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Art without borders

So accustomed are we to the curbing of political rhetoric and commercial exchanges that we even take the ban on cultural activities in our stride

Art without borders
Bandwallas in Practice - 2002.

Pakistan and India enjoy a peculiar relationship. It reminds me of something that Abhay Sardesai, editor of Art India magazine, said back in 2004: “Pakistan has occupied the mind of India for the last fifty odd years.” On a good day, talks focus on bridging borders, acknowledging differences, resolving outstanding issues and committing to eliminating poverty in the two countries. On a bad day, mutual hatred and distrust resurface; with verbal rebukes hurled in response to border skirmishes that all too often lead to the killing of innocent civilians.

When this happens, the blocking of communication networks, goods and creative content are not confined to just one side of the border. In India, too, one reads about hostile behaviour towards Pakistani artists: concerts are cancelled, entry visas become few and far between, publicity is withdrawn, and organisers of joint cultural events are threatened. One still recalls how members of right-wing organisation Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) vandalised an exhibition by Pakistani painters at underground art gallery Amdavad ni Gufa, in Ahmedabad, some six years ago; neither sparing the work of Indian artists. The ensuing wreckage remains a timely reminder of a militant ideology that pushes for boycotting the products of an enemy nation.

Yet so accustomed are we to the curbing of political rhetoric and commercial exchanges that we take the ban on cultural activities in our stride. Indian films and television dramas, once so popular here, have become all but invisible; while even advertisements with Indian faces are pulled. Thus in Pakistan we can watch music videos from the likes of Shakira and Jennifer Lopez or else Hollywood’s latest releases — but not the melodious voices of celebrated Indian playback singers such as Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi or Shreya Ghoshal. Or, indeed, any Bollywood film be it on the silver screen or on television.

One understands the tension between the two sides. Atrocities committed by one state inevitably provoke strong political response. When it comes to cultural products, however, India and Pakistan are prone to mix and confuse state policies with public expression and artistic endeavours. Hence, we must distinguish between actions by the Indian government and acting by Indian film stars. In the same way, those working in Pakistan’s cinema, television and music industries do not necessarily promote state narratives.

When it comes to the realm of visual arts, the situation is both similar and not. For, unlike films, plays, songs and literature — all of which can easily be reproduced or transported — works of art are physical and therefore vulnerable to physical damage. Even in the best of times, the exchange of art between India and Pakistan has been minimal; despite the fact that both countries celebrate a shared heritage on this front through renowned painters like Amrita Sher-Gill and Abdur Rahman Chughtai.

That is not to say that India has not hosted important Pakistani exhibitions. Back in 1986, the Sixth Triennale-India included prominent Pakistani artists such as: Ijaz ul Hassan, Iqbal Hussain, Mansoora Hassan, Mansoor Rahi, Maqsood Ali, Meher Afroz, Mussarat Mirza, Saeed Akhter, Salima Hashmi, Zahoor ul Akhlaq and Zubeida Agha. Some three years later, Pakistan repaid the compliment when it held the First Asian Art Biennale; inviting participation by Krishen Khanna, Satish Gujral and Ram Kumar. In later years, there were additional courtesies. Indian artists MF Husain, Krishen Khanna and Atul Dodiya engaged with counterparts from Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka as well as Pakistan in the Old Masters,Young Voices exhibition that took place in Lahore in 2004. This is not to forget the Mappings:Shared Histories that was held in both New Delhi and Lahore from 1997-98; bringing together artists such as Nalini Malani, Sheba Chhachhi, PS Ladi, Iftikhar Dadi, Risham Syed and Sylvat Aziz. These two cities went on to present a similar joint venture in 2005. Bridging Borders brought together some 13 artists from both nations. Additionally, Pakistani art has been a regular feature of the India Art Fair while artists from the two countries have been invited to carry out residencies in different cities across India and Pakistan. The largest display of Pakistani art outside the country was held in India. Installed across five floors of Mumbai’s National Gallery of Modern Art, Beyond Borders (2005) comprised some 200 pieces of work. During the same period, Pakistani artists also exhibited in other urban centres in India. This visibility demonstrates how the art world does not recognise national demarcations.

This is because culture transcends ordinary commercial commodities. It is therefore entirely possible to watch a film by an American director that challenges US policies around the world. Or else, read essays by a French author (Jean-Paul Sartre, for example) that denounce France’s rule over Algeria. Or, indeed, dwell on a painting by Pakistani artist AR Nagori that defies the doctrine of dictatorship. Regardless of disparities of time, place, politics or position — we know that such work does not represent a political leader, government or patriotic ideology. Instead, these are embodiments of an individual’s dreams and demons; outliving the structures of a political set-up. Thus while most of us do not remember under whose rule Peter Paul Rubens lived — we do, certainly, remember his paintings. In the same way, Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez is more well-known than any given president of his native country. Unfortunately, the lines between private citizens and the state are increasingly blurred. Highlighting this temperament (or trap), Umberto Eco, in Chronicles of a Liquid Society, writes : “It’s not easy to distinguish opposition to Ariel Sharon’s policies —  an opposition shared by many Jewish people — from anti-Israeli sentiment, and in turn from anti-Semitism.”

It is therefore imperative that the artist’s vision is separated from state doctrine. Or as French writer Andre Gide, puts it, the artist “must know how to swim against the tide”. So, next time we feast our eyes on one of MF Husain’s paintings, listen in rapture to an AR Rahman composition, wonder at the lyrics of songwriter Javed Akhtar, or are mesmerised by Amir Khan on the big screen — we must surely understand that our senses have not been exposed to something political or petty but something permanent.

Quddus Mirza

Quddus Mirza
The author is an art critic based in Lahore

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