A festival that wants to make us laugh in these easily outraged times

Amit Tandon and Zakir Khan are among stand-up comics who will perform at the festival
On a visit to Banaras, the story goes, Guru Nanak found worshippers offering water to the sun. He turned his back on them and began to pour water in the opposite direction. When asked why, he remarked that if water could reach the sun it would surely flow into his farmland in Punjab’s Kartarpur.

The fable serves to illustrate how the founding guru of the Sikh faith questioned unexamined rituals. But for Maheep Singh, a writer and comedian, it’s an example of humour that Indians have now forgotten how to appreciate. This is particularly true of humour in verboten areas such as religion.

A year ago, while talking to Jaskaran Singh, a printer, Maheep felt humour was fast disappearing from our society. That’s when the two thought about starting a festival dedicated to Khushwant Singh, the celebrated writer who was known for his ribald humour and irreverent wit. Khushwant Singh’s son Rahul Singh is the chief mentor of the forthcoming event.

The three-day-long Khushwant Singh Humour Fest 2020 will be staged in New Delhi next week, and promises to bring together a wide range of genres. It will include panel discussions on topics like humour in media, an amusing history of Delhi, humour in the unlikely arena of law, book launches and shayari (poetry).

“There is a session on Tanz o Mizah ki shayari, or Urdu satire and humour. People always associate Urdu culture with love and fantasy, but forget that it has a very strong element of satire,” says Maheep Singh. Two women will read out Hindi satirist and humorist Harishankar Parsai from a feminist point of view. Among other performances with humour and laughter as central themes, there will be quissagoi (traditional Urdu storytelling by Danish Husain of the Hoshruba Repertory) and Kyunki Ladkiya Funny Nahin Hoti (a comedy performance based on women’s issues by Mahila Manch from Gujarat).

The festival will also feature some of the best known names in the stand-up comedy circuit, such as Amit Tandon, Neeti Palta, Jeeveshu Ahluwalia, Anubhav Singh Bassi, Rajneesh Kapoor, Gursimran Khamba, Atul Khatri and Zakir Khan.

“There is humour in every aspect of our life, and in all fields, be it journalism, law, poetry, storytelling or theatre. Delhi is home to Ghalib, who was also known to be funny and witty. He used to drink and criticise religious practices. But we have lost our sense of humour and have turned into a nation of offence takers,” says Maheep Singh.

Khushwant Singh is remembered not only as a writer and journalist but also for his contribution to the considerable oeuvre of jokes about Sikhs. Maheep Singh points out that many readers of his syndicated column, “With Malice towards One and All”, would first turn to the joke at the end of it.

There is already a lit fest named after Khushwant Singh, held every year in Kasauli. But there has never been a humour-based event in his name, says Jaskaran Singh, who is also a distant relative of the late writer.

“He was very outspoken and also very punctual. He famously turned away former President Giani Zail Singh for arriving late because it was past his bedtime,” he says. One of the sessions at the fest, called 8pm Bottoms Up Club, will have participants sharing anecdotes of the litterateur who retired to bed strictly at 8pm every night.

The organisers concur that religion and politics have made people overly sensitive, quick to take offence. “In the last seven-eight years, you could face consequences for anything you say,” observes Jaskaran Singh. But they promise that the festival will pull no punches, keep the spirit of Khushwant Singh alive, and ensure that people leave with a smile on their faces and laughter in their minds.

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