For most part of
the past fortnight — in true Pakistani fashion — politics became
caricaturised in the hands of a shaman before being restored back to its
pedestal by a show of conceptual clarity and force in its defence. This was
alone by representative political parties from both inside and outside
parliament united for electoral democracy.
For a while, it seemed, we
were committing collective hara-kiri by allowing the national discourse and
political narrative in the hands of the extrovert Tahirul Qadri who
forcefully sought to impose an agenda on the country that seemed anathema to
the mainstream consensus. But the end results are proving to be the
proverbial silver lining in a dark cloud — the contours of a new Pakistan
are emerging; make no mistake! But more on that in a minute.
As analyst and scholar
Arif Azad succinctly noted, Qadri was “out to demonise politics,
democracy, political class, parliament and elections with much vehemence and
all from the all-too obliging megaphone of 20-odd current affairs TV
channels.” His “siyasat nahi, riasat bachao” movement reeked of
“Pehlay ehtesab, phir intikhab” and “Sab Sey Pehlay Pakistan”
campaigns of the military Establishment piloted by Generals Zia and
Musharraf respectively that has had really only a one-point agenda:
discredit representative democracy in favour of a ‘guided democracy’.
Having said that, the
whole “alternative politics” template — touted first by Imran Khan and
now by Tahir-ul-Qadri over the past 15 months — as some sort of “mega
solution” to Pakistan’s messy plurality and fractious polity (variously
labelled as ‘muk muka politics’ and ‘meri bari, tumhari bari’), has
paradoxically ended up arresting the withering democracy project and really
exposing the unsustainability of oversimplification ideologies that run
afoul of ground realities.
project has for two decades been crying out for the right narrative that
properly explains and educates all about a complex state and its primal
battle for ‘normalhood’ to a people trained in oversimplification. This
was first done by an information-control freak Establishment and then by a
muddled up, faulty ratings-based media — in order to retain populist
support of Pakistan’s teeming millions weary of the state’s drift from
reasonable governance (much less good governance).
The grandstanding by both
Imran and Qadri have inadvertently ended up shaping the opportunity to do
this articulation and correct the narrative that non-representative forces
have been employing to whip up frustrations into supporting their elitist
systems. The summit meeting of opposition parties hosted by Nawaz Sharif —
in response to Qadri cornucopia of demands and deadlines — rejecting a
pause in the representative democracy cycle epitomises a big step forward in
this direction. Staying the course and holding elections will only reinforce
Nonetheless, as Pakistan
braces for the first time a peaceful transfer of power from not dictatorial
military rule to representative governance but from a civilian-led
transition to another representative dispensation, many things have changed
although the likes of Qadri would have us believe otherwise. Pakistan is
learning some hard lessons and they seem important and good ones for
sustainable statehood. These are shaping up the contours of a new Pakistan,
warts and all. There are at least seven characteristics of the ‘new
Demand side of democracy
The first clear one is
that the demand side of democracy has firmly increased. There are few takers
for Fauji solutions any more that seek to undermine democracy. Cognizant,
even the military is taking extra pains in keeping up appearances firmly on
the right side of the barracks.
And political groups —
even the likes of PTI, PML-Q and MQM that harbour tolerable sentiments about
the military’s place in the scheme of things than most of us do — would
these days not be caught laying their careers on the line, seeking a
Bangladesh model of full-time caretaker government.
Qadri and Sheikh Rasheed,
of course, are merely the exceptions that prove the rule.
Betting on representative
The second is that there
has concretised a discernibly irreversible national consensus on
representative democracy as the key to an inclusive polity and governance.
No political party inside or outside parliament wants faux democracy birthed
or chaperoned by men in khaki. Or to try hybrids that tend to disown
Pakistan’s pluralisms and promote a polity that seeks a patronage system
partial to numerical majorities only.
Citizens of minority
faiths, linguist groups, ethnicities and nationalities are plumping for
participatory systems by putting their faith in centrist parties. That’s
why not only the federal and provincial governing alliances constitute
mainstream parties such as PPP, PML-N, ANP, MQM and PML-Q.
The third is a clear,
unified vote for electoral politics as a system of participatory statehood.
People don’t want sectarian groups, religious parties, pir-murid clusters
and informal patronage systems to govern their lives.
They may be conservative,
they may be less formally educated than they should be and more willing to
expose themselves to violence and lack of good governance than they ought to
but a very big majority clearly favours putting their trust in mainstream
political parties as the vehicles of collective aspirations. The vote of
trust to parties in the 2008 elections snubbed by Musharraf’s military
regime is a reflection of this.
Faith in the Federation
The fourth is a
sustainable faith in the federal state structure as a viable guarantor of
fundamental rights. Despite the negativity generally implied around the
increasing demand for more provinces over the past five years in particular,
calls for more federating units is an affirmation of trust in a structure
that can give the demographic, nationalistic, ethnic and linguist pluralisms
a tangible stake in the system and a viable delivery mechanism of
The completion of the
constitutional tenures of the federal and provincial legislatures under a
popularly elected dispensation — despite a general degree of frustration
at poor governance by representative governments — is promoting faith in
the federation as a system of equity and the need for more federating units
to strengthen the federation. Witness all mainstream national (PPP, PML-N,
PML-Q) and regional (ANP, MQM) parties supporting the need for more
provinces even though they differ over mechanisms to create more provinces.
Plumping for politics
The fifth is a reinforced
faith in politics as a repository of complex solutions. The last bout of
military rule aimed at depoliticising society — as all previous military
dispensation’s projects — and discrediting politicians have failed to
dampen or dilute people’s belief in politics as a means of effecting
economic, social and cultural trade-offs that defend the interests of
Pakistan’s numeral pluralisms. The irony is that even military dictators
now need political parties — General Musharraf’s APML a case in point
— if they are interested in claiming even a misplaced claim in politics
under representative rule.
When not directly in
power, the military also plants and protects protégés in politics, for the
people of Pakistan have simply refused to believe that their collective
interested are best served by mechanisms other than politics. This is why
the arrival of the likes of Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri has helped the
politicised society, which keeps politics in business, much to the chagrin
of generals in their labyrinths.
Pressure for reforms
The sixth is creating a
positive — even if not especially intended outcome — pressure for
reforms within established political parties that remain trapped in a time
warp in the 1990s in terms of structures, processes and practices. First
Imran Khan and now Tahir-ul-Qadri have helped far more established monoliths
like PPP, PML-N, ANP and even MQM to improve their game by stealing their
thunder on political narratives and forcing these giants to shake free of
their stupor grounded in the lazy excuse of longevity, and therefore an
exaggerated sense of self-entitlement of leadership.
Despite the doubts about
legitimacy that doggedly stick to them ,both Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri
have ended up enriching politics by carving out new spaces of expression in
politics and dramatically enhancing political mobilisations – not just
their supporters but followers of the self-assured political giants who have
found they have to respond to corrections in the rules of the political game
being dictated by new political players.
Stress test of democracy
The seventh is what my
friend Zaigham Khan calls the state undergoing the strenuous “stress test
of democracy.” Over the past five years in particular, the country has
agonised over stark choices between dictatorship and democracy, between
extremism and moderation, between faith-driven dogmas and secularist-leaning
ideologies and between the wild leanings of corporate dependencies and
state’s welfare instincts.
Lateral entrants, young
turks, old players in new parties with new ways of playing old tricks, and
mobilisation of demographic groups such as urban, tech savvy youth groups
such as those inspired by Imran Khan and moderate sectarian groups such as
those represented by boys and girls instructed in co-education environments
in schools run by Tahirul Qadri’s Minhajul Quran are new forces to reckon
Startlingly large groups
such as these have become agenda-setters and in some way game-changers that
have forced people to get off the fence on issues around fundamental rights
and the state’s capacity to deliver basic services.
Demand for governance
Qadri has proven to be a
demoniser par excellence and there can be more debate about the messenger
than his message but say what you will, ahead of elections he has forced the
agenda around the needs for reforms that puts governance at the centre of
the democracy project of Pakistan. Few may agree with his methods (deadlines
and headlines) or his medicine (harbour the delusion that generals and
judges are more honest and committed than politicians and therefore can help
pilot reforms), fewer can outrightly reject the core of his argument for the
reinvention of the state in a way that dramatically improves its capacity to
put people’s welfare at the centre of all its business.
parties adept at electoral politics that actually puts them in office can no
longer pooh-pooh populist new pressure groups and parties that have idealism
on their side. Ironically, Qadri’s at-times juvenile tantrums have brought
seriousness in the efforts among the traditional political parties who have
scrambled, and succeeded, in realising how simple it really is to thwart the
Establishment: fight the common enemy, not each other. We all know the
system is not perfect, but it is the only system we have got to throw out
Happy empowerment through
voting in the elections, everyone!
performance of Nahid Siddiqui’s Company was a welcome initiative taken by
the Alhamra in Lahore last week.
The inspiration for the
evening programme was derived from the poetry of Bulleh Shah, probably the
most popular of the classical Punjabi poets. The commonality between the
sensibility of the Punjabi poetry and the dance forms of this part of the
country needed to be explored.
As it is, over the past
few years, Nahid Siddiqui has been occupied with the stark similarities
between the basics of kathak and the dances broadly categorised as being
inspired by mystical practices. She has been very observant of the dance
techniques of the malangs who let themselves go in their abandon to seek
communion with the ultimate reality.
This strain of creative
thought also took her to the tomb of Maulana Rum.
The more she observed the
whirling dervishes, the more she was convinced of the similarity in
rotation, the spinning movements, so full of energy and so much an integral
part of kathak as the postures were the same and so were the bases on which
revolved the entire movement. The extremely fast spins symbolised movement
through which the dervishes made their “contact”.
The basic shortcoming of
allying poetry and dance is often the illustrative role dance is subjected
to. While poetry stays in the minds of the audiences, the function of dance
becomes only an interpretative one, and the possibilities are then so
limited and curtailed that it inhibits the actual physical expression of the
body. Similarly, when lyrics are rendered in song, the entire focus shifts
to music and lyrics again, limiting the possibilities inherent in the
movement of the body.
In the past, to avoid this
limitation, the gurus wrote thumris and composed them in a particular manner
to retain the major role of dance. These thumris were specifically called
nach ang thumris.
Our classical dances are
extremely stylised. They have evolved a definite language of their own. Many
choreographers, who have attempted to seek a new idiom, have come to grief
by reducing it to being merely illustrative.
Nahid Siddiqui has been
very aware of these familiar pitfalls. In many of her past performances, by
keeping the storyline very loose, she has mixed it with pure kathak numbers
— to let no one remain in doubt that all her innovations have grown out of
The link with tradition is
more than emphasised by her experimentations.
But with the poetry of
someone like Bulleh Shah, its traditional composition in a musical score had
to be negotiated anew. It was done by the rendition of the raag only in the
background with lyrics sparingly used, as it is done in a classical
performance, while the words of the kafi were broken down into syllables
which sounded like the parhant of kathak.
Being very aware of this
characteristic, the dances were choreographed in a manner where the entire
poetical line was not rendered in a melodic form. Instead it was broken up
into phrases and these were so uttered as to appear being the nach ang bols
of the tabla or the vocabulary of dance.
She also went through the
kathak repertoire, the invocation, the thumri, and the tarana and moved on
to the last part of pure dance with subtle rhymthic variation on intricate
taals. It was breathtaking and transported you into another realm. Her very
fine division of the taal left everyone spellbound and added to the
traditional view that the most important aspect in kathak is footwork. Her
footwork was exceptional, and it retained effortless grace.
The various bodies that
have been set up under the government for the promotion of culture of dance
have rarely been patronised. At the Alhamra the policies followed have been
paradoxical. While the classes of dance have been held almost
uninterruptedly over the past four decades once started by Maharaj Kathak,
many hurdles were raised when the staging of dance programmes were to be
held by any private person or
an organisation at a public space like the Alhamra.
In one of the evening
sessions of the recently concluded Alhamra Aalami Adbi Saqafati Conference,
organised by Alhamra, the dance performance of Nahid Siddidui was held. It
was praised by most in the audience as well as the participants of the
conference. The chairman of the Alhamra, Ata ul Haq Qasmi, in a television
programme admitted that he liked the dance so much that he expressed his
desire of holding such programmes in future at the Alhamra. He also admitted
at the same time that all these years he had never seen Nahid Siddiqui dance
and, when he did, it was an artistic experience that he thoroughly enjoyed.
He also stressed that he found nothing objectionable in the dance
performance of Nahid Siddqui and found it totally in accordance with the
cultural norms of our society.
Where the performing arts
are concerned, there is an inherent prejudice about it in our society. It is
thought to be another name for licentiousness and permissiveness and most,
even the apparently educated, do not embrace it without reservation. Many
have only been exposed to dance in what they see in the subcontinental films
or in the plays that are staged in the theatres across the country.
The association of dance
with the salons is so ingrained in the minds of the general public that they
do not find any other forms than the one that he have preconceived ideas
They fail to realise that
the objections about dance could only be because of its poor quality as
there can be many objections about the poor quality of poetry or poor
quality of singing or poor quality of film. It is more a question of
artistic integrity rather than the condemnation of the form itself.
Nahid Siddiqui has been
teaching a number of students and they form the core group of her ensemble.
She now prefers to call it the Nahid Siddiqui Company and performs with them
rather than solo as she did earlier and is remembered for it. Hopefully,
these young dancers will put in the required effort and fulfill the promise,
the glimpses of which could be seen during the two hour long performance.
The evening programme was
dedicated to the memory of Faizaan Peerzada who passed away last month.
Faizaan’s contribution as a painter, puppeteer and above all organiser of
international festivals was huge and it was an apt gesture to remember him.
The performing arts formed
the core of the international and national festivals that he so successfully
helped in organising.
Never did one
suspect the division of day and night could become a crucial point in
determining the worth of an art work. It was always considered normal for a
piece to look different in daylight and artificial light; natural light
enhancing the impact of some works while spotlights adding new elements to
some art pieces.
The significance of light
was felt in a recent two person exhibition, held from Jan 8-17, 2013, at the
Canvas Gallery in Karachi. The new works by Hasnat Mehmood and Ahmed Ali
Manganhar had several common traits but their distinct effect was strongly
felt in altered sources of light.
Interestingly, on the
opening night, Hasnat Mehmood’s pieces made with reflective plastic tapes
and spray paint had a mesmerising quality whereas Ahmed Ali’s paintings
somehow faded in contrast. However, the next day offered different
possibilities; in the morning hours, the painted canvases of Manganhar
looked majestic compared to the rather plain and simplified surfaces of
For what might seem like a
problem to some added a new dimension towards deciphering a work of art in
its full content and context. Mehmood’s work that was fabricated with
plastic tape did not only need a spotlight to enhance its properties, its
subject, formal structure and technical details also required an artificial,
fixed and unchanging source of light. On the other hand, Ahmed Ali’s
imagery — consisting of layers of images painted on top of each other and
derived from diverse sources such as cinema, art history and political
posters — glowed in the bright and natural light of the day, reminding of
how the Impressionists infused the ingredient of natural light in the art of
The work of Hasnat Mehmood
was based on how images from our surroundings have become part of our inner
self. Today the public, instead of experiencing a work of art in museum or
public and private gallery, is exposed to visuals in urban space, electronic
media and newspapers and magazines. With the latest means of communication
— Websites, Facebook and Twitter — a whole new range of imagery is seen
by several individuals in the world despite the difference in language,
region, religion and race.
Hence certain visuals —
such as the standard wall paper of Microsoft; a landscape of hilly fields
with a few clouds against a blue sky — are viewed more than, say, the most
famous work of art like Mona Lisa. Thus our age of information technology
has created its own icons which are shared and understood by people across
the globe. The remarkable quality of these icons is their clarity in
communication, a trait that has led to the sensibility for something direct,
with a message and having minimal vocabulary.
Mehmood’s work responds
to that pictorial experience of contemporary times; especially in a place
that is caught up with issues of security, and clash of cultures, an
unavoidable part of any post-colonial society. He has addressed these issues
through his choice of subject and his preference for a familiar visual
vocabulary. Drawn from the world of advertisement, either of cigarettes,
local brand of beer, tabs on social media sites or signs at public places,
he has shaped a format which conveys our current conditions and reflects our
popular mode of communication.
Visuals, such as
silhouette of two security guards put on the gates of gallery, surfaces
which resemble official British signs but deal with the ban on YouTube and
drone attacks, promotional messages about male pleasure and potency from
Facebook suggest how our society has transformed into an arena for selling
items and marketing ideas. Mehmood has, in a clever way, adopted an
impersonal and mechanical mode of making these visuals. So, one is deceived
by the ‘normality’ and ‘naturalness’ of these pieces. Only at a
second glance does it become obvious that the artist has intervened into a
usual series of text and images in order to register his comment.
The comment is a form of
critique too because, in a number of works, Mehmood has sought to mix the
East and the West (a favourite pastime of our painters) but in an ironic
scheme. The wrapper of a cigarette pack (king size) is juxtaposed with the
figure of a Mughal emperor, and the sequences of beer cans are placed on top
of Islamic geometric patterns. These are references to two different
civilizations, cultures and societies, which may seem separate but are
actually blended in our present reality.
Another world depicted for
us on the celluloid has, over the years, replaced life and attained a status
of immortality. Mehmood has dealt with this area of our experience by
composing photos from our popular cinema and show business, like faces of
Madam Noorhejan, Babra Sharif and Nazia and Zohaib Hassan, as emblems of a
life that is mechanical, repetitive, short and derived.
In fact, these Andy
Warhol-istic pieces connect Hasnat’s work with the paintings of Ahmed Ali
Manganhar who has also concentrated on imagery from cinema. In his canvases,
scenes from various sources are superimposed — not in any logical order
— to concoct a complexity that is associated with the realm of desire.
This scenario is extended to art too; in several canvases, portraits of
painters (like Picasso) or of their works (Fountain
by Marcel Duchamp) are rendered. Majority of these paintings are
based upon appropriation of art works in loosely-applied and freely-executed
brush strokes. Hence each work is a testimony of how diverse, often
paradoxical images, can coexist, both in the physical world and in the
domain of ideas.
The series of these
paintings by Manganhar echo his earlier works. He possesses a remarkable
ability to combine and compose images through his skill in rendering and his
capacity to transform everything into a personal vision. Yet one feels that
the works, even when seen during the day, betray a certain kind of
stagnation in the artist’s life.
There are similarities
between the two artists showing at the Canvas, but their difference relates
to their source of imagery and their positions as artist. Night suited
Hasnat Mehmood’s work because of his visuals stem from glowing computer
monitor, colourful media and luminous screens of TV while Ahmed Ali’s
imagery is derived from visuals which were created (before the age or from
the early years of electricity) in daylight or light gained from natural
substances. More importantly, it was the critical approach of Mehmood that
differentiates him from Manganhar.
Ahmed Ali Manganhar; ‘A
Acrylic on Canvas.
large paintings are chock-full of vibrant paint, women, no girls actually,
either pose on a large bed, do their nails in spacious bathrooms, are waxed
by lower-class women or end up dreaming of luscious red high heels on a
shocking yellow floor.
On first glance though,
Mohsin’s work might seem simple portraiture done in lively Technicolor, it
however has deeper, unnerving connotations. The figures themselves might not
be grotesque, but the beds, the bathrooms, the drawing rooms are, as the
colour instead of freeing them up traps them and their possessions in bawdy
almost on-the-surface imagery. Mohsin’s paintings therefore become
inverted, pointed case studies on class and materialism.
Saud Ahmed’s series
called ‘Sustained’ is a heady nightmare of sculpture, sketches, paint
and miniature models. Figures are tied up, gagged and hooded, one hangs from
the ceiling, the other seems to be wearing what looks like a uniform. A
half-snake half- human figure dances in the shadows. All of them hint
towards the ‘war on terror,’ this is, however, never really determined.
Ahmed’s most enigmatic
sculpture, however, is a figure carrying a lot of sacks, its face
obscured, but there seems no suggestion of violence, well almost. It
is enigmatic, almost unreadable, for without the surrounding paraphernalia,
it could easily pass as a study in sculpture, because one can’t really say
if the sacks contain potatoes or dead human parts.
Naira Mushtaq’s mixed
media paintings are perhaps the darkest next to Zahid Mayo’s work.
Childhood, history, dreams and the concept of time —marked by the
titles of the works, ‘august.18 1989, 1:15’— seem to uneasily mix,
match and accumulate in dusty, sombre mutations of colour on canvas.
Here too faces are obscure, hidden, smudged up or cut off, browns and
dried-up black-reds, swimming in pools of black darkness.
And while Mushtaq’s work
seems to deal in the horrors of memories and individual figures, the
darkness in Zahid Mayo’s paintings is about crowds. The evident theme
might be a Karabala procession, figures flagellating in the distance or in
close-up, but perhaps this is too easy an analysis.
Perhaps it hints at the general mood of people in a country, of
defiance and coming together even in the grimmest of situations.
But perhaps his subject matter, the content, is subservient to the
form. Mayo’s technique, the etching of swarms of bodies, the faces, the
use of the darkest hues, the enforcing of a certain mood is masterful.
‘december.6 1991,7:48,’ mix media.
‘sustained’, mixed media.