Friday, June 13, 2014

Pop goes the Festival

Just as faithfully as Westerners rely on the weather as a conversational crutch, for most urban Punjabi families a good bashing of the PPP is the go-to conversation filler during family dinners, assuring that everyone will be animated and on the same page for the next hour or so. The eruption of the Mohenjodaro controversy during the Sindh Festival was thus a God-sent – a grave-sounding reason to denounce the festival as a Nero-like exercise in flute-playing while Rome burnt in the background. Those with greater intellectual pretensions went further by decrying the wastage of taxpayers’ money on something essentially frivolous, an idea that is hard to contest in a country with issues as numerous as ours. Terrorism, hospitals, education, even malnutrition were cited, in front of which the shallow celebration of ‘culture’ does indeed seem like a puny and facile aim.
The line between bomb blasts and the receding space for culture may seem tenuous but it is hard to deny that Pakistan’s slide into extremism is being ratified by the silent majority. Song, dance and the arts are allowed to go on in the background as one of the many sins that we have not yet got rid of as ‘imperfect Muslims’ but the guilty feeling that none of that arts stuff is really Islamic, really Pakistani, is what has allowed us as a nation to keep ceding intellectual and cultural space to extremist mindsets. In the ideological zone that the ‘Pakistani identity’ has been framed thus far (despite valiant attempts by academics like Ayesha Jalal et al) the zenith of being a Pakistani is to be a true Muslim, and that trueness can only be realized in defining ourselves as non-Hindu and non-Indian – divorced from the Indian soil we live on, constantly pulled instead toward our ideological epicenter in Mecca.
The most crucial thing the Sindh Festival has achieved by putting the spotlight on Sindh is to shift the focus of the Pakistani identity away from religion and back on to our ancestral land. This distancing from Pakistan’s central narrative of forced unity – one dependent on Urdu and Islam as the defining forces of Pakistaniyat – is essential to moving forward with a new definition of what it means to be Pakistani, something shaped out of its own 65 years of political history and with a clear-headed acceptance of its diversity, a diversity as great as India, contained within a geography half its size. What a nation imagines itself to be is crucial, for that is what decides what it chooses to fight and what it accepts as its own, and the arts and pop culture play a great role in creating and cementing this self-image.
Academic work theorizing that Pakistan was created as an independent economic and political entity, not a religious one, is important, but holds little meaning unless it becomes a popular concept amongst the masses, something only popular culture can help achieve. To that end, thousands of images of the dramatically lit Mohenjodaro as backdrop to a celebratory concert beamed all over Pakistan, is a good start. Bakhtawar Bhutto Zardari singing a rap song a cultural subversion the likes of which it is hard to find a parallel; an art exhibition of international standard at the Frere Hall a worthwhile pursuit; holding a Basant festival on the beach a (nearly amusing) snub to the PML-N.
But if the money spent were personal, like Bilawal Bhutto Zardari claimed in the beginning, the spending of it on whatever he chose would be no-one’s business. However, as it turns out, seed money has been borrowed from the Sindh government which the festival claims it will return fully – a claim tad tough to swallow in light of the PPP’s image and track record. While the beaming of a concert at Mohenjodaro sounds like a good idea in the face of the shariah being demanded by the Taliban, 800 VIP guests and cultural satirists like Ali Gul Pir and Ali Aftab Saeed reduced to mere cheerleaders of a man who has essentially bought their goodwill doesn’t do a great deal to inspire confidence in this spectacle of culture. Add to this a fashion show spearheaded by the Taseers who have become uncriticizable since the tragic assassination of Salmaan Taseer, but who need to be roundly taken to task for not paying writers and employees at a newspaper they continue to run yet purporting to be the flag bearers of culture elsewhere. For these reasons and more the Sindh Festival has to do a lot of soul searching if it wants to avoid being seen as yet another party thrown by and for the country’s out of touch elite.

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