Karachi’s population in the latest census may be debatable but its status as a megacity remains undisputed. Matching the size, Karachi’s problems have been equally gigantic and complicated — ethnic clashes, gang wars, conflict, governance issues, a decaying infrastructure and a population size that has the city bursting at the seams.
In all of this, Karachi’s diverse and vibrant culture seemed as if dying out. Till some diehard Karachiites took it upon themselves to own and revitalise the city in more ways than one. This has all happened in the last decade or so.
“For almost three decades, Karachi has suffered unmitigated violence,” says Ambareen Main Thompson, Executive Director Society of I AM KARACHI (IAK). “A breakdown of law and order and the brutality of political and commercial mafias meant that both public spaces were lost and the public narrative was taken over by hate, divisiveness and intolerance.”
“There’s also this culture of disconnect with the past that some of the organisations and movements are attempting to bridge,” says Rumana Husain who has authored two books on Karachi and is one of the people on the forefront of the present cultural revitalisation.
It was almost one hundred and fifty years ago that the British made Karachi the centre of military, administration, trade and culture, she says. “The city has continued to be competitive and dynamic, and there are many-layered cultures within it, which emanate from its multi-cultural population.”
As someone who has been part of cultural initiatives like IAK, Children’s Literature Festival, Badal Do! Movement and Citizens Against Weapons, Husain acknowledges the surge in Karachi’s cultural activities. “One of the most significant initiatives in this regard was taken by the government, when General Pervez Musharraf established the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) in 2005 and appointed the legendary Zia Mohyeddin to head it. A number of actors, director and musicians have been trained by NAPA, and they have fed the burgeoning entertainment industry of Karachi.”
Thompson recalls that in 2013, when the situation in the city improved somewhat, the Karachi Youth Initiative (KYI) was launched which sought to engage the youth in more constructive and healthy activities as an alternate to violence and extremism. “It was from this that IAK was born in 2015 where civil society stalwarts like Jamil Yousuf, Amin Hashwani , Shahid Firoz, Sheema Kirmani, Ghazi Salahuddin, Rumana Hussain, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy and others came together to take ownership of this platform as its founding members.”
IAK is a city-wide collaborative movement initiated by concerned citizens and civil society organisations of Karachi. It has provided a hub to promote socio-cultural activities and uses arts, culture, sports and dialogue as tools for conflict resolution and peace-building. “IAK works to change hate narratives, to reclaim public spaces, to build peace and tolerance and, most importantly, to channel youth to alternate narratives,” says Thompson. “Its programmes are all apolitical, areligious neutral forums where excellence and personal initiative and interest are the only criteria for inclusion.”
One of IAK’s most prominent initiatives has been the Walls of Peace initiative that worked on replacing negative graffiti-covered walls with visual images and messages that illustrate positive values, such as peace, tolerance and diversity. This was done in partnership with Vasl Artists Collective. Some 2000 walls across Karachi were cleaned and painted, engaging with 30,000 children to produce artwork for the walls of 2017.
One of the initiatives that served to resuscitate Karachi’s cultural activities is, no doubt, the Karachi Literature Festival (KLF) that was launched in 2010. While in the beginning, it was more limited to the literati, it is now a more mainstream event and many Karachiites see this as a positive sign. Forums like The 2nd Floor (T2F), among others, have given Karachiites spaces to talk, reflect and connect.
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“Cultural activities, historically, required patronage of the elite — the rulers, the royalty, the nobles and the rich. Only in recent years, and especially after the industrial revolution, has culture become more democratic,” says Roland De Souza of Shehri-Citizens for a Better Environment. The organisation was formed in 1988 by concerned citizens to create a platform where Karachiites could come together and raise their voices regarding the city’s neglected living environment and ways to improve the same.
While Shehri has focused more on Karachi’s environment, its aims include creating a healthy and secure physical and social environment for the citizens. “The proliferation of cultural activities needs a certain amount of quiet and peace,” adds de Souza.
While an improvement in the general security conditions may have helped these initiatives, private initiatives can only go so far. “Despite every effort, none of the aforementioned initiatives can come close to what the government machinery can do in this regard. The funds, the resources, the (wo)man-power that the government has at its disposal isn’t comparable to any of the private initiatives,” says Husain. “Nevertheless, all those act as balm for the wounded soul of this blemished city.”
Much needs to be done despite so many efforts by the civil society. “Since green spaces are now less than 3 per cent of Karachi, community centres, such as T2F, Pakistan Chowk, the Grid and the TDF Ghar are all havens. In a city of 27 million, there is but one arts council and three theatre stages today compared to 11 in 1991. Of the parks that exist, many are locked and out of reach for the general public,” says Thompson.
Masuma Halai Khwaja of Karachi Biennale (KB) says that while the KB has had logistic support from the bureaucracy, the police and the LEAs (law enforcement agencies), they didn’t have any financial support. Also, the ‘go aheads’ are tough, she says, “sometimes due to red-tapism, and at other times because exhibiting certain art exhibits at public spaces is an expensive proposition and is not an opportunity these initiatives get for free.
“But it is very true that Karachi’s overall security situation has helped in this resurge as people are finding it safer to work on the streets.”
The KB17 programme is currently underway and Khwaja says the response from the public has been phenomenal. Seeing artists, and Karachiites in general reclaim public spaces, “I am very hopeful about the future”.
In Husain’s opinion, “if the Sindh government could inject life in the few existing libraries in the city, set up small reading rooms and lending libraries, raise a few cinema houses on the ashes of the old ones, the masses could also enjoy some cheap but quality entertainment, as the multiplexes in shopping malls are an expensive outlet, only suited for the moneyed minority.
“Karachi may well have another long lease of vibrancy that it used to have till the late 1970s when its populace lived without fear and enjoyed a vivacious and dazzling cultural scene.”
For Karachiites, that is the hope they cling on to.