Identity process
Three artists deviate from the individual-centric art world to make collaborative drawings at the Drawing Room Art Gallery Lahore
By Quddus Mirza
One basic human instinct is to remain immortal. This struggle against death manifests in multiple forms. Ranging from archaic attempts in magic for prolonging one’s life to inventions in the field of science for warding off illnesses are all attempts to live forever. But man knows that his life span is a hundred years; in fact a lot less. Thus the desire to live till eternity is expressed through other means;

Raza Ali Abidi migrated from Roorki, India, to Karachi as an 11 year old boy and discovered his story-telling abilities during his early teens. He started his career as a translator and proof-reader in the daily Jang, under the watchful but benign supervision of Mir Khalilur Rehman, and gradually rose to the status of a news editor.

1972 was a watershed year in his life when he moved to broadcast journalism and joined the BBC Urdu Service in Bush House London. In addition to his routine broadcasts of news and current affairs, he produced four major documentary series, all of which appeared in book form at a later stage. A compulsive traveller, he is a keen observer of the phenomena around him. Thanks to his radio orientation, Abidi developed a style in writing, characterised by short and crisp sentences, which was more than welcome in the print medium. His pen has produced genres as varied and diverse as travelogues, short stories, features, documentaries on popular music and, most importantly, children’s literature.

Even a casual glance at his works shows us a tremendous variety of subjects: Apni Awaz and Jan Sahib are collections of his short stories; Jahazi Bhai is history and travel; Janay Pehchaney contains character sketches of Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, Saqi Faruqi, Iftikhar Arif, Gopi Chand Narang and many others. Malika Victoria aur Munshi Abdul Karim is the Queen’s affair with his Urdu tutor, and Naghma Nigaar is a popular history of the film poetry right from Agha Hashr and Qamar Jalalabadi to Sahir Ludhianvi and Mujrooh Sultanpuri.

He has recently published his memoirs that tell us some interesting tales of his newspaper nights and the radio days.

The News on Sunday: You spent the early years of your career in print journalism. You were already working in the editorial capacity and your style had matured as a newspaper man when you moved to the BBC where a whole new approach was required to convey your ideas to your listeners. How did you cope with this change? What did you learn and unlearn in the process?

Raza Ali Abidi: Although I was a newsman when I started my career, the process of discovering myself never stopped. I found out right in the beginning that there was a hidden feature writer within me. That proved to be an added quality when I moved from the print to the electronic media. Both the skills worked so well and the combination proved to be a real asset for a broadcasting house which was not solely a news channel at the time when I joined the Urdu Service of the BBC.

The best thing I learned in my early days of broadcasting was the technique of storytelling. This proved to be captivating and fascinated my audience. No wonder the Americans call the news items “stories.”

TNS: Who was your ideal in broadcast journalism? What aspect of their skill impressed you in particular?

RAA: I was very young when I started listening to radio. The Second World War was on and my father used to sit glued to his radio set to find out the latest on all the fronts. That was the time when I sat beside him and admired the great newsreader of All India Radio, Devki Nandan Panday. I have never heard a better radio voice since.

Back home, I was an ardent listener of Radio Pakistan Karachi. That was the time when most of the broadcasters tried to imitate Z.A. Bukhari. Then came S.M. Salim with his soft and velvety voice and a natural tone that was so close to an intimate chat; he inspires me even to this day.

TNS: Your documentary series Sher Darya or The Lion River — a journey along the path of river Sindh — ran for 60 consecutive weeks. If you transcribe all the scripts, that will cover thousands of pages. How did you manage to squeeze all that material into a compact book?

RAA: The best thing about broadcasting is that people know only what you tell them. Every time I ventured out to bring material to compile my radio documentaries, I came back loaded with tons of written as well as audio material. That was the time when the art of storytelling came to my rescue and helped me sort out all those parts which fit into the tales of my journey. Fortunately, my feature on the Grand Trunk Road, called the Jernaili Sadak was so popular that my bosses gave me a free hand and I took the liberty to run my documentary on the River Indus (Sher Darya) for sixty weeks.

TNS: There seems to be one problem with your books though: they don’t fall into a particular category. They are neither travelogues nor history nor geography in the strict sense. Does this genre-defying nature of your books bother you at all?

RAA: I pity my publishers who are supposed to describe the genre of the book to get their ISBN and they always stay confused. Sometimes they call it history, at other times they consider it a travelogue or even an autobiography.

I always say this: A travel writer describes the scene; I invite the scene to describe itself. That, I think is the beauty of the script basically written for radio. You are compelled to ask the people to talk.

TNS: In the decades of 1970s and 80s, you were entrusted with the gigantic task of handling the listeners’ mail — BBC Urdu service used to receive more than 1100 letters a week. One wonders if that many letters could be read every week. How did you manage that?

RAA: I think the BBC should conduct a research to find out why on earth were so many listeners writing letters to us, and why did they kept writing when most of the letters were never put on air. The number of letters increased to an extent that we had to broadcast two programmes a week just to accommodate as many letters as we could. I still remember that once the Urdu service received 60,000 letters during the year which greatly disturbed our competitors, the Hindi Service, just because it outnumbered the Hindi letters.

I also remember that once we had to hire temps just to open the envelopes and sort the letters. Once we offered the listeners a picture postcard of the cast of our popular programme Shaheen Club. We were flooded with requests and the BBC had to spend a fortune on the postage. We were told later on not to print any more postcards.

Mind you, we had a whole department called the Audience Research where language staffs of five people was supposed to read all letters, log them and prepare an annual report reflecting the views of the audience. The whole department was later moved to India and Pakistan where it was less expensive.

TNS: There has been an acute shortage of children’s literature in Urdu. Why is it so? Is it more difficult to write for the kids?

RAA: It is a complex question, and so is the answer. The authors, the publishers and the book sellers get nothing out of children’s literature. Prices are low therefore the margin of profit is also low. If the publishers are noble enough to pay the authors their share of royalty, it is peanuts, just because the cover price is not more than a few rupees. So, no one bothers.

The same is true about the electronic media: no writer wants to specialise in children’s plays as there is neither money nor overnight popularity in this area. I cannot recall more than a few authors who earned their name by writing for the younger generation. A simple answer to your question is this: it is difficult to write for children.

TNS: You have travelled throughout the world and surveyed areas with a sizeable Urdu Diaspora. What does the future hold for Urdu in the subcontinent and other parts of the world?

RAA: I wrote a whole book called ‘Urdu ka Haal’ (The Present Situation of Urdu Language) to discuss this issue but, strangely enough, nobody took notice of the book. It was neither discussed on any literary platform nor reviewed in the newspapers.

I believe Urdu will survive as a spoken language. Written Urdu, unfortunately, seems to have no future: it is being overloaded with non-Urdu words, especially the English expressions, and is losing its charm and flavour. A renowned columnist in one of the leading Urdu newspapers in Pakistan failed to find an Urdu word for ‘Indians’. People have just stopped using the Urdu equivalents of everyday words. On the contrary an interesting thing is happening in India: not only in the popular cinema but on mass media too, the Indians are using more and more Urdu words without any hesitation. They say ‘Khabren’ instead of ‘samachar’ and ‘shukria’ instead of ‘dhanyewaad’.

TNS: You have been wandering freely around various cities of India and Pakistan, thanks largely to your British passport. Do you foresee a time when a common person in South Asia would be able to travel like you?

RAA:  Not in my lifetime. Can you imagine a gigantic book fair is taking place in Karachi and more than a dozen huge Indian publishing houses are begging for Pakistani visa and things are being delayed on one pretext or another? Here in the UK, we have British passports but the Indian High Commission in London considers us Pakistanis and we are treated as God knows what, just because we once had Pakistani passports.

TNS: Your short stories are a breed apart. Some people find them influenced by Chekov and others see traces of Katherine Mansfield in them, but they are certainly unique in Urdu. Do you think you are influenced by any Western or subcontinental story writer?

RAA: I read and admired Ivan Turgenev during my teens and his short stories and novels inspired me a lot. I read most of the French and Russian fiction and still read European short stories from where I derived many themes.

It was the beginning of 1950s when I read Shafiq-ur-Rehman for the first time. Now I can imagine how a boy of fourteen can be attracted to his style of romance and humour. He certainly is my mentor.

TNS: Any future projects in the offing?

RAA: A major book is in the press these days based upon my first ever BBC serial called‘Kutub Khana’. It was a major research that looks into the 19th          century Urdu books which are very well-preserved here in the British Library. Starting from Mir Amman’s ‘Baagh-o-Bahaar’(1804) going upto Hadi Ruswa’s ‘Umrao Jaan Ada’ (1899), this work is an overview of the entire stock of printed books reflecting the historical ups and downs of that turbulent century.

This series ran during the 1970s and went on for 140 weeks due to its immense popularity. Now it has been compiled in book form, called‘‘Kitaaben Apne Aaba ki’ (Books of our Ancestors). It contains a detailed description of more than a hundred books with long excerpts of both prose and poetry.

TNS: After the publication of ‘Radio ke Din’, did you feel that you forgot to include something worth-mentioning?

RAA: Yes, I failed to mention one sad story of the audio archives of the Urdu Service. Hundreds of old tapes and discs were kept in a basement room of Bush House, the building where the BBC World Service is based. The temperature and atmosphere in that cellar were not suitable for preserving the tapes,  and, as we discovered in the late 1990s, fungus attacked the whole stock so badly that the entire lot had to be destroyed. Some of it was digitised but a big lot is lost forever. It saddens me when I think that the destroyed material contained jewels like the first ever interview of Dilip Kumar, the early recordings of a young Z.A. Bokhari and Balraj Sahni, the radio plays from the 1950s, in which Qurratulain Hyder and Ijaz Batalvi played as actors, and several other items of archival importance.

(See Literati for a review of The Radio Days)



Even as a teenager, Sabeen Mahmud did not tread the beaten path. Particularly as a teenager who had studied at the Karachi Grammar School. Her first job — at the age of 15 — was at Solutions Unlimited, an Apple dealership where she learned not only about the software but also happily soldered and tinkered her way around the hardware. “I’m a tech geek,” she says without hesitation. In her free time, just for fun, she’d accompany her father when he took his car to the mechanic, or she’d rope in the neighbourhood chowkidars for a game of cricket.

Today this self-confessed “post-modern flower child and unabashed Mac snob” is the director of T2f, which she describes as “a community space for art and culture and the promotion of ideas of rationality, science and evolution.” T2f is a project of PeaceNiche, a non-profit NGO founded by Sabeen in 2007. Its website defines its raison d’etre as social change through intellectual poverty alleviation.

The journey from tech geek to activist-tech geek was a circuitous one. During her four years at Lahore’s Kinnaird College, Sabeen reluctantly studied English literature and philosophy, all the while trying to drop out. “Being at a girl’s college was a culture shock at first, and I wasn’t interested in studying,” she says wryly. “Now I’m firmly against formal education.” She’d save up money and hop on the train for impromptu visits home. Her salvation was her beloved Mac, which she’d taken with her to Lahore, and she found herself a job designing layouts for an Asian women’s group’s quarterly newsletter. Once a week, she’d take the laptop, grab a rickshaw and head to the printers, and see the results of her work materialise before her eyes. The school of life was far more exciting than anything that college had to offer.

However, it was the regimentation of academic life that Sabeen chafed against. “I was intensely curious about art, music and science,” she says. Over the years, Zaheer Kidwai, her employer at Solutions Unlimited had become her friend (over their mutual love of Pink Floyd) and mentor. “Zac believed that in order to provide tech solutions to your clients you first have to immerse yourself in the arts. He encouraged his employees to accompany him to mushairas and lectures on critical appreciation. We were also exposed to philosophical debates at his home which was frequented by well-known figures from the arts,” says Sabeen.

After she returned from college, she began to once again work with Zac, but a moral dilemma began to nag at her. “It bothered me that while in the evening I’d be protesting some MNC’s policies, during the day I’d be sorting out their computer systems,” says Sabeen. She looked around for something else in which to pour her energies and it dawned on her that there was nowhere one could find art, culture and intellectual debate under one roof. That realisation, plus some seed money borrowed from a couple of well-wishers set the ball rolling. The Second Floor — it was located on the second floor of a building — thus came into existence, to be renamed T2f two years later when it moved to its new premises, compris­ing the ground and first floor.

T2f is very much an extension of Sabeen’s personality. Individualistic, multi-dimensional, and infused with a healthy irreverence for absolutism of any kind (except perhaps in technology. She says, “We’re Apple evangelists, and can’t get enough of Steve’s shiny toys”).

A sample of the smorgasbord of events during a typical week at T2f would read something like this: a study circle for classical Urdu poetry, an art class, an open mic night, a musical tribute to The Beatles, a film celebrating Charles Darwin, and a discussion about Anarchism. The place is a mecca for emerging artistes who are given the space free of charge for rehearsals.

“After four years of running this place, what I love most about it is that it gives a little bit of happiness to people,” say Sabeen. “I’m also a huge believer in the power of one, changing the world one man or one woman at a time.”

Sabeen’s ability to think outside the box came in handy while sustaining T2f through the early years of financial drought. “We learnt to do more with less,” she says. “I handle all the writing and design, and both these locations have been built without the help of an architect. I’ve taken out loans on loans. You have to have a gambler’s nerves.”

She credits her street smartness to her mother. “Although she spent a lot of time with me when I was young, she let go of me at the right time.” She got her first bicycle at the age of 7, and by next year was riding by herself to a bike repair shop in the neighbouring locality. “Also, we had just one car which my father would take to the office so for after-school sports practice I had to make my own way by hitching rides with friends,” she recalls.

The fact that they “weren’t the average KGS family” instilled the habit of living within a limited income. She would save her weekly pocket money of five rupees to buy accessories for her bicycle. “I’ve bought Macs on five-year loans since 1990. Everything I wanted I had to save for, but my mother gave me the confidence not to feel bad about it,” she says.

George Soros’ Open Society Foundation is now funding T2f, the first time the project has been the recipient of such funding, and the first time that Sabeen has been able to pay herself a salary. Eight board members oversee the running of the project whose accounts are professionally audited. “We’ve also paid generator tax that Orix, which leased us the generator, had never even heard of,” says Sabeen.

Revenue for T2f is also generated through proceeds from performances (usually split down the middle with the artistes), donations, the on-site café, and the sale of limited edition T2f T-shirts etc.

While she believes that Karachi could do with more such spaces and has herself been offered a place in a considerably more middle-class area to open another T2f, she believes that PeaceNiche is not financially secure enough to handle two places. “In any case, I don’t need to go there to validate our existence as an NGO or to attract people from varied socio-economic backgrounds,” she says firmly. “There are darzis and sabziwalas in this street too, but they need to cross this threshold and we need to draw them in. That’s why I’d like to put up an art exhibition on the walls outside.”

She finds it gratifying to see the ownership that people take of T2f. “I’ve had people come up to me and say we learn more here than we do at college. That kind of statement is my sustenance,” says the social entrepreneur who has little patience with formal pedagogy.

As a T2f T-shirt succinctly says, “T2f: Coffee – books – conversation, Bring your brain.”

Just don’t run down the ipad.

Nida Butt staged a successful musical in Karachi a few months back and wanted to bring the show over to Lahore.

According to her own account published in ‘Instep Today’ (November 18, 2011) she faced great difficulties and was penalised in advance for the sins she and her production were most likely to commit.

The performance of ‘Karachi, The Musical’ by Made for Stage was eagerly awaited in Lahore because it happens to be an original musical. An original play has been written and the musical score specifically composed by Hamza Jafri, unlike the other musicals staged in the past which have been imitation of the western plays, is a pioneering effort of sorts.

In the musicals staged here, invariably, the musical score has been lifted and played in the background while the actors on stage lip-synched the songs and the compositions. The incidence of these musicals has increased because some of the most popular ones have been made as films and the DVD copies of these films are readily available in the local markets. It was easy to see the production, copy the musical score and stage the production accordingly with a creative effort more in synch with adaptation.

The musicals staged in Pakistan like ‘Mamma Mia’, ‘Chicago’, ‘Phantom of the Opera’, ‘Miss Saigon’ etc, all fell in the same category, though there have been attempts at not mere lip synching, which has become almost the norm, but at playing and singing the original score by the local musicians and actors. The greater majority are adaptations or loose/liberal spoofs of the plays written in other languages and presented to us in the English language.

All these productions have been successful in attracting funding, reception by the audiences, evaluation and coverage by the media, probably more successful than the plays, which have been staged by the other theatre groups in the country. This also vows for the great entrepreneurial abilities of the producers and the team handling these productions compared to the other set of producers who perhaps are more idealistic, starry-eyed and inadequately equipped to meet with the conjoined challenge offered by economics and creativity.

It is always the mixture of creativity and sound economical judgement that has made the performing arts to survive. The pragmatists and the idealists are supposed to come together in an unholy union to oversee the conversion of an idea to a form — in this case, the production and the play; in other cases, cinema and dance.

One was looking forward to view this production both original in its script and in its score. As reported, the play set in Lyari and based on the characters specific to the urban slums of the country used language, turn of phrase, and situations all identifiable. On top of that the original musical score drew from the various contemporary musical influences easily referable through the proliferation of the media and ready availability of these musical scores and numbers.

But it was not to be — because the authorities at the Alhamra raised certain issues regarding censorship, which were off putting, infuriating enough to scare the producer away.

The question of censorship has been a vexed one in the country. Originally, there were stifling censorship norms with the district administration ultimately responsible for censoring a performance for public viewing. But as it was argued by the theatre and dance buffs that since cinema was censored by a specific authority constituted for the purpose —the Censor Board — the theatre and live shows should also be censored by intellectuals, writers and film-makers, in short the experts from the field.

At the Alhamra, special committees were formed to censor the scripts and also the production (the dress rehearsal) a day before it opened to the public. This arrangement continued with varying success over the decades of 1980s and 1990s, observed more in its breach than observance. These committees constituted writers, theatre personnel with representatives of the Home Department and Alhamra, and were usually honorary affairs, held irregularly with constant problems of quorum. More often than not, it eventually fell in the lap of the Arts Council official or the Home Department personnel to vet the production for the purposes of staging the production.

The experts started to disengage themselves for no ideological purpose but because of lethargy, apathy and burden of additional responsibility. This apathy was also caused by the fact that the scripts were overly censored with hardly any meat left and the actors found a way round them by increasing exponentially the quantum of adlibbing. The final production, very different from the one based on the approved limp script also varied from production to production, depending on who was in the audience compounded by the fear of an inspection or raid by some concerned official.

Such has been the state of censorship in Lahore and despite all the changes in the law and the format its execution has eventually boiled down to the tier actually responsible in the staging of the production — that is the authorities at the Alhamra. It has been left to their discretion as to what is fit to be shown and what is not.

The system like other systems has not worked according to intention and many flaws in its execution has frustrated theatre producers, especially the amateurs who being idealistic are not consonant with how the society functions. The professionals have worked round the system, staging plays and shows which may be at variance with the intended policy of the government or the councils themselves. Contrary to the loud paranoiac chants for stricter censorship these policies have to be reset and then made to work guaranteeing freedom of expression.



Identity process
Three artists deviate from the individual-centric art world to make collaborative drawings at the Drawing Room Art Gallery Lahore

By Quddus Mirza

One basic human instinct is to remain immortal. This struggle against death manifests in multiple forms. Ranging from archaic attempts in magic for prolonging one’s life to inventions in the field of science for warding off illnesses are all attempts to live forever. But man knows that his life span is a hundred years; in fact a lot less. Thus the desire to live till eternity is expressed through other means; one is through procreating, so that a man remains in the world in the form of his children, grand children and so forth; the other is through art, which guarantees a lasting life for its creator.

Aristotle says that “every art is concerned with giving birth”. But in the process of art-making it is a solitary man or woman who produces a piece of work, unlike the other scheme of creation where both man and woman take part. Similarly writers, poets, sculptors, singers, composers, dancers and actors perform as single person, even if at some/later stage other individuals join the act. This makes a creative person proud of his work and confident that it will ensure him a name till eternity. It is not surprising that artists, often, come across as highly selfish and self-centred people. The nature of creative process demands a focus on one’s individuality; thus if a person becomes too engaged with himself and dismissive of others (in some cases abandoning friends and family), it is understandable though not appreciated.

Some artists also try to deviate from this norm of singular productive person, a practice that can be traced in works like the Arabian Nights, Egyptian sculptures, Ajanta frescos, folk music and many others. Examples like Renaissance studios and workshops of painters during the Mughal period also illustrate the way multiple people were engaged in producing a single work, but there is a subtle difference between the two approaches. In the European workshops of Renaissance, artists collaborated but the final work was attributed to a single artist. Whereas in the Mughal era, more than one painter was involved in making a miniature and no single individual could claim to be the maker.

This duality points at two separate societal behaviours. In the West an individual is more important, whereas in our civilisation the collective is considered significant.

Moving from the ‘arrogant I’ to the ‘humble we’, three artists collaborated to create works which are being shown in the exhibition ‘Conch Curve Creation’ from Dec 14-26, 2011, at the Drawing Room Art Gallery Lahore. Dua Abbas, Wardha Shabbir and Ali Asad Naqvi jointly worked on 13 drawings on paper; one among the three initiated the imagery which was extended by the two.

The three artists have recently graduated from the National College of Arts, and possess their distinct styles and vocabulary.

While looking at these joint endeavours, it was easy to detect the hand of the maker with each image, line and stroke especially if one was familiar with their degree shows. Thus the sensitively rendered female figures with suggestions of seascape were unmistakeably by Dua Abbas, the intricate flora was by Wardha Shabbir and geometric patterns were put by Ali Naqvi.

As is inevitable in such exhibitions, some works had unity of visual material whereas several pieces appeared as residue of their separate identities. Yet a viewer was able to merge and mend the three components of work in his attempt to find some sort of uniformity of imagery — but more importantly of meaning (which seemed to be the last priority in the project). Of course, one could question the relevance of meaning in a work of art, especially with reference to a collaborative effort like this, because the whole idea of working without a prior plan is to invite fresh views to formulate a new vision (something that ideally would have been an outcome of the show, if majority of the works did not appear variations of the same image). Probably the absence of a theme or idea was why the works looked more like exercises of identical nature, because once the artist is conscious of his role, of putting a mark, he is more inclined to retain his signature imagery.

So, in a paradoxical way, the three artists tried to melt their identities in single drawings, but their individual contributions remained visible, rather too obvious, at places. They were more accentuated by their choice of mark-making, since each artist did not deviate from his or her chosen material and medium. Without a ‘cause’ or content, these attempts were like excursions into the unknown, without forsaking the artists’ personal voices. Howsoever singular and strong may have been the makers’ identities, their experiment was brave in the context of our self-centred art world.

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