In the present volume, based on the outcome of a conference on the performing arts held by Tehrik-e-Niswan in Karachi in collaboration with Oxford University Press, the definition of culture has been addressed in a very broad-based manner — as not only art, music, dance but a whole way of life.
Thoughts, actions, speech food, clothing, love, friendship, the relationship between the sexes, the position of women and children, beauty, enjoyment, sports, recreation, the pursuit of knowledge, happiness and the attempt to discover the meaning of life. There is a further assertion — culture is how the individual expressed himself and the sum of how all members of a society expressed themselves. Within this very large ambit of culture, the performing arts are posited along with the peculiar problems of this society.
Syed Jamil Ahmed’s three pieces deserve special mention. A professor of Theatre and Music at the Dhaka University, he had never visited Pakistan and was very hesitant in doing so because he fought for the struggle for freedom in what became Bangladesh. He wondered what he had to say and required to do when invited to Pakistan. But after having arrived here, in a while he decided on the common ground, Islamic culture. He engaged himself in what fascinated him the most: the narrative performances based on the Islamic root paradigm.
For example, in the mutations that occurred in the Thousand and One Nights as it travelled across cultures. It was not considered worthwhile seeking the authentic text but possibly found more rewarding to examine the process of mutation and the resulting ideological position of mutated version so as to be able to produce a performance with relevant content for contemporary spectators. This unraveling of the Thousand and One Nights, how it got into the European mode and then mutated into other modes, when and where was it performed, is reinforced by his citing the example of his experience in Karachi as he appreciated much better the multifaceted truths that lay hidden in the multiplicity of narratives.
Syed Jamil Ahmed, it appears, is more concerned about the expression of the local sensibilities for he is of the opinion that many Eurocentric forms, adopted and chosen as models in arts, only impaired and distorted the local sensibilities from freely exhibiting themselves. Nearly all three of his articles are a critique of this western emulation. He disengages himself to demand a multi-narrative approach to the arts including theatre.
In his critique on the contemporary Pakistani theatre, he asserts that theatre was never considered a taboo in Islamic culture and the production and the performance plays on heroes and legends of Islamic culture did not necessarily imply that one propagated jihad. Instead of going back to the roots of Pakistani nation, he suggests the national theatre of Pakistan may negotiate routes to narrating the nation as a community that is forever evolving, forever devising and forever seeking a new flight “Let the distinct Pakistani theatre be recognized by not a single commonality between all the plateaus but the lines of flight that link them together to a web, a non hierarchical network”.
In this third article, he questions the assumption generally held in Pakistan that political theatre only started after the 1970s. Calling it amnesia, especially about East Pakistan, he recalls in detail the period from 1947 to 1971, quoting in particular a play Kabar (The Grave) by Munier Chowdhury that was performed by the inmates of prison at the Dhaka Central Jail.
The article on Tehrik-e-Niswan by Sheema Kermani sums up the whole ideological position of the Tehrik. Formal aesthetics as well as social responsibility are to be taken together as both are conjoined. Through art collective identity is expressed and helps us reflect on these problems. The arts elevate the mind and soul to a higher level and eradicate pettiness and coarseness. It brings people together and that leads to harmony and cohesion.
Incorporating art in our lives helps us counter violence and aggressive attitudes and urges us to reflect and think, thus unleashing our creative urges. Arts and women were the two targets of Zial ul Haq’s martial law. Tehrik started its journey in 1980 and, since then, the challenge has been to be able to make the performing arts relevant to the modern world so that the common man could relate to them.
Claire Pamment seems preoccupied with the role and status of women in the performing arts. According to her, the only way to knock any sense is to deconstruct the entire social landscape.
The section on women includes three articles on Atiya Faizee, Rashid Jahan and the important women performers like Madame Azuri, Khursheed Mirza and Roohi Bano. It sums up the various tiers of struggle that these had to go through. The road was never smooth for these pioneering women and they ended up by paying a price in their private lives.
The articles by Sheema Kermani, Syed Jamil Ahmed, Asma Mundrawala, Julie Holledge, Claire Pamment, Zahida Hina, Rumana Hussain, Rakhshanda Jalil, Asif Farrukhi, Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro, Shakuntala Narasimhan, Raza Kazim, Madhu Purnima Kishwar and Kamran Asdar Ali are all worth a read.
As is usually the case with a collection of articles put together in a book form, the focus shifts a little with the thrust of each article. In this collection, too, the free flowing debate about culture, the performing arts coupled with gender related issues do make a useful read but, if it was more focused, the purpose might have been served better.