The honourable group
A long time ago, in a land far away, a group of soldiers sat together and decided they had to save their country from ruin. They were fearful, they feared that the wicked witch of the east would soon take over their country by casting a spell over all the people and making them vote for her.
The group decided they could not possibly let this happen. They made a plan: they would get anybody who was not on the witch’s side to join together and present a unified front to all the witch’s spells and magical charm.

In Pakhtun culture the name Malalai is greatly revered. This legendary name has survived the test of time, and the suffocating hold of religious fanatics and bigoted extremists, and has become an epitome of love, hope, determination and bravery throughout the Pakhtun diaspora.

The gallantry of Malalai of Maiwand in the second Anglo-Afghan war is mentioned throughout the Afghan and Pukhtun literature, becoming a role model for people, and for them to rise to the challenge of enduring afflictions and sufferings.

In modern day Afghanistan, the legend of Malalai resurfaced in the form of two brave women — Malalai Kakar, a police officer, who was killed by the Taliban in 2008 for her involvement in ending domestic violence against women and Malalai Joya, an ex-parliamentarian of the Afghanistan assembly who stood up for the rights of women; she was also dubbed as ‘the woman who cannot be silenced’.

Of late, a third Malalai has stirred a storm in the region: a 14-year-old girl hailing from a small village of Gul Kada, Mingora Swat, an eighth class student at the Khushal School and College Swat, was recently nominated for the international peace prize for children held in South Africa for her untiring efforts to bring female literacy in Swat at par with the rest of the world. She was shortlisted amongst the top five nominees chosen out of 98 children from 42 different countries. Though she fell short of getting the award, Malalai took the shortcomings in her stride and vowed to continue with her efforts.

Malalai Yusufzai, first voiced her concerns during the Taliban heydays in Swat when the voices which rose against their atrocities were reduced to piteous whispers. Her plea of “I want to go to school,” in the New York Times and later her role as a protagonist in the short documentary titled, Class dismissed in Swat Valley, was the possible fate of the valley. Before the military operation in Swat, her letters to BBC Urdu wrote under the pseudonym Gul Makai was one of the most innocent accounts of a little girl who saw her cultural and traditional institutions being robbed — and she feared losing her identity at the hands of the lunatic fringe represented by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

In a recent interview with her, I inquired about her letters and why they were written as anonymous opus. “The pervasive spread of terror by the Taliban made everyone so insecure that it seemed that everyone was spying on each other. They had their network and many a time they used sadistic measures to draw out information from people,” says Malalai.

She further recalls, “Fear lingered in the streets and the people looked cowed even though many of them hated the Taliban, but they caved in to their demands without any struggle.”

To a question on why she took a huge risk in writing those letters and if she was aware of the consequences involved, Malalai replied, “We give our suffering a meaning by the way we respond to it. At that time I cultivated this state of mind to my benefit. Those letters were written with utter conviction and somehow gave me hope that someone, somewhere wanted to know of what we were going through here.”

Such thought-provoking talk from a 14-year-old girl would have come to me as a surprise had I not talked earlier to her father Ziauddin Yusufzai, an eminent member of the Swat Qaumi Jirga. Ziauddin Yusufzai is the director of Khushal School and College, hence the yearning to get education runs within the family. He recalls how Malalai used to listen to the elders with rapt attention when they talked of the developing scenario and how to curtail the menace of Talibanisation. “She is a brave girl,” says her proud father, “she could have easily sought refuge in her mother’s arms but instead she assumed the responsibility of galvanising her classmates to attend school even after a ban was imposed on female education.”

Ziauddin still gets shivers when he recalls the time when he, too, clung to shreds of hope and believed to the last moment that things would not get worse.

A society without education and literature is a society that lacks a strong core. Malalai believes that had the literacy level among the people been high, the terrorists would never have grounded their heels in the region. She is of the opinion that people should break free from the shackles of ignorance and be supportive of female education.

When the dust settled down after the army operation in Swat, Malalai doubled her efforts in bringing the lives of her fellow students back to normal. In 2010, Malalai got elected as the first speaker of the child assembly, a concept floated by UNICEF, to highlight and find a remedy to the problems faced by children. The assembly, under her speakership, has passed various bills regarding child protection and education and has forwarded them to the concerned authorities for implementation.

She is also wary of the army’s role within the region and believes that the military should avoid spreading its tentacles into matters of civil administration. “They came to our rescue and we are grateful for that. But they should not terrorise innocent people to submit to charges of their alliance with the Taliban. In fact, we demand that they should focus their energies on capturing the true culprits of the movement,” says an adamant Malalai.

The young girl wants to continue with her efforts and in the near futures wishes to build up a team which will focus on bringing the under-privileged children into the fold of education.

Malalai has proved that she is worthy of the name — a young girl defying fate to take its course and opting to stand up for her rights rather than vegetate.

In the words of Nietzsche, “That, which does not kill me, makes me stronger.” A lesson one may gather from Malalai Yusufzai is that forces beyond one’s control can snatch everything a person has, except the person’s freedom to choose. Journalist Christina Lamb once wrote that “Despite attempts to destroy the country and its culture, its soul remains uncrushed” and in my opinion Malalai represents that very soul. Truly she is the Daughter of North West and pride of the proud.




I’m not sure about the etymological connection between the two ((logos in Greek means word) but language is like Lego. Just as identical units are placed in varying numbers, combinations and options to construct interlocking structures in Lego, words keep changing their meaning and connotation. We often associate a specific meaning with a certain word, but in most cases it is arbitrary. In the history of language, we are surprised to find diverse, and sometimes contradictory, meanings attached to a single word in different periods.

Residency, a term now used for artists working as a collective at a particular place, sharing ideas, producing and exhibiting art either at the same venue or at a gallery, had a different understanding in the colonial period. Historically it was “the official residence of the Governor General’s representative or other government agent at an Indian native court; the territory supervised by his official” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary).

In colonial India, the institution of Residency was responsible for safeguarding the interests of the British by infiltrating their men in positions of power, influencing the ruler and alluring the public — to the extent that all decisions made at the native court were in accordance with the policy and whims of the envoy.

In a strange way, the role of Residency in the world of art has similarities with its historical antecedent. One needs to probe the institution of residency since the organisers, who provide the facility, do not expect or demand that the artists make specific sort of work. Yet artists who join these residencies assume that a certain kind of work is required of them so they are keen on experimenting and creating something refreshing. Sometimes these works, that appear contemporary, lack conceptual clarity.

Perhaps the idea of making that type of work at a residency is like travelling abroad. A person away from his homeland can change identity, language, customs and costume and, like his fellow travellers, behave like a native of the host country. But once the photographs of his journey are seen in his homeland, he is perceived as alien. Although it is necessary that a man must leave his place, abandon his habits and encounter strange territories, rituals and cultures, for an artist, this process is not a simple excursion into the new and the unknown. For a creative person, a different setting demands a response from him, because anything new in the realm of art is not completely unforeseen. The artist with his training and capabilities tackles a fresh entity, modifies it in such a way that it is linked to both new and old; his past and present. 

In that sense, some of the works exhibited during Taza Tareen, Vasl Residency Lahore at Rohtas 2 (from Nov 27 to Dec 3, 2011) confirm the desire of seeking something new by employing established habits. In the works of S. M. Raza and Habib Phulpoto, one could discern the desperation to be contemporary, without understanding the notion of this term. In our world of art, contemporary is ‘leisurely’ used for defining certain genres (like digital prints, installations, videos, mixed-media etc.) or nature of works, which are site-specific, ephemeral and experimental. Obliterating the fact that whatever is being produced at present, regardless of its technique or material, is contemporary, only if it is going to survive the test of time. So in that way a landscape by Khalid Iqbal is as contemporary as One Day in the Life of a Landscape by Rashid Rana (despite the fact that one is painted in oil and the other is a digital pint).

However, the pressure from unknown and unseen quarters in residencies is such that artists who are well-versed in ‘conventional’ means of drawing and painting are forced to flirt with digital print, audio and mixed-media. The work of Phulpoto and Raza are exercises in a diction that was adapted for its supposed superiority in our art, instead of a real need for that sort of vocabulary. So whether it is the collage of songs and video covers on board or tiny portraits carved out of abandoned palettes, it is not convincing.

The stint at the residency resulted in a similar scheme for Zaineb Siddique (an artist making videos) who has created an installation which appears interesting from outside but once explored physically (which it was meant to do) loses its impact — like her two tiny videos at the same show. Once a viewer enters the large cube composed of plastic stripes, he glimpses lights hanging in the middle, which deflates the ambiguity of the art work — a quality that could have elevated it. 

The work of two participants of Taza Tareen, Ayesha Zulfiqar and Ayesha Kamal is devoid of the pressure of producing something fashionable; yet their works seem more contemporary than any other. Mainly because these works communicate with the audience through the simplicity of their means as well as probing complex concepts by using convincing and communal language. Ayesha Zulfiqar has sliced the inside of a pot, splitting the clay, roots and plant into two halves. She has joined the two sides with metal wires, thus alluding to the altered fate of our environment and the encroaching industrial (man-made) elements in the domain of nature.

Ayesha Kamal in her video has recorded the image of a temporary structure made of corrugated sheet, and the video is shown as a tiny window inside the actual structure displayed on a pedestal. So the idea of original and its reproduction is dealt with in a lyrical manner. In her other videos, Kamal has sought to convey the same effect, but these look more like variations of a successful piece. The dichotomy of the image and object, evident in her work, also signifies the basic existential issues of home, domesticity and alienation.

On the whole, the outcome of Taza Tareen Residency suggests that artists can take a number of routes, working at one place and in identical conditions. This is much like our ancestors who, in the colonial period, were facing multiple challenges caused by the residencies at their courts. Only those who managed to survive the outsider’s dictation are still remembered. Similarly, here, the artists who are making their own mark inspite of others’ diction and direction will last — long!

When a few months ago the Lahore Music Forum was set up with the avowed purpose of promoting classical music, it was obvious that the task was clearly laid out for them. The number of really top of the line performers over the years has been decreasing and the occasions to hold concerts too have been on the decline. On top of that, the practitioners have preferred craft over art with the virtuosity of a vocalist or an instrumentalist standing apart from the total impact of the performance. As the display of skill has become the sole criteria for assessing a musical performance, the classical music performance in Pakistan in particular has suffered from an organic integration of craft and form.

One of the positive aspects of the initiative has been the introduction of many a young performer in the various concerts that have been held so far at the National College of Arts, Alhamra and a couple of restaurants. Most of these youngsters or younger performers, by comparison, are the progeny of professional/hereditary musicians. They have grown up in an environment that has been, if not hostile, indifferent to classical music in Pakistan and have personally also experienced the hardship of their parents/elders not being asked to perform and hence confronted with poverty, resulting in living conditions that in no way offer adequate compensation for their ability and commitment.

It must have been firm commitment because despite very difficult circumstances they have stuck to their genre of music. Between derision and indifference, they have somehow survived, which is itself a miracle but their number naturally has been on the decline. These youngsters must have been exposed to the tension and pressure within the families of switching on to other more popular and sought-after forms of music. The welcome relief being that when these youngsters were tapped by connoisseurs including the Lahore Music Forum, they willingly performed kheyal and thumri in the tradition of their gharanas.

The professional hereditary musicians have taken a number of positions regarding this changing taste in music. Some have abandoned it completely while switching to more popular forms as with Ghulam Ali, the others have split their music into both popular and classical forms and perform as and when required, the best example of this being Ustad Hamid Ali Khan who has maintained some kind of a balance; still others have remained faithful to the classical forms but by making some changes within that format. Shafqat Ali Khan can be considered a likely choice in this regard.

The youngsters who have performed in the various concerts have been Muslim Ali the grandson of Ustad Ghulam Hasan Shaggan, Nayaab Ali/Inam Ali the sons of Ustad Hamid Ali Khan, Ahmed Raza the grandson of Hussain Buksh Dhaddi, Chand Khan/Suraj Khan the sons of Hussain Buksh Gullo, Akbar Ali/Amanat ali the son and nephew of Ustad Mubarak Ali Khan, and Karam Abbas/Ali Wasim Abbas the sons of Ahmed Ali.

Some of the performers were also invited to perform in more than one concert. The idea was to assess whether some difference in their music according to the general guidelines of the Lahore Music Forum had taken place. Since the younger vocalists and instrumentalists have been the focus of this initiative, they were made to perform after a reasonable interval. According to the organisers they have seen some shades of change, positive change, in the performance of the youngsters over this period and are hence hopeful.

The awareness and appreciation of classical forms of music has become restricted to a small minority of experts but the desire or the pressure has been to appeal to a larger segment of the population. This has created a discrepancy and it seems that true appreciation of music and its mass appeal are not on the same page. In a democratic age, with means of communication enhanced million times over by technological breakthroughs, and a new world order in culture based on the coming together of cultural expressions of the regions, indeed continents, the expectation has shifted to a musical expression that was more eclectic in character.

Lack of patronage and hence dwindling audiences forced the classical practitioner to appeal to the people at large by inundating it with virtuosity and technical difficulties that stood apart from the total expectation and appeal of the performance. This happened more in Pakistan than in India because the change here has been abrupt; while in India some sections including the state moved in to facilitate an interface between the shifting patterns of patronage.

The Punjab gawayas and the Punjab gaiki has always been forceful, full of aggression and violence, replete with very intricate tans, subtle laikari and an exuberance that cannot be contained and expressed in the gradual unfolding of the raag in the slow tempo, the vilampat lai. This forcefulness is perceived to be the natural expression of the people living in the Punjab. It makes them and their music different from other areas of the subcontinent and any change has been taken as curbing their style.

The well-established ustads like Fateh Ali Khan Hyderabadi, Naseeruddin Saami, Ustad Ghulam Hasan Shaggan, Mubarak Ali Khan and Shafqat Ali Khan have also performed at the various concerts organised by the Lahore Arts Forum. In the concert held last week at Alhamra, Ustad Ghulam Hasan Shaggan sang some of the choicest bandishes in shankara, bhopali, gaur sarang and malkauns despite his advancing age and poor health demonstrating reet ki gaiki which is now almost a part of history.

Fahim Mazhar and Aliya Rashid (one of the very few exponents of the dhrupad) have also performed during the course of the last few months. Among the instrumentalists and accompanists Sajid Ali, Dhani, Muhammed Aslam, Shabbir Jhari have displayed their skills on the tabla and harmonium, Shafqat Ali and Zobaib on the sarangi, a dying instrument that needs to be revived desperately and Sabir as always on the tanpura.

As told, the Lahore Music Forum was set up for a year and its continuation depended on the results that it achieved in the year. This initiative of about ten concerned members, mostly living outside of Pakistan who contribute on a regular basis, is noble and it is hoped that it is backed by tenacity and patience to see it successfully through a long haul.






The honourable group

Dear All,

A long time ago, in a land far away, a group of soldiers sat together and decided they had to save their country from ruin. They were fearful, they feared that the wicked witch of the east would soon take over their country by casting a spell over all the people and making them vote for her.

The group decided they could not possibly let this happen. They made a plan: they would get anybody who was not on the witch’s side to join together and present a unified front to all the witch’s spells and magical charm. So they travelled the length and breadth of the land and rounded up all the men who felt frightened of the witch’s words and who also wished to defeat her.

All the men stood together on a large stage. They joined hands and raised their arms triumphantly towards the heavens. The flash bulbs went off one after another, freezing their image forever. The one with the beard stood next to the one with no hair, the one with the turban stood next to the dictator’s son. They were together, united in their purpose of saving their land and defeating the witch of the east.

But they also needed assistance, so the group provided them with any help they could, they gave them advice and gold, they gave them advisors experienced in various black arts, they gave them smear masters and rumour mongers.

The Front stood, united, on stage after stage, addressed gathering after gathering, shouted out speech after speech. And they all joined hands and raised their arms triumphantly towards the heavens. They tried to tell the people how wicked the witch was, they tried to tell them how dangerous she was, they reminded them she was....a woman! The group gave them more sacks of gold and the smear masters took out buckets of mud and filth and hurled it at images of the witch and of her spouse and of her mother.

But the witch had cast a magical spell over the people of the land. Despite all the mud, and despite that wall of men together on stage, shoulder to shoulder with triumphantly raised arms, many of the people of the land went and voted for her and their votes made a mockery of all that the group had worked so hard for. The group despaired, the land must be saved from the witch, the land must be saved from her and also from the evil enemy next door!

They doubled their efforts to destroy her magic. They called her a traitor and a murderer and a thief and they brought in truckloads of filth to hurl at her spouse. But again they despaired: they worked so hard and yet she and her family could not be eliminated, they were like a malignant cancer that could not be eradicated from the pure land.

The group worked and worked and worked, they worked tirelessly over the years because they knew they had to save their country — but still the witch’s magic charmed the crowds and her memory continued to rouse them to revolt even after she was no longer there.

But then one day, so many years later when they saw the memory of the magic was still there, the group decided they needed to act again. They needed another Front  — a new Front. And even though the one with no hair was not with them now, they had one with hair, lots of hair. And even though the one with the beard was no longer with them, they now had one with no beard. And they had the young ones, the ones who had no memory of the magic. The ones who would carry the Front forward.

And so it came to be that the one with hair climbed up on a stage and called for men to join him in his struggle. And men joined him. And they stood side by side and raised their linked hands up triumphantly towards the heavens, telling everybody in the land that they would save them. They would save them from the cult of the witch of the east. They invoked the powers of God and prayed together loudly and publicly. They were men, fearless men, men who prayed, men who loved their country. They knew they would win, they knew they would save their country. They knew this because the land had been sanitised: it had been dusted with a powerful anti-History chemical and now most of the people, particularly the young ones had no knowledge of the past, no memory of that early Front. They would have no memory of the magic, and no memory of the mud.

Umber Khairi

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