Policing culture

Published: May 26, 2010
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The writer is an independent social researcher (rubina.saigol@tribune.com.pk)

The writer is an independent social researcher (rubina.saigol@tribune.com.pk)

Recently, the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) disallowed the performance of Ajoka’s Burqavaganza on its premises taking the plea that the play is not compatible with the religious and cultural traditions of the land. Subsequently, the Senate Committee on Culture recommended a complete ban on the play accusing it of being a conspiracy against Islamic traditions. Such repression of cultural art forms, by a government that is believed to be relatively tolerant and liberal, raises some questions about the role of the Ministry of Culture in a democracy.

Cultural policy – in other words the policing of culture – is a phenomenon associated much more with fascist and dictatorial regimes than a democratic dispensation. In an open, non-fascist democracy a multiplicity of voices, beliefs, ideas and thought is not just allowed but encouraged. Dictatorships, like that of General Zia, found all forms of art, theatre, music, dance and cultural expression a threat to the moral fiber of society. Music, dance and drama were banned in girls’ schools and Sheema Kirmani and Naheed Siddiqui were banned from performing in public spaces.

While aesthetically and morally uplifting forms of artistic expression was banned, burlesque, and vulgar dance performances flourished in Lahore’s cheap commercial theatre. Ajoka was born in the midst of the most suffocating social, cultural and moral repression of the era of General Zia when the government sought to regulate the minutiae of everyday life from dress, food and personal habits to dance, drama, song, music and poetry.

Ajoka arose as a challenge to the imposition of a singular and monolithic official morality upon a diverse society where music, dance and theatre are part of the cultural tradition for centuries. The luddi, kiklee, jhoomer, bhangra, garwa, dhamal and khattak are some of the traditional dances of various parts of Pakistan. Similarly, folk poetry by Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Ghulam Fareed, Khushal Khan Khattak, Sachal Sarmast and Shah Abdul Lateef Bhitai has been sung and enjoyed by people across the length and breadth of the country. These are the myriad traditions that Ajoka sought to reclaim and bring to the fore against the oppressive and dogmatic version of religion that was recognised and imposed by the state.

Since its inception in 1984, Ajoka has struggled to create an alternative voice through the visual medium — a universal medium understood by all. Ajoka speaks in the people’s vocabulary and uses their own idiom in highlighting social issues, in particular the hegemonic dominance of a bland version of Wahabism. Through plays such as Dhee Rani, Bari and Sharam di Gal, Ajoka highlighted the plight of poor women stifled in their homes and deprived of life choices, and those imprisoned in jails through a penal system based on a distorted version of Islam. Through plays such as Bullah, Ajoka portrayed the deep-rooted tolerance and inter-faith harmony in the local cultural tradition. And through plays such as Hotel Mohenjodaro Ajoka depicted the inherent danger of sectarianism and its devastatingly divisive and violent role in society. Burqavaganza is another play that uses the veil as a metaphor to depict the hypocrisy of a society steeped in double standards. It shows the hidden underbelly of a decayed and putrid moral discourse stemming from decadent values where the quest for a higher self has given way to mindless ritualism. This form of cultural representation is indispensable in the fight against extremism and terrorism in which the country is currently embroiled.

One wonders what authority the PNCA, the Senate Standing Committee on Culture and the ministry of culture have to decide which religious or cultural traditions are to be upheld and which ones to be denigrated. How can they be the judge of morality or the quality of plays? This is the prerogative of audiences who will shun plays that do not resonate with their aspirations. Bureaucrats are hardly entitled to arrogate to themselves the right to judge ‘good’ and ‘bad’ plays and the authority to rule upon morality. It is high time that art, culture, theatre and music be given their rightful place in society and precious cultural vehicles like Ajoka and the Rafi Peer Theatre Group protected against militant threats.

Published in the Express Tribune, May 26th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • May 26, 2010 - 1:18AM

    Its the power of a certain political parties Mrs. and the Mullah army that backs them out on the streets that force the hand of the government. Its amazing how the clout of a few hard-liners has held the entire country hostage. Recommend

  • faraz
    May 26, 2010 - 3:11AM

    Maulana Abdul Aziz of the extremist Lal Masjid brigade was caught red handed while escaping in a burka but was respectfully set free despite the voilence he instigated. Infact the entire country wanted “Maulana Sahib” restored to his throne. While a play using veil as a metaphor to depict the hypocrisy of a society is considered a conspiracy against Islam. Theatre for our mullahs is a bigger sin than murder.

    Zia replaced alcohol with heroin! By 1989, about 90% of the world’s total heroin came from Pakistan. After all Islam hasnt explicitly prohibited heroin. Recommend

  • Rashid Saleem
    May 26, 2010 - 1:54PM

    Banning a show just because it does not fit your cultural policy is ridiculous. This fear of “our culture is being invaded”, I have no idea why it dominates us so badly. I mean talking honestly we are not like the “Best culture” in the world, so why would others want “OUR CULTURE” to be hijacked. I believe by banning you just don’t ban a show or a musical event; you block an artist’s expression and inject limitation into his vision.Recommend

  • RW
    May 26, 2010 - 2:20PM

    Well said! I’ve seen the play and i think it was a wonderful depiction of just how pathetic and repressive life can get when living under the garb of religious interpretation gone awry Recommend

  • Amjad Mehboob
    May 26, 2010 - 5:52PM

    Morale brigade are found everyware in this land of pure,who are out to impose their own interpretation of religious ideas by using force.We are not living in a society where there is no sense of tolerance.For instance what is being happened in Punjab Universtity Lahore and Quiad-e-Azam University in Islamabad,Where female students are physically tortured by a faction of particaular religious party (J.Islami)for not abiding by their version of Islam.It is a pity the majorty has been made hostage by a out numbered religious fanatics.However in this case i agree with the wirter the no one have the authority to decide what is moraly worth seeing or not.People of Pakistan are the sole juge in this regard.Recommend

  • Fakhar
    May 28, 2010 - 4:35PM

    If you hand over your Tourism and Culture ministeries to Maulana Attaur Rehman then what kind of culture policy you expect? PNCA was established by Faiz Ahmad Faiz while he was Advisor on Culture to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in early 70s. There is a document written by Faiz sahib on Culture Policy. That document provided the reasons for establising PNCA and Alhamra. But Zia years obliterated whatever progress was made in promoting Pakistani Culture.Can we cleanse the PNCA, Lok Virsa and other cultural institutions of the Zia’s pollution? yes we can if Pakistani writers, artists and intellectuals stand up and voice their concern over censorship of PNCA in continuation of Zia era cultural policies. Recommend

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