MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The city of Lahore in Pakistan has long been known as an artistic hub of South Asia. In recent years, that has drawn the attention of religious extremists who've targeted urban artists and staged attacks to stifle expression.
NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Lahore on how local artists are fighting back.
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ANTHONY KUHN: Back in 2008, Sufi minstrels, puppeteers and actors gathered for the World Performing Arts Festival in Lahore. The festival organizers had received anonymous threats, but they went ahead with the shows. A documentary tells what happened on the next to last day of the festival.
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Unidentified Man #1: The extremists attacked our festival...
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Unidentified Man #1: ...with three timed device bombs, injuring several people.
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KUHN: The only real casualty was the festival itself - it's been discontinued.
Festival organizer, painter and puppeteer Faizaan Peerzada says that to the extremists, his outfit, the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop...
FAIZAAN PEERZADA (Organizer, Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop): ...is an organization which is spreading non-Islamic culture in this country and bringing nations that are not Muslim countries with their strange culture, which has been imposed on the minds of our civil society.
KUHN: Peerzada finds that notion absurd. But the funders of his cultural exchanges have pulled out, and Peerzada is now building a concrete wall to protect his puppetry museum and arts center.
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Mr. TAIMUR RAHMAN (Musician): (Singing)
KUHN: No daughter's life in this land shall be destroyed by fundamentalist rule, sings Taimur Rahman, leader of Lal, a left-leaning folk rock band. Rahman recounts that last year, promoters tried to gather Pakistan's top bands, but security concerns forced the whole event out of the country and over to Dubai.
He says that in Pakistan, his concert audiences have shrunk drastically.
Mr. RAHMAN: The overall climate of the country has changed so dramatically because of the campaign that these organizations have undertaken in the cities. You know, our outreach is significantly challenged as a result. We can't hold big concerts. We can't hold open concerts. We can't hold street concerts, although we do, but they have to be, you know, sort of more guerilla type of concerts.
KUHN: Rahman says that extremist attacks have backfired by publicly discrediting the extremists. They've also rallied activist artists, including himself, to set their sights on a new threat.
Mr. RAHMAN: In an earlier period, the main focus of our work was to roll back military dictatorship. And once that was rolled back and we had some semblance of a democratic government or at least an elected government, then we felt that our new main focus would now change to addressing the question of religious extremism.
Unidentified Man #2: Yes, so have fun with it. And again, I mean put some time into these drawings. Think about each one...
KUHN: Students and teachers are discussing projects at the School of Visual Arts at Lahore's private Beaconhouse National University. The school's dean is prominent painter and writer Salima Hashmi. She says she's advised some students to consider whether their artworks will provoke a response from extremists.
Hashmi remembers growing up in a Lahore that was the Paris of the East, with vibrant music, theater and cinema and a lively intellectual scene. She notes that during the subcontinent's painful partition into India and Pakistan in 1947, Lahore lost many residents who migrated to India.
But says Hashmi...
Professor SALIMA HASHMI (Dean, School of Visual Arts, Beaconhouse National University): It still retained that flavor of being a place where writers would meet, coffeehouses where artists and writers would fight themselves blue in the face over some very tiny issue about, you know, abstract art or, you know, free verse or whatever it was.
KUHN: She and other locals are hopeful that when the current winter of extremism lifts, Lahore will be the first to burst into full artistic bloom.
Prof. HASHMI: So Lahore still knows how to party, and it is a city that loves to eat, as anybody will tell you. It is a city which is very discerning at a cricket match. Lahore is a city that enjoys a good laugh. And when times are tough, the best jokes come out.
KUHN: Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Lahore.