to the white gaze?

 

Kavita: When a language and literature are under threat, not only from a dominant international language, such as English, but also from national languages such as Urdu (Pakistan) and Hindi (India), the desire to hold onto them, celebrate them, is understandable. But this fetishising continues to feed the power of dominant languages, it is another way of killing vulnerable languages, literatures and cultures, putting them in a frame, as belonging to the past, as dead. To keep questioning, changing, and reinventing something is to invest in it, to keep it alive. This is what the festival set out to do.

 

We refused to cater to the white gaze partly by not facing a white audience. From the location and venue to the programme, the speakers, performers and themes to the marketing, we were primarily interested in, speaking to, and connecting to those with some connection to Panjabi and Pahari-Pothwari identity, culture, language and literature. At the same time, the white gaze can be internalised in subtle ways that we don’t even realise. It requires work to unpack this, to do things differently.

 

For example, we wanted to go beyond the usual speakers and individuals. We didn’t give too much importance to select individuals as celebrities, as a commodifying white mainstream tends to do. We wanted to bring a large number of interesting and important voices together. We wanted to create an atmosphere not of awe, reverence and coldness, as we tend to find in mainstream (white) academic and cultural spaces, but of warmth and welcome. We wanted to address the hierarchies within that whiteness often flattens – including between our languages and literatures.

 

In this, we have to acknowledge that it is not just a white gaze that we internalise, normalise and reproduce – it is also other kinds of dominant perspectives, of caste and class, of heteronormativity, of ableism, of nationalism etc. We wanted to create space to think about all these in the festival. For example, there were talks about the way in which dominant caste perspectives underpin a great deal of our literature and music. We wanted to address the silences and erasure of certain perspectives, such as LGBTQ+ or Dalit or differently abled. We questioned the patriarchy inherent in love stories by us or about us – whether this is the folk tales that have influenced generations of art, or Bollywood and British Asian films, or English language literature. We also discussed other, more expansive ways of thinking about love – this was a powerful conversation, but still slipped into an excluding heteronormative perspective.

Farah: The programme and the Collective itself were a testament to the way we attempted to fulfil both celebrative and interrogative aims we had envisioned for the festival: from oral history talks to panel discussions on the hierarchy of languages and ‘What’s love got to do with it?’. The festival was informed by our individual and collective experiences as community members; we the organisers represent the two large diasporic communities and this ensured that although interrogation is at the forefront of the festival, it is done with care, respect and reflection. I believe interrogation is a practice that we must learn and cultivate continuously, particularly in new spaces like the one we created in JAAG Festival 2023.

 

Anam: You previously told me it was important for the Festival to be intergenerational but also for it to have a “youthful energy”. Could you speak more about this?

 

Farah: If diasporic communities want to reproduce their language and literature beyond tokenistic and identarian representation, then it must be intergenerational. To create this, the Collective had to be inclusive of speakers and the target audience – and it certainly came through, as we saw community members from older and younger generations coming through those doors. From the perspective of language and linguistics, it is the younger generation that are leading the pathway of their language and language heritage, so creating a space in which they can relate and speak about their intrinsic relationship with language was important and amazing to see!

 

Anam: Which event within the Festival do you consider to be the biggest achievement, and why?

 

Kavita: It’s difficult to answer this question since there were so many wonderful events, including the writing workshops by writer Nabeela Ahmed and the Punjabi Women’s Writing Group. The theatre workshop by Pakistani performance artist Abuzar Ayoub was fresh and powerful, getting everyone moving, questioning gender binaries and assumptions, through the playful spirit of Shah Hussain. The panel discussions, ‘Hierarchies of Language’ and ‘What’s Love Got to Do With It?’ were deep and stimulating. The atmosphere during the performance ‘Sahiban Speaks’ and the evening event ‘Kala Doria’ which recreated a wedding atmosphere, singing (and interrogating) traditional wedding songs, both in the pink room, decorated with chunnis, with everyone sitting on the floor, was special. But if I had to choose, I think the final Open Mic was the biggest achievement, in the beautiful Handsworth Library, bringing everyone together at the end of the day, showcasing stunning multilingual poetry in English, Punjabi and Pahari-Pothwari, by poets of all ages/generations with a loving, warm, appreciative and appreciative audience.

 

Farah: For me, it has to be ‘Pahari Behtak: gap shap’ – I loved seeing how the elder members of the community connected with the younger members in the audience via literature. It was literary activism meeting linguistic activism across different genders and generations: we heard from poets and writers on their experiences of writing stories/poems in their language, whether it be Pahari-Pothwari, English, or a mix of both. The Behtak feel came through too: it’s rare these days to sit and listen to elders who have written published work in Pahari, particularly since these spaces are organised and delivered by and for male-dominant audiences. This session for me embodied the interrogation of language ideologies and hierarchies. Also, it had a mixed audience: people from both communities were present and engaging. And echoing formal and informal feedback we received, it was empowering to hear Pahari-Pothwari spoken and used outside of our diasporic home environments.

Anam: Did anything surprise you during the Festival?

 

Kavita: That it lived up to all we had hoped and more. I was taken aback by the extent of love, joy and enthusiasm reflected in everyone who participated and attended.

 

Farah: During my talk ‘Bringing Our Languages to the Classroom via Linguistics’, I was surprised at how community members were engaged and interested in hearing more about linguistics and its role in language maintenance and preservation. For example, how on a practical level, linguistics can be used as a tool to learn our languages. I’m excited to bring this to the community!

 

Anam: Has the feedback received during and after the Festival confirmed anything for you – or changed your mind about something?

 

Kavita: The feedback has perhaps confirmed that there is a thirst for such spaces of depth and learning, warmth and connection.

 

Farah: That this space is required and needed across all generations! Also it was clear from the feedback that we share the same fears and desires about our language and language heritage; its maintenance and preservation are important to us and the generations to come.

 

Anam: Let’s think about logistics. Some readers of this interview might be daunted by the realities of creating a similar event. Could you shed some light on how the Festival was organised?

 

Kavita: Most of the programme was curated by myself and Farah Nazir, and Aaisha Akhtar also contributed. In some cases, we proposed our ideas to prospective speakers/performers to put sessions/panels together. In other instances, we approached people and asked what they might like to do. In this way, the process of putting the programme together was quite organic, emerging through conversations with each other as well as with others we knew or came across through research.

I initially received financial support for the festival through my Leverhulme Fellowship and from the National Centre of Writing. Planning for the festival began in 2019, just before the pandemic, involving many meetings and conversations with possible partners, speakers, venues etc. I appreciate the trust and openness with which I was encouraged and supported by Kate Griffin from the National Centre for Writing to develop these ideas practically through a tumultuous few years (both personally and globally). The festival later received additional Arts Council funding. I also worked with Raveeta Bangar and Charanjeev Kaur on the festival, everybody pouring their ideas, labour and initiative into the project.

 

Farah: It is daunting and hard work, but with clear goals and organic community support, it can happen. The curation of the programme was a labour of love; we used our personal connections and networks, and this snowballed into connecting with more people via those connections. It really was quite phenomenal how even before the festival took place, there was community spirit, thirst, and excitement for this festival.

 

Anam: What’s next for JAAG Festival and the Collective?

 

Kavita: We are planning the next JAAG festival, which will take place in June this year at the same venue. A monthly Jaag Panjabi poetry reading group has emerged since the festival, and has been running for the last six months.

 

Farah: This year at JAAG, I hope to run a workshop on how linguistics (an otherwise inaccessible and hidden specialised subject to community members) can help us have a deeper understanding of our languages and how they impact our relationship, self-perception, and connection with the community. This can facilitate a new appreciation of our languages and in turn unlearn the linguistic misconceptions and prejudices we often have internalised.

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Keep an eye on the JAAG Collective’s Instagram for updates about this year’s festival, to take place on Saturday 22 June at South and City College and Handsworth Library in Birmingham. 

 

 

Anam Zafar is a translator based in Birmingham, UK, working from Arabic and French to English. In 2023, she received a PEN Translates Award for her co-translation, with Nadiyah Abdullatif, of the graphic novel YOGHURT AND JAM (OR HOW MY MOTHER BECAME LEBANESE) by Lena Merhej (Balestier Press). Twitter: @anam_translates; www.anamzafar.com. Image (c) Aamna Zafar.

Photos of JAAG festival (c) Anisa Fazal

 

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