trends
Private lessons
More and more women are taking Bollywood dance classes and find it entertaining
By Sarah Sikandar
Let's face it. We were never comfortable with women dancing. Thanks to Bollywood, dance is becoming an acceptable expression of joy and, yes, freedom in real life. No wonder, more and more women are taking up dance classes and since European forms like Salsa or Tango are not very popular here, Bollywood dancing has become an art form in itself -- it gives you a certificate to publicly say you are a good dancer. Only, you forget you can only dance to Indian songs.

review
Diasporic artists' studio
Anila Qayyum Agha may have reached out to our intellect to articulate her vision but Salman Toor seizes our imagination at Canvas Art Gallery
By Nafisa Rizvi
It is always a thorny exercise assimilating a show containing two or more artists, though curators and gallerists are usually able to pull it off using empirical evidence and intuition. This is one time, when the disparities in the work of the two artists exhibiting were so pronounced that one eclipsed the other almost completely. However, it must be noted that there was no particular lack of parity in the conceptual assertions of the two sets of works. Only that one was representational and clutched the heart in a palpably visceral grip and the other pontificated in an orderly, informed, stoic manner. Given the passionate Pakistani temperament, which do you think overshadowed the other?

Statement of change
Established in 1959, All Pakistan Music Conference celebrated its golden jubilee last week
By Sarwat Ali
The All Pakistan Music Conference (APMC) celebrated its golden jubilee befittingly by holding a number of concerts and bestowing Lifetime Achievement Awards at the Alhamra, Lahore last week.
The venue had to be shifted from the Open Air Theatre at the Bagh-e-Jinnah to Alhamra due to reasons of security; otherwise open air theatre has been the home of the Music Conference. A plaque was also unveiled at the site remembering Hayat Ahmed Khan who since its inception was the moving spirit behind the Conference. It was in the late 1950s when a press statement by Roshan Ara Begum that she had given up singing because there was no platform for live classical music, moved a group of concerned listeners of music who formed APMC making Roshan Ara Begum its first patron.

Alternative truths
Syed Faraz Ali's latest work on show in Lahore is powerful as it forces viewers to confront not just their psychological and sexual identities but also situations that happen daily
By Aasim Akhtar
Historians long ago began to write the history of the body. They have studied the body in the field of historical demography or pathology; but the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs. This subjection is not only obtained by the instruments of violence and ideology; it can also be direct, physical, pitting force against force, bearing on material elements, and yet without involving violence; it may be calculated, organised, technically thought out; it may be subtle, make use neither of weapons nor of terror and yet remain of a physical order.

Blood ties
Dear All,
A memoir called My name is Victoria spotlights once again the amazing stories of the children of the 'disappeared' political activists of Argentina's dirty war. These were the children of political dissidents who had been rounded up, tortured and killed; the children who were taken from their parents and illegally adopted and raised by their parents' oppressors. These children learned the truth of their true history many years later thanks to the persistence of the mothers of many of the missing activists, the group known as the Grannies of the Plaza de Mayo (Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo), who never gave up their campaign and kept a DNA bank of the disappeared so that they would be able to identify the lost children.

 

Private lessons

More and more women are taking Bollywood dance classes and find it entertaining

By Sarah Sikandar

Let's face it. We were never comfortable with women dancing. Thanks to Bollywood, dance is becoming an acceptable expression of joy and, yes, freedom in real life. No wonder, more and more women are taking up dance classes and since European forms like Salsa or Tango are not very popular here, Bollywood dancing has become an art form in itself -- it gives you a certificate to publicly say you are a good dancer. Only, you forget you can only dance to Indian songs.

This latest trend of taking classes at private clubs, dance schools or at home is a reflection of our obsession with Indian film dance and the ever-increasing popularity of Bollywood. The costs for three classes a week range from Rs5000 to Rs15000 and women are apparently signing up so fast that instructors have to divide the age groups. Although limited to women of a certain class, it seems to be catching up fast as women want to perfect their moves and need a good excuse to shed those extra pounds. Whatever the reason, the phenomenon of our women dancing to Hindi tracks has evolved over the decades.

India and Pakistan are two separate countries with separate identities. True. But Pakistan and Bollywood are inseparable -- merged through invisible establishment of media. Bollywood should officially be recognised as the joint film industry of both the countries especially after the possibility of Pakistan becoming the second largest market for Indian films. Bollywood is one reality that even the Mullah can't seem to ignore (listen to A R Rehman's tunes at your next Friday after-prayer naats.)

Assma, 27, a mother of two daughters and a homemaker has evenings to herself (and not for her family) from Tuesdays to Thursdays because those are the days she takes her dance classes. "Me and my mother-in-law skip gym or walk and go to the class in Defence (Lahore). I cannot do gym or exercise but I can dance to "Dola Dola" for hours at length. It is just that the rhythm is so powerful that aerobics or any other form can never compete with it." Assma thinks Bollywood has a "cheap, vulgar side to it as well as a very universal appeal because people who don't even understand their language love the dance and music."

That Bollywood dancing is uncouth is the least of Zofeen's problems. She is in her 40s and takes Bollywood dance classes with one of the trainers in Karachi. She thinks that Bollywood dancing is like any other kind of dancing for her. "I do it for fun. It is better than yoga or aerobics because both become very boring and monotonous." Zofeen thinks Bollywood dancing among middle-aged women is "both fun and funny" because it has lots of expressions like eye gestures and interesting body movements. "I don't do it because I have to do an item number at a wedding, I do it because it is fun. Period."

No one can be blamed for loving something that entertains them. And, despite all, filmi dancing is both entertaining and uplifting. Secondly, Bollywood is the most accessible medium of entertainment available to us through the biggest "binder" of all -- language.

The sad part, Zofeen admits, is that the trend has caught on so much that we are giving away with our traditional dances like Luddi and Gidda. "Girls don't even know how to do Luddi anymore." Wedding, she thinks, are all about synchronised and choreographed dancing rather than a family event. More attention is given to the dances than other merriments like that actual rasm of applying mehndi.

A bulk of Pakistanis base their 'Pakistaniat' on anti-India sentiments but mum is the word when it comes to the domination of Indian dance and song in our homes. No izzat daar father would want his daughters to learn classical dance, and worst, perform in public. But no one ever raises objection to girls dancing, sometimes even giving a better performance than the original. The sheer joy of dancing detracts -- just for that moment though -- from the perception of immorality associated with dancing as a profession, because then, the daughter is not seen as a pleasure-giver, or seductress or an enchantress but a homely girl having fun. This is how ambivalent we are about dance as an art form.

Sheema Kermani, dancer and activist, believes it to be nothing less than sheer hypocrisy of a society that likes the face clean. "Filmi dance is not a dance form. It is not art. It is a vulgarised form of classical dance. Classical dance is a huge discipline with an incredibly rich heritage. It is nothing but sad that a beautiful art form is denied whereas a vulgar version of dance is accepted." She believes "learning Bollywood dance" is equally absurd because "anyone with a little sense of movement can do it."

Pappu Samrat, a Pakistani choreographer, is Pakistan's answer to Saroj Khan. What many people don't know about him is that when he is not choreographing the Reemas and the Meeras he gives private lessons to women for weddings as well as otherwise. Talk about him in a friends' gathering and most would ignore the topic, but he is popular among the society aunties who want a special number of their own at the son's imminent wedding. Pappu, who is known for suggestive dance steps seen by our actresses, likes to "keep it simple with the family ladies. I don't approve of simple women dancing like film actresses whether it is Indian or Pakistani." He doesn't agree with the argument that Indian dances are less bold or more "decent" than Pakistan's. Nonetheless, he finds nothing wrong with women trying to learn film dances since they are enjoying dance in some form.

If dance is not an accepted form of expression here, one wonders how Nargis made her way into every house.

Diasporic artists' studio

Anila Qayyum Agha may have reached out to our intellect to articulate her vision but Salman Toor seizes our imagination at Canvas Art Gallery

By Nafisa Rizvi

It is always a thorny exercise assimilating a show containing two or more artists, though curators and gallerists are usually able to pull it off using empirical evidence and intuition. This is one time, when the disparities in the work of the two artists exhibiting were so pronounced that one eclipsed the other almost completely. However, it must be noted that there was no particular lack of parity in the conceptual assertions of the two sets of works. Only that one was representational and clutched the heart in a palpably visceral grip and the other pontificated in an orderly, informed, stoic manner. Given the passionate Pakistani temperament, which do you think overshadowed the other?

The two-artist show at Canvas Art Gallery constituted works by Anila Qayyum Agha and Salman Toor, who are incidentally both diasporic artists living in the US. Agha's works consist of clean white sheets of paper on which she has meticulously cut out a series of circles and then stitched back the circles into their spaces with needle and thread after having permeated the pieces with tea or coffee stains, wax and dyes, exposing them to the vicissitudes of life so to say. The patterning and simulation of cutting and sewing are all symbolic gestures representing the constriction of the feminine space and the woman's role as domestic vassal. Other works look like small doilies, not an element we see often in our everyday lives, relegated to the era of elderly ladies playing mahjong. The works though cold are unambiguously feminine in appearance even before the viewer has had a chance to observe the details.

The young Toor presents only five canvases; three are smaller and square (24"x 24") depicting Jinnah and his sister. The other two are larger (54"x 54") which look like they have been borrowed from the Baroque section of an art museum in Europe. The paintings are startling in their immaculate representation of human form and complete the Baroque prospect with the fine but incidental backdrop landscape, the richness of chiaroscuro and sensuous painterly qualities. Viewing Toor's work is a chance at experiencing first hand much of the vivid drama that one hears of in the history books regarding Caravaggio who stunned audiences by depicting scenes from Christian theology, like his Sacrifice of Isaac or Conversion on the way to Damascus. These pieces, large and closely cropped in composition effectively demolished the spatial distance between the viewer and the event depicted. There were stories told of how women fainted and men gasped looking at these paintings, so affected were they by the realism and by the perception that they had physically stepped into the reverential scene.

It would be not be hyperbole to suggest that Toor comes close to reinventing the aura that Caravaggio produced for his audience and what makes it even more exciting is that he does it all with a premeditated air and an informed understanding of the present without the sentimental need for nostalgic reminiscence. In the painting depicting two young boys, which contains the narrative complexity of the Iliad, the immediacy of the moment is apparent as one of them with the bare torso looks over his shoulder with a startled expression full of guilt and misgivings at the intruder, while the other covers his face with his hands. The plot thickens as we notice that the backdrop is actually an artist's studio and suddenly the paradigms of the tale changes as the artist then assumes the role of the instigator, pimp, voyeur and divulger.

The compelling reality of Toor, like Caravaggio, does not make him a realist. On the contrary, his work is fantastic and his representation of the natural world as seen through the eyes of a Baroque artist, uses mimesis to intensify erotic and political viewpoints. Some people may categorise Toor as an Orientalist. Far from it. There is none of the 'otherness' in Toor's work and he establishes his citizenship as a Pakistani not by just documenting the scene as an observer enraptured by the exotica of the east but by participating in the narrative, wearing the robe of the artist who has chanced upon his own models, the two boys, in his studio.

Toor's paintings of Jinnah are bound to resonate disharmoniously with sections of the audience who are unused to reflecting on our exiguous heroes as human beings who lived and laughed and erred and gaffed while they also displayed acts of heroism and great intellect. In one painting, Jinnah is shown in a state of undress perceived by the lack of the sherwani or suit collar that would normally have framed his face and in the other he laughs mirthlessly behind a veil. Even more provocative is the portrait of Fatima Jinnah whose flesh is a sensual pink and whose hands fold in towards her breast in a seductive gesture.

Anila Qayyum Agha may have reached out to our intellect to articulate her vision but Salman Toor seizes our imagination. Hopefully when we see them again, they will inhabit different spaces in which to exhibit, and we will be able to measure the work without a yardstick.

 

Statement of change

Established in 1959, All Pakistan Music Conference celebrated its golden jubilee last week

By Sarwat Ali

The All Pakistan Music Conference (APMC) celebrated its golden jubilee befittingly by holding a number of concerts and bestowing Lifetime Achievement Awards at the Alhamra, Lahore last week.

The venue had to be shifted from the Open Air Theatre at the Bagh-e-Jinnah to Alhamra due to reasons of security; otherwise open air theatre has been the home of the Music Conference. A plaque was also unveiled at the site remembering Hayat Ahmed Khan who since its inception was the moving spirit behind the Conference. It was in the late 1950s when a press statement by Roshan Ara Begum that she had given up singing because there was no platform for live classical music, moved a group of concerned listeners of music who formed APMC making Roshan Ara Begum its first patron.

Since then, it has been a long journey which given the conditions in the country may appear to be quite rewarding. The history of the Conference can be divided into three phases -- the first from its inception to the mid 1970s, the second from the mid 1980s to the death of Hayat Ahmed Khan in 2004 and the last from then to date.

The APMC moved in to fill the gap which had been created by the migration of populations and a resultant vacuum in the traditional patronage of classical music. It was clear that the patronage had shifted from the usual feudal classes and provincial courts to a new set of people who were urban dwellers and had little or no connection with the feudal power base. Great exponents like Roshan Ara Begum performed on the radio regularly. Since there were no forums for live concerts she had shifted to her home in Lala Musa from where she travelled  to perform but, as  the opportunities were few, she like many others was  losing heart.

A change of patronage had already taken place in other parts of India much before partition, and as the All India Radio as well as the emerging powerful classes which supported the independence movements gradually took over from the rajwaras and feudal principalities, the great masters too shifted their focus from singing in courts exclusively for their patrons to performances in public like the Music Conferences and the Radio. The brainchild of Pandit Bhathkhande, the man responsible for the transition of classical music from the medieval age into the modern one, the holding of the first Music Conference in the early part of the century was the most definite statement of this change.

Music has been one of the most specialised of the art forms and became its knowledge was transferred from father to son the upbringing of the younger generation at home was inextricably linked to its rigorous training. Since the nexus of the family with the craft has loosened no adequate replacement with the required commitment and level of seriousness has been evolved. The ethos of that regimen seems to have been lost forever. Now we have a whole breed of semi professionals who despite all earnestness, just do not have the required training to become top class musicians. They form a thick set of mediocrity which now determines the standard of performance.

The other forums for the promotion of music, the barsis of ustads and the urs of the famous sufia also have been on the decline and big congregations of musicians are rarely seen at least in the Punjab. Some of the Sufi shrines in Sindh still provide a focal point for musical congregation.

The usual platform of the APMC has played its role and will probably continue to do so but in the case of a drying pool of talent it will hardly have any resources to draw from. The first phase of the Conference can be said to be musically most rewarding because a fairly large number of outstanding practitioners were in their prime. A few years ago another chapter of the Conference was started in Karachi and it seems to be doing fairly well but the radio which provided patronage has already withdrawn its unqualified support and has linked it to the question of popularity. The younger generation has taken to other popular forms which are a mixture of the globalised technologically dominated expression.

It was heard that the APMC planned to open an academy for professional training of musicians but none has appeared on the scene. With very few top class musicians left, it seems that time is running out. If there is any concrete plan it should be put into action sooner than later before there is none left to transfer his skills to the next generation.

 

Alternative truths

Syed Faraz Ali's latest work on show in Lahore is powerful as it forces viewers to confront not just their psychological and sexual identities but also situations that happen daily

By Aasim Akhtar

Historians long ago began to write the history of the body. They have studied the body in the field of historical demography or pathology; but the body is also directly involved in a political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs. This subjection is not only obtained by the instruments of violence and ideology; it can also be direct, physical, pitting force against force, bearing on material elements, and yet without involving violence; it may be calculated, organised, technically thought out; it may be subtle, make use neither of weapons nor of terror and yet remain of a physical order.

In the recent suite of paintings entitled 'All Rights Reserved' by Syed Faraz Ali at Ejaz Galleries, Lahore, the pneumatic bodies, precise brushwork and smooth surfaces that have sometimes seemed bland and ingratiating are put into the service of a horrific theme that gains force from its contrast with the artist's essentially conservative style.

Until 2005, Faraz's figurative paintings depicted generalised images of existential struggle, whether internalised and psychological, as in 'Classified', or actual and physical, as in 'Denial'. His portrayals were not topical but timeless, a metaphoric expression of man alone, struggling against social stresses.

In 2009, as the hostilities in Pakistan continued to escalate, Faraz resolved to replace metaphor with reportage. Over the next year he painted quite a few pictures of war against terrorism, striving for absolute objectivity by drawing his images of men, uniforms, and weapons from news photos and military handbooks. In the first few, he pictured a cavalcade of characters, including a cast of perpetrators and victims wrapped in Pakistani and American flags; survivors, tied and blindfolded, stripped to the waist; men shielding their eyes from searchlights, as in '.'; men in helmets; and bodies stamped with the United States' seal of authentication or the Islamic Republic of Pakistan's scale of justice. In the 'war against terrorism' both appeared to be partners in crime.

In this context, there is something strangely appropriate about Faraz's deliberate invocation of traditional Christian iconography in his paintings and drawings. These paintings are a cry of pain at the pointless suffering inflicted on the victims of war. As the details of this sorry episode recede into history, specifics will be trumped by a larger sense of horror and outrage, and we will be left, once again, with a visual reminder of humanity's capacity for inhumanity.

Frequently Faraz shows men not in action but in their off hours, at play or at rest. Yet their rest is restless: they hang onto their guns, and their interactions are shot through with tension and ambiguity. The uneasy exchange of glances between the soldiers is fraught with uncertainty. We don't know what their eye contact means, what kind of complicity these two killers at rest share, or whether, in fact, one of the glances may be a sexual invitation. What is certain is that these men are very close to us, psychologically and physically. Their figures are cut off at the lower torsos so that we imagine their feet occupying our own space.

The exhibition consists of drawings of men in contorted poses, frozen in a moment of either forceful play or violent death. The figures float unanchored against the background of the white paper, which suggests both extreme flatness and infinite depth. Although the arrangement of individual figures has changed, the basic choreography has remained the same. Yet the models for the drawings are real life individuals from among Faraz's friends whom he posed and photographed. He then drew the figures, omitting details of personality and place and often replacing the body parts of one model with those of another. Such tension between order and disorder in the drawings partly reflects the increasing lack of control we had over our destiny in the late 20th century (consider the impact of AIDS, terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, and increasing corporate ownership) and the resulting need to reassert authority over our lives.

Instead, the focus is now on the victims themselves, as they suffer their torments with grimaces that are often largely obscured by hoods or blindfolds. In the absence of fully visible faces, these near naked bodies become the vehicles of emotional expression.

Central to Faraz's paintings is a struggle to maintain a sense of personal identity in the face of a repressive society that would like to deny his existence. Confronted by a political climate dominated by a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil philosophy, Faraz speaks. He speaks of history, the version we are all taught, and the very different rendition he knows as his story.

Ultimately, printed news, which forms the foundation of the painting, is no comfort for Faraz, for the news media often suppresses history and stories of oppressed groups. The majority of the reports in the background newspaper focus on the polemic.

Faraz insists that he is a realist reporting on situations that happen daily, even if the particular manifestations he presents have been fabricated from disparate photographs. But Faraz's style is hardly photographic. He renders his figures in a harsh, acrid, illustrational mode. Some of the many drawings are done in graphite with accents of red, which bring out bruises and blood. Others are painted entirely in sanguine conte crayon and ink, heightening their emotional urgency. The eroded colours and surfaces of his paintings are raw, dry and irritated, setting us on edge, increasing our discomfort. But we keep looking at them because we know that Faraz is telling us the truth: this is how power operates in the modern world. And we are left uneasy in the knowledge that our own political and corporate leaders provide economic and military assistance to repressive regimes; our investments and taxes support the crimes to which Faraz's canvases bear witness. Confronted with these images of violence, unable to intervene, we are not permitted to look away; we are implicated.

Faraz's work is powerful because it makes no concessions; it forces viewers to confront their psychological and sexual identities, their fears, and their hysteria. In a visual language that is bold and complex, Faraz turns the world inside out. In place of history he presents alternative truths. In place of complacency he offers action. In response to attempts to silence him he amplifies gestures of refusal.

The show opens on February 28, at Ejaz Galleries, Lahore

 

Blood ties

Dear All,

A memoir called My name is Victoria spotlights once again the amazing stories of the children of the 'disappeared' political activists of Argentina's dirty war. These were the children of political dissidents who had been rounded up, tortured and killed; the children who were taken from their parents and illegally adopted and raised by their parents' oppressors. These children learned the truth of their true history many years later thanks to the persistence of the mothers of many of the missing activists, the group known as the Grannies of the Plaza de Mayo (Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo), who never gave up their campaign and kept a DNA bank of the disappeared so that they would be able to identify the lost children.

My name is Victoria is one such story: Seven years ago a 26-year-old woman called Analia learnt that her biological parents were among the thousands of political activists rounded up by the military junta, that she had been born while her mother was in captivity, that she had been adopted by one of the torturers... For two and half decades she had believed herself to be somebody and then discovered she was actually somebody else... She discovered that she was Victoria Donda. She came to terms with this revelation and then carried on her parents' struggle for a more egalitarian and progressive society by becoming a left-wing MP, Argentina's youngest MP.

She also discovered that her younger 'sister' was also a stolen child, the child of an executed prisoner. But one of the most harrowing twists in her story was the discovery that her mother's brother, a naval office who objected to their political views, had been instrumental in her parents' arrest. And she learned that she had a sister two years older than her, born before her mothers' imprisonment -- a sister who had been taken away and raised by this very uncle. Although she was able to meet her mother's mother, her uncle and sister refused to meet her, divided by history as well as politics, the sister having been raised in the belief that her parents had "sacrificed her for their political activism," had more sympathy for the military than for the victims.

Victoria Donda still speaks to her adoptive father, who like her uncle is on trial for his part in the murders of the dirty war, but she says "it's like a wound that will never heal". And she believes her story is an essential part of coming to terms with the country's painful history, and that Truth will always prevail: "I would like my story to permit certain people to know the truth can remain hidden but that it will always triumph in the end."

Tryth will prevail? A comforting thought, that...

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

 

 

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