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The cost of being an artiste

The attack on Zarsanga, a leading female vocalist from KP, reconfirms the vulnerability of artistes to violence

The cost of being an artiste
Zarsanga with supporting instrumentalists.

Zarsanga, one of the leading vocalists of the country was attacked and injured at her home a few days back. Nearly every day some news is splashed in the media based on reports about cases of violence against artistes in the country. All artistes here are vulnerable, the performing artistes more so and the women, the most among them.

In the case of Zarsanga, even a minister in Afghanistan expressed his regrets and invited her to shift to Afghanistan if she felt that she was unsafe in Pakistan.

Whatever the reason, if such a thing can happen to her, it can happen to anyone. She is the pride of Pakhtun culture, highly respected among music and art circles. But unlike some very popular and famous artistes she has chosen a life of simplicity, minus any pomp usually associated with public figures. She has been unlucky because a few years back her home was washed away in the devastating floods. Since then, she has been living in a temporary or makeshift hut.

One has not read or seen any news that she was contacted or consoled by the ruling political clique in the province. A figure of international stature and the leading light of Pakhtun culture, she should have been reassured at the highest level of security and protection. But it appears that the provincial setup was busy in other pursuits and had no time to spare for the best ambassador of Pakhtun culture. There was condemnation at the federal level and the Lok Virsa expressed greater solidarity. Recently, a hall in the Lok Virsa premises has been named after her.

Whatever, the immediate cause of violence, it is generally the prejudice against the arts that provides impunity for perpetrators to take the law into their own hands. If they do so, there is an acceptance for it, and the backlash is never as pronounced as it is in the case of a citizen belonging to other segments of society. Whenever a news of this nature appears on media or one hears about it through other sources, the victim especially if she is a woman, is usually held responsible for it.

Not very long ago, whenever the situation worsened in Afghanistan, artistes moved to Pakistan and when the MMA government in Khyber Pathkunkhwa discouraged music and other cultural activities they moved back to a more tolerant Kabul then.

There is much that Afghanistan and Pakistan share in terms of language, music, literature customs and traditions. Families are divided and for the last seventy years there has been an unwritten understanding that populations move on a daily basis across the Durand Line for purposes of work, business, meeting with friends and relatives. Not very long ago, whenever the situation worsened in Afghanistan, artistes moved to Pakistan and when the MMA government in Khyber Pathkunkhwa discouraged music and other cultural activities they moved back to a more tolerant Kabul then. These comings and goings have been a regular feature for the last forty odd years given the conditions on each side of the border between the two countries.

It appears that Pakhtun culture is indivisible and people, and even the upper crust, have fewer tantrums in accepting the commonality of practices and forms that extend on both sides of the border. Recently, probably a few months ago, Khayal Muhammad, a very popular Pashto ghazal singer was given some national award by the government of Afghanistan, and it was presented to him in the presence of governor Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Peshawar.

This is generally true of all cultural divides that become victims to political divides between countries. As countries or dynasties disappear, the culture of the land reasserts itself as a new political structure is clamped down. In an ongoing process, the local culture then renegotiates and finds a local habitation and a name under changed political realities.

In the early years of the country, it was always India that volunteered to take Pakistani artistes and poets over. Many of them were even offered citizenship and many sought refuge in that country when things got really torrid here. Now it all has come to such a pass that even Afghanistan has the gumption to offer refuge and residence to Pakistani artistes.

Zarsanga, born in 1946 at Zafar Mamakhel, a small village of Lakki Marwat belongs to a nomadic tribe called Kutanree. They travel between Pakhtun area from Punjab and Sindh. Gypsies have been the guardians and inheritors of traditional music. Nearly all were illiterate and their only source of acquiring music has been through oral sources, very much present in their very homes and families. This acquisition of musical knowledge or process of learning, like in the families of other professional musicians, gave a certain purity of intonation where only sound was involved. It eradicated the potential duality between the word and the note. This intonation is becoming rarer and now very few practitioners are left, Zarsanga being one of them.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

One comment

  • Its with revert that instead of supporting and helping the madrassas modernise, federal government is trying to squeeze their very existence. On the other hand main stream school syllabus are becoming more secularised. This will create an enormous amount of friction and short comings among different classes of public. Its a recipe for a disaster which I strongly think, is a part of asymmetric warfare in which Pakistan and Pakistanis are being engaged. On the other hand the attacks on artists, religious figures of opposite sects, Sufi gatherings together with main stream terrorism is the fruits of letting contractors from USA and Europe in side Pakistan by previous and present governments. Unless we face these issues at both military as well as civilian levels, it would be difficult to contain it.

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