Pakistan’s Art Scene

Pakistan doesn’t have much cultural currency in the West. When most Americans think of the culture of the Indian subcontinent they think of India. America is missing out on sophisticated and enjoyable works of art. Pakistan’s exportable cultural output is a mixed bag; gems are buried underneath pathetic attempts to copy Indian and/or American artists. Thanks to religious fanaticism and financial issues, Pakistani culture is sliding down the slippery slope to destruction. The country isn’t completely devoid of an art scene, but it is, unfortunately, a very small scene. Can it survive as the country inches further away from stability everyday?

The Pakistani film industry is virtually non-existent largely because it is overshadowed by Bollywood. However, it still manages some output, notably in the 2007 film “Khuda Kay Liye” (for God), which won the silver Pyramid Award at the Cairo International Film Festival, and was also awarded the Roberto Rossellini Award, an Italian film award. The film, which was made with Western audiences in mind, is a good one by Pakistani standards, but a mediocre one in general, largely because it is weak in message. Though it is meant, in a way, to be the artist’s response to Islamic extremism, in the end the film is a pulled punch, somewhat illustrative of the fact that religious polemicists are more powerful than artists and other liberals in Pakistan’s public space.

Pakistan’s music industry fares better, but only slightly so. As a third world country, and a particularly corrupt and lawless one at that, the Pure Land is awash with pirated films, music, and even video games. Pirating is a much more widespread phenomenon in Pakistan than in the West, and the concept that it’s “right” to buy the proper version of a music album is alien to many. Therefore the financial problems posed by the phenomenon of music pirating are even greater. Naturally, then, the Pakistani music industry is incapable of significantly large output, but this lack of quantity doesn’t necessarily translate to a lack of quality. Junoon, a Sufi rock band the New York Times dubbed “the U2 of Pakistan,“ was appreciated in the West, and even in India, in the late 1990s and early part of this century, before its untimely demise. Today, its music is sold alongside Bollywood soundtracks in Indian music shops. One of its guitarists, by the way, was an American named Brian O’Connell. The unexpected success of Junoon set a precedent, and there are quite a few rock acts in Pakistan today, such as Noori, and the more openly liberal CoVen (yes, I believe they stole an American rock band’s name. So much for creativity.)

Though music continues to survive in Pakistan, Pakistani musicians have shied away from directly condemning and attacking retrogressivism. Fortunately, this mantle has been adopted by the drama community in Pakistan. A play called “Burqavaganza” is a heartening example of how art can comment effectively on taboo subjects; perhaps more heartening is the fact that the play is popular. Written by Shahid Nadeem, the play follows two young lovers who are harassed and out of place in Pakistan’s ultra-conservative society. The burqa here is used as a metaphor for how religious fanaticism casts a veil over people’s minds as well as their bodies. It was first performed in 2007, and was subjected to a ban one month later. But the staging of the play has continued since then, in defiance of the ban, as well as death threats. Burqavaganza is not the only play which seeks to comment on contemporary Pakistani society and its many ills, but it is one of the most popular and famous to do so in open defiance of Pakistani society’s conservativism.

Despite the heroic efforts of people like Shahid Nadeem, and the many entertainment-seekers who risk suicide bombings and religiously zealous mobs to attend public gatherings such as concerts and plays, Pakistani culture is unlikely to shake off the religious fanaticism introduced during the 1970s. With the increased attention to conservative religious values, things deeply rooted in South Asian Muslim culture, such as music, have become slightly reviled, or dismissed as tolerable only as a casual pastime.

Almost every Pakistani channel has religiously oriented programs, which is not necessarily a problem, except that almost all of them are hosted by distinctly conservative individuals. Liberal interpretations of Islam are presented on only one show, “The First Blast” on the English language channel Dawn News, a channel which caters to foreigners and Pakistan’s English-speaking elite. And herein is the major problem; the divide between Pakistan’s rock, theatre, and Hollywood movie-consuming elite, and the masses.

The lack of ability to speak English does not in itself mean that there is a lack of entertainment, or that one will become an extremist, but the non-English speakers do not have access to global culture and new ideas like the English speakers do. The above-mentioned Noori sings songs in Urdu, the national language, but not against extremism or in favor of progressivism, and the same goes for the rest of the most popular musicians in Pakistan, as well as many popular Urdu television programs. Extremists distribute their literature in all of Pakistan’s languages, including English, while the liberals remain meek and unorganized.

The question of culture in Pakistan, or rather, the lack thereof, cannot be divorced from discussions of politics and religion. And it’s not a topic, in this writer’s opinion, that can be given proper attention in a newspaper article.

I reject the idea I often find being bandied about that a few prominent musical events, a couple of goofy, brainless comedy shows, and clusters of teenagers playing guitars in basements in Islamabad represent the preservation of Pakistani culture in the face of extremism as much as I resent the idea that groups of bearded scoundrels hanging around upscale clothing shops pestering unveiled Pakistani women about dressing modestly represents the Talibanization of Pakistani society. Pakistan’s art/culture scene will improve when it becomes less of an almost exclusively elite pastime and can penetrate the masses, when there’s money in it, when religious attitudes adapt themselves to modernity, and when Pakistanis can freely examine their history and forge for themselves a distinct identity. In other words: likely never.

For anyone who wants to get a dose of Pakistani culture before it’s run into the ground, are a couple  of book recommendations: “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” by Mohammed Hanif is more about politics than music, painting, or anything like that, but it’s brief, readable, and  funny. Second: “Three Cups of Tea,” the exceptional tale of an exceptional American who founded an exceptional charity which provides schooling for children in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan—right on the Taliban’s doorstep.