Friday 10 April 2009

Arts in Pakistan: speak up or the future looks bleak

Shanakht (literally meaning identity) festival in Karachi recently organised by Citizen's Archive of Pakistan was prematurely cancelled by the festival organizers because of lack of security provision by the Sind provincial government. Why!

The festival that focussed on the theme of identity, featured photo and art exhibitions, documentaries, interactive plays, audio-video installations, oral storytelling and various other oral-based presentations. The basic aim of the Shanakht festival was to impart knowledge of the past to the younger generation.

On the opening day the festival was marred by a violent protest by self-styled vigilantes from Pakistan People's Party (currently in power in the Sindh province and the central government) who objected to the exhibition of a work of art they considered offensive. The attackers smashed the exhibition, abused the organisers and terrorised the visitors and openly fired weapons in the air. While this attack was happening a contingent of on duty police stood by and watched as silent spectators. The attackers were unhappy that one out of over a thousand works of art on display depicted Benazir Bhutto in cohort with an ex-military dictator in Pakistan.

Attack on Shanakht is one of a long list of attempts to beat the Arts world in Pakistan to submission. Over the years the World Performing Arts Festival in Lahore has been organised under a very tight security and threats of attacks from various religious right groups are common. At the 2008 festival four people were injured when three bombs went off outside Alhamra cultural complex hosting the festival. Traditional Kathak dancers like Sheema Kirmani still perform under a constant threat to their lives.

Most of the past attempts to subdue the artistic voice have either been made by the military dictators (General Zia-ul-Haq in specific who has the dubious honour of sending artists like Naheed Siddiqui, a Kathak dance maestro, into exile from Pakistan) or by the religious right who consider various forms of Arts as anti-Islamic. People's Party has now joined the ranks of those who have tried to coerce creativity into serving its designs. Normally one would blame it all on Jiyala (loosely means a deveotee, and it has become a buzzword in Pakistan largely taken as a devotee of Pakistan People’s Party) culture among the lower ranks of the People's Party but in recent attempts to subdue Arts and media senior government ministers have come out in support of this danda (batton) imposed censorship. One has to acknowledge that in the subcontinent political leaders sometimes can be revered when alive and elevated to sainthood after death (and especially the kind of untimely and atrocious death that Benazir Bhutto faced). One can question the sensibility of the organisers to chose such an offensive protrait for display. But no one can and should question the validity of such brazen display of violent conduct as demonstrated against the event.

State machinery like police is becoming insular to all social responsibility and is either watching as bystanders (as in case of attack on Shanakht) or are being used as muscle to shut these irritating events down elsewhere. It is sad that even after the return of democracy the ways of working of the political elite and the arms of the state have not changed from the dictatorial style of working.

While Taliban are on the attack in the North West blowing up shrines of ancient poets who taught love and harmony, relegious right is on rampage in rest of Pakistan threatening arts activities in the Punjab, People's Party has now joined the ranks of those who want to impose their intolerant hegemoney.

I would like to finish this post on a thought provoking recent note by Kamila Hayat who suggests: "There is interesting research on how key militants, including a number of the bombers who struck on 9/11, are recruited from backgrounds in science education. Evidently brainwashing people grounded in literature, the arts or the humanities is not so easy – possibly because they have had more access to avenues of thinking of all kinds."

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