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Dark side of the border

The migration of singer Gulzar Alam to Afghanistan is reflective of the hard times musicians face in Pakistan

Dark side of the border

The agony of the performing artistes continues in Pakistan. The latest in line is Gulzar Alam, who left Peshawar for Afghanistan either for security reasons or in search of greener pastures.

The primary concern for artistes in Pakistan is not only to do well and be acknowledged but to also counter the threat to life and family. It has driven many popular artistes to migrate to the West where they find the environment more conducive and safe for the practice of their arts.

With women the condemnation is easier and swifter. It is a general assumption in this society that whatever happens to a woman happens to her because of her own fault. And with women from the arts and show business, it is obviously seen as their fault that they pays for, and with it is the double condemnation that they deserved it as well. It is rare that voices are raised in sympathy for women actors, vocalists or dancers because it is assumed that they meet the fate that they willed upon themselves.

Despite all the security issues, the television and music industry is seeing better days in Kabul. Many private channels function and offer an opportunity to artistes to express themselves, thus creating a bigger market with greater chances of exposure.

But this question of musicians/vocalists being tossed around Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa/Balochistan is tragic because it is the same people that share the same culture, and the same artistes that are adulated. Instead of them fleeing for their lives and migrating out of an existential threat, it would have been so much nicer if they had been travelling between the two countries on the fervent wishes of their fans and well wishers.

But since the Taliban took over in Afghanistan, it has been a macabre, pushing and shoving between the two societies. Since music was banned and all cultural activities were the manifestation of satanic insinuations, the artistes all migrated to the then North-Western Frontier Province from Afghanistan. But in the same North-Western Frontier Province, the MMA (Mutahida Majlis-e-Amal) government followed in 2002, about seven years later, and cultural activity started being discriminated against. But, at about the same time, with Hamid Karzai taking charge in Kabul, most went back to Kabul and Kandahar while the more intelligent ones went to the West and stayed there, travelling as and when possible to their motherland.

Now it appears that the conditions are better in Afghanistan than Pakistan. Gulzar Alam seems to be the latest to have crossed the border, both for physical survival and to keep his hearth glowing. It is sad that he had to leave under pressure in such haste.

Even from other parts of the country, reports are appearing in the media on the death, attempted murder or even throwing of acid on faces primarily of female actors. It is usually seen in the light of some dispute, monetary to begin with, over fee for the show or the event, and then it comes down to the inevitable, that of exploitation or a feud over money meshed in emotional tangle of some kind of a relationship. It can never be a relationship of equals because so much is stashed against the women in show business that it becomes impossible for them to put up a credible case or defense for themselves.

But over the years, things have not improved in the country, and the case of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been particularly bad — because initially it is a conservative society and then not much has been done to ameliorate the condition or lot of the artistes. They are still at the mercy of patronage that does not come always from the market but from powerful individuals who control the levers of trade and businesses that are lucrative.

Despite all the security issues, the television and music industry is seeing better days in Kabul. Many private channels function and offer an opportunity to artistes to express themselves, thus creating a bigger market with greater chances of exposure.

The Afghan music scene has carried on despite ups and downs. In 2014 a suicide bomb attack at a student concert killed an audience member and the bomber, and injured many more including Dr Nasser Sarmast, the founder of Afghanistan National Institute for Music (ANIM) in Kabul. A co-educational school of music, it accommodates both exceptionally talented students and underprivileged children. Sarmast, also an Afghan-Australian ethnomusicologist, has designed a curriculum combining both Afghan and western music.

In 2015, the first Afghan female conductor, Negin Khpalwak, held her first concert with an all-female ensemble.

Pop and hip hop groups play in Kabul and on the various television networks. They are also streamed live these days.

Some of the artistes who have escaped the mini holocaust and have settled in the western countries, particularly instrumentalists, have added so much to the culture of those societies. Besides embellishing their profile as tolerant societies, accommodating those victimised all over the world, this also further colours the societies’ spectrum and helps the artistes in coming out of their niche credentials to a fuller cultural expression — to be assessed on its own without the blinkers of sympathy and sorrow.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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