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Through the prism of arts

Empty promises for preserving culture will remain so until we decide on the type of society we want to build

Through the prism of arts

When the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Information, Broadcasting and National Heritage headed by Marvi Memon met with some artistes, who participated in the music mela held in Islamabad recently, it stressed the need for the preservation of classical music in the country.

Usually an event is followed by customary remarks and statements on the importance of culture and its immense benefits to society. Of late, there has been this leitmotif in the national narrative that culture is a sort of bulwark against extremism in society, and that the soft image of Pakistan is supposed to be promoted and flashed across the world so that the society and the state are viewed differently by the rest of the world. This argument — that culture can counter forces that are not cultural or anti-cultural — is based on the assumption that culture only means song, dance, love and melody and, not culture in the broadest possible sense, where even extremism or violence breeds a culture of its own.

The chief guests who preside over such functions, events or meals also make speeches stressing the importance of preserving the classical arts. Once the occasion is over, they all go home and the idea hangs in the balance till the next such occasion when same speech or speeches are dusted and placed on the rostrum for the chief guest to mouth them again.

If this is the intention of the Standing Committee then it is only partially welcomed. But if the Standing Committee intents to ensure that the noble noises made in the hallowed rooms of the legislative chamber are put into some practical shape it is more than welcomed.

Conceded it is not the function of the Standing Committee — because it is a body of the legislative wing of the state — but then its legislative recommendations should be taken seriously and steps taken to put them in a definite legislative framework.

Classical music has always had a rough deal in Pakistan. At times, it is blamed for being an expression of a sensibility which is not considered to be Muslim or aligned to religion, being the hand maiden of Hinduism. For others, it is something that is too arcane, complex and beyond comprehension of an ordinary listener more attuned to following music according to the lyrics that are heard, and to many more the classical forms represent a culture that is very upper class and elitist. Allied to this is the castigation that it is not meant for the masses and therefore should be criticised and condemned.

The latter point of view gathered more momentum during the days when Marxism was riding the high horse and everything was seen in the prism of that ideology.

Music is thus under attack from certain quarters in whatever form and, if it happens to be classical music, many more voices join in and even of those who otherwise support one form of music at the expense of another. By pushing some qualifying clause the general hostility to music is bolstered.

Many believe that the time to preserve the classical forms is long gone. It is too late and no amount of salvaging acts or gestures can rescue the situation.

At the time of partition, many artistes had migrated to Pakistan from all over the subcontinent and despite losing quite a few non-Muslim practitioners and one Muslim, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, the situation did not appear to be that hopeless. But the system of patronage had collapsed or had disintegrated; no new institution was formed. And since the classical forms, it may be stressed yet again, are not popular forms that can sustain themselves on popular support in terms of appreciation and reward, no institutional mechanism was evolved.

These forms have to be particularly preserved and promoted simultaneously and should be kept halfway from the thrusts of popular cultural expression. It needed the guidance from a highly sensitised and aware group of people but, unfortunately, it was not to be, and the classical forms were treated at par with the other forms, which meant its dilution and then dissolution within the first couple of decades in the country.

The East Pakistanis’ greater love for the higher forms steadied the ship for a while but with the separation and rise of the populist regime in the remaining Pakistan in the 1970s, there were no takers of the classical forms already castigated for being elitist. Even the Soviets dared not denounce Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky because they happened to hail from the nobility or were patronised by the Czars but we as usual overplayed our card zealously.

It will take much doing than paying lip service to the arts. The first hurdle to cross, one that has not been managed with any degree of success, is to be clear about the kind of society that Pakistan aims to be. In the last 60 odd years, the ideological confusion, the significance of culture and the promotion of the performing arts has been a contentious issue which has made the governments dither and not take up the cause head on. It has found itself withdrawing in apologetic whimper and has always retreated when the going gets tough.

The first step is to clear the confusion as to what kind of a society we want Pakistan to be. The other issues are minor in comparison — implementation, execution and resources. But without the beginning there can be no denouement or a climactic resolution.

In the last one year of this government’s tenure, like in the previous governments’, the stress has been to look at ourselves with the eyes of the others. Culture is needed for the emotional wellbeing and fulfillment of the people here and not because foreigners can buy artifacts which are the natural outcome of cultural activity.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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