Art in perils of pandemic

After surviving travesties like terrorism, Bantar’s vibrant culture faces yet another battle

Syed Anwar Shah May 16, 2020
SWAT: As a vehicle for expressing universal emotions, art of any age is considered to be a window into the workings of its civilisation. Whether it be prehistoric, ancient Egyptian, Greek or Renaissance, art from any time period offers a glimpse into the hearts and minds of the people who came before us, and similarly, it will speak of us to those who come after.

In this sense, artists of all nature are said to be the patrons of civilisation and history. By the same token, the town of Bantar in the middle of Mingora city of Swat, too has its own history and identity as told by the art of its people. Before Swat’s accession to Pakistan in 1969, the town was home to some 36 households of performers like nautch girls and courtesans, which over time has declined to 20-30 families due to active migration to relatively large cities like Peshawar during the age of Taliban militancy.

The pursuit and practice of art in the Swat valley took a severe hit during the oppressive age of Taliban insurgency, which violently opposed acts of singing, dancing and performing—all that had been culturally linked to people of the land and their heritage. The Taliban’s brutal public execution of Shabana, a well-known dancer from Bantar, in January of 2009, had sent tremors throughout the local artist community; forcing many to flee town overnight and undergo displacement within their own country.

In the days after the end of militancy and the fall of Taliban however, the pursuit and practice of performance art and music have made its merry way back to Swat. The many singers and performers who had fled during the insurgency, have returned to their hometown to spread the gift of their art among their people.

For the outsider, given conservative nature of the Pashtu tribal social structure, it may be rather astonishing to see and experience Swat’s thriving population of performers like nautch girls. These women, skilled in the art of performance, do not only host public concerts but are also cordially invited to perform at family functions like weddings and other celebrations across the valley. Furthermore, it is imperative to mention that, known for their beauty and elegance, many such nautch girls have also been married into the wealthiest of families of Swat, placing the profession in a more decorous light than it is seen in other parts of the country.

However, where Swat’s vibrant culture rich in art and performance, may have survived many travesties like terrorism and natural disasters, it has once again found itself in the perils of silence. In times of Covid-19, the streets of Bantar have fallen hauntingly silent amid lockdown and the ban on public gatherings. The many nautch girls and performers, who had long used the practice of their art to make a living, have once again found themselves in clutches; except this time there is nowhere to flee.

Which is why the local artist community too has been reluctant to host any more performance ever since the news first came of Nelo, a well-known Pashto singer, testing positive for Covid-19. “There is a lot of stigma attached to the disease, the news of performance artists testing positive mean people will remain apprehensive about attending their shows even after they recover. Which is why, when the news started circulating, Nelo and her family felt the need to come on camera and dispel the claims of her testing positive,” a Swat local commented on the situation. 

Published in The Express Tribune, May 16th, 2020.