Through literature’s gaze: ‘Culture was stifled in military regimes’

Speakers come together to discuss changes in literature and performing arts.

Aroosa Shaukat May 06, 2012


Various martial law regimes were a difficult period for writers and artists, Asghar Nadeem Syed, a playwright and columnist, said on Saturday.

“This meant whatever cultural growth we saw was in parts,” he said.

Syed was speaking at a one-day convention, Challenges of the Age, attended by writers, artists and literary figures from across Punjab at the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) office.

‘Sufism is to think’:

“To understand life, the mind and soul must amalgamate,” Dr Arfa Sayeda Zehra, professor at the Forman Christian College history department, said. She said that literature and arts allowed a person to transform into a human being, ‘sensitive and civil.’ She traced local culture to Sufism. “Sufism is an integral part of our literature,” she said. “A sufi is one who invites the mind to the process of thought.”

Masood Asher, a columnist, said it is important to understand that sufis were pluralists. “Their influence was great because they took all sections of society along,” he said.

‘Bearers of tradition’

Classical vocalist Sara Zaman sung the poetry of Habib Jalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. A teacher of musicology at National College of Arts (NCA), Zaman said that Pakistani culture has never accepted music despite its deep roots. “The word mirasi became a derogatory term despite meaning ‘bearers of tradition’,” she said. “Over the years, we dumped our cultural beauty. Today, we have to fight our own complexes,” she said.

‘Culture is life’

“Culture is not a fragment of life, it is life itself,” Nayyar Ali Dada, architect and director of the Nairang Gallery, said.

Being social ties one to literature and art, he said. Criticising growing intolerance in society, he called it a result of a growing tolerance of ‘socio-economic nonsense.’

Women and protest

Professor Lalarukh Khan, one of the founding members of the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), gave a pictorial presentation on the struggle of women writers and artists in the women’s rights movement from 1980 till now.

Khan said that the organisation had acted as a pressure group to change laws that discriminated against women.

“WAF was created in 1981 during General Zia’s era,” she said, “This was a particularly bad period for women.”

She said that poetry and theatre played a strong role in the movement. “The likes of Madiha Gauhar and Salima Hashmi had participated in protests and awareness campaigns,” she said.

‘Art is for activism’

Professor Naazish Ataullah, teacher at the School of Visual Arts and Design at the Beaconhouse National University, displayed the works of contemporary visual artists, including Iqbal Hussain and AR Nagori. She also spoke about how their art was used for social activism.

“In the last ten years, Pakistani artists have evolved in not just form, but in meaning,” she said.

 ‘Film going up’

Shireen Pasha, head of the Film and Television department at NCA, said the film industry decreased output during military regimes.

Only 30 movies were produced annually under military regimes compared to around 130 movies annually in democratic periods, she said. “Without our own films, we have lost the ability to carve our own narrative,” she said. “The absence of Pakistani cinema has meant we have become dependent on Indian cinema.”

However, despite facing turbulent times, a film culture is rising, she said.

 ‘Extremism permeates the affluent too’

Shahid Nadeem, executive director of Ajoka Theatre, presented a short documentary titled ‘Theatre in the time of Jihad’ on the work of the Ajoka Theatre troupe.

Lamenting the increase in extremism, Nadeem said that theatre can help address the challenges of our age.

Speaking about the societal reaction to the murder of Salmaan Taseer, he said that extremism had permeated even the affluent classes.

He said that Ajoka’s challenge was to present current issues in the language of local tradition.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 6th, 2012.


VINOD | 9 years ago | Reply

In this context may I please refer the Book "The Argumentative India" by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen. he points out that the promoters of narrowly Hindu view try to separate out the period preceding Muslim conquest from 3rd millennium BCE and try to project the Vedic period as culture of India. They purposefully forget a long string of various influences like Islam, jains, Buddhists, Bahais, Sufi, Parsis, Greeks, christian and tribal cultures on this vast sub continent. Similarly the narrowly Muslim view denies the effect of Akbar and other heterodox or duality that evolved on this subcontinent and try to strict to a suffocating projection of culture that limits the mind to the process of thought.”.

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