Taj and theatre
A minefield of information about Imtiaz Ali Taj and his first love
By Sarwat Ali
The recently published book by Majlis Tarraqi-e-Abad titled Imtiaz Ali Taj Ki Tamseel Shanasi and edited by Muhammed Salim Malik is a minefield of information about the man and his first love — theatre.

Beyond rational discourse

The government is in no position to take the phalanx of orthodox forces head-on

By I. A. Rehman

The assassination of Governor Salmaan Taseer and the installation of the killer in the pantheon of heroes by Pakistan’s largest Muslim sect confirm the urgency of a review of the strategy for a discourse on the two most fundamental issues — the nature of the Pakistan state and which of the several interpretations of Islam it should recognise and follow.

Any unbiased assessment of the objective reality will prove that the state has lost the capacity to assert its authority against extremists flying the religious standard and that the largest Muslim sect, Ahle Sunnat wal-Jamat, or Barelvis as they are variously called, have found in the defence of the blasphemy law a means to pressurise the state and block the path of the Taliban who are led by the Deobandi-Wahabi axis.

The difference of opinion on the status of prophethood between the Barelvis and the Wahabis is no secret. The Muslims of the subcontinent, especially of Punjab, have not forgotten what the Saudi Arabian government did to the Jannat-ul-Baqih. When the two sects fought for the control of the Badshahi Masjid in Lahore in the 1980s one of them had inscribed only Allah on its banners while the other wielded sticks under the banner of ‘Muhammad’ (PBUH) or simply ‘Rasool-Allah’ (PBUH).

Last week’s events show that the Ahle Sunnat have been encouraged by the rival sects’ inability to disagree with them on the question of Tahafuzz-i-Namoos-i-Rasool (PBUH) (protection of the Holy Prophet’s [PBUH] dignity). The unprecedented edict issued by several hundred clerics denying Salmaan Taseer the right to Islamic funeral prayers means that the Ahle Sunnat, who had been relegated hitherto to a secondary status vis-à-vis the smaller but richer and better armed Deobandi faction now feel strong enough to claim the overall leadership of the faithful.

True, the doctrinal disagreements between the main Muslim sects will eventually drive them towards a sanguinary conflict. They may have to go a long way before the ordinary Pakistani Muslims confer the mantle of political leadership on them. However, there should be no doubt that an alliance of orthodox scholars and clerics may soon start bidding for power. The threat to the democratic foundations of the state has grown many times over.

The government is in no position to take the phalanx of orthodox forces head-on. It is likely to surpass its predecessor authorities in buying security through more vigorous policies of appeasement. The political authority also faces increasing isolation from other organs/institutions of the state. The political parties in opposition have already demonstrated lack of interest in resisting the surge in the forces of religious bigotry. The civil armed forces and perhaps the judiciary too are in the same category. Even the armed forces are unlikely to be ready for a repeat of the Lal Masjid. That leaves a section of the civil society as the only real defenders of democratic governance.

Can these elements of civil society save the democratic experiment? They can, in the long run if not in the short term, by adopting a feasible strategy that should be based on a correct assessment of the reality on the ground. They must realise that matters have gone beyond a rational debate on the blasphemy law and that democrats are in a minority in Pakistan. Until they become a majority, does not matter if they are largely passive supporters’ of democracy and not active ones, things cannot change for the better. The declining capacity of minority forces to run a state in modern times is the most unforgettable lesson of the reverses democratic forces suffered in Chile, Nicaragua and Afghanistan.

Secondly, while resisting the trend towards Pakistan’s transformation into a complete theocracy they must not ignore the fact that in an economically under-developed country where feudal thinking is extremely strong, a frontal attack on the religious sensibilities of the majority will be fatal to the advocates of change. This majority’s mindset will change only when democratic outfits start delivering on their promise, economic progress makes dents in the feudal social order, and the faithful are exposed to the liberal interpretation of their faith.

Thirdly, it is imperative that the civil society shifts its focus from the symptoms of a deep-rooted malaise, such as militancy and discriminatory laws and practices, to the root causes of Pakistan’s progressive deviation from its foundational ideals.

All this means that it is necessary to launch a fresh and vigorous discourse on the nature of the state. The democrats are right in claiming that Pakistan was meant to be a democratic state of the Muslims living within its geographical confines and not a religious state but a majority’ of the Pakistanis have been converted to the political heresy that Pakistan was created in the name of Islam and must be a fortress of its orthodoxy.

For the consolidation of this view of Pakistan only a little credit can be given to political clerics who had opposed the Pakistan idea and eventually started claiming to be its original authors, and much greater role has been played by others. By the time the Quaid-i-Azam died, the rulers of Pakistan had started using religion to cover up their deviations from the democratic path. The authors of the first constitution laid the foundation of a theocracy.

From 1952 onwards Pakistan remained under the spell of the Cold War ideologues who declared that Pakistan’s religious identity was the sole guarantee of its survival. The 1965 war with India and the 1970-71 war with Bengali Pakistanis were fought under the religious standard.

The founders of the PPP acknowledged the pull of belief by declaring Islam as one of the polity’s pillars. Later on they fell for King Faisal’s theory of Islamic nationalism and the second amendment and the Islamic Summit both came in 1974. In the second half of the seventies, General Zia concocted a new theory of jihad (by young men who knew little of Islam and the world) and revised the definition of a Muslim in the constitution. Thus, the state has steadily moved away from the Quaid’s concept of Pakistan and towards its definition by Gen. Zias or junior clerics. Is anyone surprised at rose petals being showered on Salmaan Taseer’s assassin?

In addition, the state has ignored the need to ensure the people’s access to the liberal traditions of Islam for which the Muslims of the subcontinent were known from the 16th century till partition. There was a time when it was possible for the Institute of Islamic Culture to publish Khalifa Abdul Hakim’s book on democracy and egalitarianism as integral parts of the Islamic Ideology or Justice S. A. Rahman’s rebuttal of the theory about the beheading of apostates (one wonders why these books and much of Iqbal have not yet been proscribed). But for the last 30 years or so, the field has been left open to theological hair-splitters, obscurantists and preachers of hatred. Forget the texts being taught in madrassas, and just take a look at the bulk of religious tracts that are published year after year and which are read by people across the country.

On the other hand, the Pakistani people are completely unaware of the research on Islam being carried out in different parts of the world. Those who dare to disagree with the orthodox view of Islam cannot stay in Pakistan.

All those who wish to save Pakistan for democracy, humanism and peace must accept the challenge of changing the popular concept of the Pakistan state and affording the people possibilities of purging their concept of Islam of the accretions made by exploiters of belief for political reasons. This is going to be a long haul but there is much comfort in Saadi’s dictum,

(Take the correct path even though it is a longer route to the destination.)


"I want to create a utopic scenario"

One of Pakistan’s most promising artists,

Ahmed Ali Manganhar talks about his art making, inspirations — and his faith in the tenets of being a purist painter

By Nafisa Rizvi

Ahmed Ali Manganhar is an anomaly in the art world of Pakistan. In an age when formalism is considered an inadequate conduit of expression, insufficient to embrace the diversities of contemporaneity, he has remained an intransigent formal painter. One of Pakistan’s most promising artists, Manganhar has divested himself from the pursuance of art as a career and taken on an alternate path of more resistance, viewing his art as a life to be led and not as a life to be made. His singular focus is to paint, undistracted by marketing his works or himself as an artist.

Yet he is by no means reclusive and is in fact eager to share his art and opinions with people of his own ilk and is grateful for buyers. But he paints because art is a construct of his molecular physiological structure. If he is able to do this without pretension it is because he has minimised his material needs to such an extent that a skeletal framework for existence is all he requires. "When you let go of material aspirations, the making of art becomes easier because you can devote all your time to the creative process. Even if you are not making art, you can spend the time thinking about it, ruminating over its complexities and sharing your ideas with people who can offer insight," says Ahmed Ali Manganhar.

There are very few Pakistani artists who can be located in this metaphysical space; that too at such an early age; and if we refer to him as an authentic artist, it is not a flippant overstatement.

Manganhar’s encounter with the aesthetic experience began as a child when he watched billboard artists recreating scenes from Urdu movies to be released. "The immense scale, the unnatural colours of the billboard artist’s palette, coupled with the heightened anticipation of watching the movie with my favourite heroes and villains in action, was thrilling for me as a child."

The gleeful abandonment of those glory days has left an indelible impression on him. Manganhar paints people and scenes from movies — but there is more to the images than meets the eye. For this artist, celluloid archives are the books of wisdom wherein all is written and all shall be revealed.

The way common people ‘take out’ a faal is the way Manganhar captures stills from movies and reconstructs them — as answers to all questions and resolutions to all concerns that are presented to him. The scenes are his visual signifiers and referents. "A curator once asked me to contribute a piece to an exhibition that dealt with the notion of love and romance. I saw a scene in one of Guru Dutt’s movies in which he has been jilted and his tears are trickling down his face. I painted the scene with the tears in red because they were khoon kay ansoo," he says.

On another occasion, he met a lady and irked by her vapidity, he painted the portrait of a currently popular but unsavoury Indian film actress, and audiences wondered why he would choose to portray a heroine of such meagre standing, little knowing the sentiment behind the picture. Many times, he says, he sees his own image in the movies, a moment caught in time or a hint in the physiognomy of the actor when he is reminded of a thought or emotive nuance that he has himself experienced and paints it.

Inspired by the billboard artist, and on the urging of Fatah Halepoto, Manganhar set off to discover the pedagogical aspects of art and found his way to NCA. He was a gifted student but in many ways he remained annoyingly non-conformist, not wanting to align himself with the post-modernists that were ruling the roost with their artful installations and slick assemblages. He was told by a senior artist and teacher that he must put aside his prehistoric ideas of being a formalist painter and join the ranks of more popular forms of aesthetic development or he would fade into anonymity. "I was told repeatedly that I should give up antiquated notions of being a purist painter because painting was dead and I would be doomed to a quick professional death." Thankfully, he remained true to his personal credo and his faith in the tenets of being a purist painter stood unwaveringly even when buffeted by the winds of change.

The technique Manganhar uses in his paintings are reminiscent of the layering and building of the paint on the canvas by billboard artists. "It was customary for the junior billboard painter to apply the base coats of paint in soft thin washes, after which the senior artist or master would then enter the production process and add the final layer as well as the highlights — the glint in the eye, the flush of the cheek." Manganhar’s paintings stop short of the final strokes of completion and yet remarkably, his paintings are not inchoate because the narrative has been told and its truths validated.

In his own quixotic way, Manganhar applies the same kind of layering to his cerebral functioning. He believes that art is a culmination of a series of mental gymnastics combining left and right brain functions, with the latter supplying verifiable data and the former producing creative cogitation. In one of his paintings, a portrait of Seth Naonmal Hotchand, Manganhar captures the essence of this controversial character from the annals of the history of Sindh who, by some accounts, sold out to the British and is considered a traitor by the people of the province. But the artwork is far more than a portrait. It encompasses the historical saga of a province leeched by colonists and betrayed by its own landlords. On a third level, the image is a very personal portrayal of loss and falsehood, betrayal and deception.

Manganhar is a restive spirit. He likes to take spontaneous trips to smaller villages and towns to study the anthropological resonances of that particular place. He goes often to Sehwan Sharif and absorbs the atmosphere of the thronging devotees and to connect on a spiritual level. "I went off to Jacobabad once, not knowing anyone who lived there but the people of the city took me in and made me feel at home. I painted several paintings inspired by that trip."

Manganhar’s oeuvre in the muted colours of the desert landscape comprises visual collages of memories and lived experiences. There are many portraits of colonial Sahibs with their fashionable beards and monocles and visual renderings of unidentified Mirs and Talpurs of the province. Through these representations of known and anonymous people, Manganhar confronts issues of power structures and feudalism.

Undoubtedly, Manganhar’s art overshoots the paradigms of temporality and viscerality of physical paint on canvas by far. Although this commendation may be applied to a few more artists of Pakistan, he is different in that he embraces the opinions and positions of other artists willingly if he sees merit in them. In fact he has consciously articulated an intellectual space in which discussion and debate abounds and the fact that he is vocal and sagely as well as amiable makes him a magnet for his peers and younger artists, chiefly those who belong to Sindh — although he has his fair share of sceptics and disbelievers all around. "We assemble frequently and talk about our art and exchange views, opinions and even techniques about how to resolve certain procedural concerns," he says.

Manganhar theorises that at least in some measure it is this unconstrained and non-judgmental forum for discourse that has led to a burgeoning of ranks amongst artists issuing from urban and semi-urban Sindh. "On the other hand, it has exposed many artists and their weaknesses, particularly those who are tendentiously derivative in their work," he claims.

Manganhar has lived in Lahore now for 16 years and though he has taught and worked relentlessly through the years, he feels the spirit of his home town in Tando Allahyar beckoning him and imbuing edginess in his spirit. His singular focus now is his own production. "Even teaching which inspires and stimulates some artists has become a distraction for me. I want to create a utopic scenario where I paint, I read, I watch movies and leave myself room and space for reflective musings. In that space I will grow."

Of course what he doesn’t mention, but is fully cognisant of, is that he will be reduced to eking out a living. But that is his destiny and he yearns for it.

Iqbal Geoffrey’s art breaks the boundaries, within the discipline as well as beyond it

By Quddus Mirza

"I took two hundred drawings to Ali Imam and asked him to pick 100 pieces, which he thought, would be the best; and he chose one hundred works on paper. After that I asked him to get me a bottle — an ordinary empty bottle. He brought one, and then I burned those hundred drawings, which in his opinion were the best, and collected their ash in the bottle. This I called the essence of art, a kushta, from which everybody could get one or two doses."

Recalling the anecdote, Iqbal Geoffrey remembers that the visitors to his one person show with Ali Imam (on March 15, 1989, at the Indus Gallery in Karachi) used to take one or two portions of ashes of his most "exquisite" paintings.

But what happened to his other works? According to him, some were sold, the rest were safely stored with a relative in Karachi and are now being shown at his solo exhibition (being held from Dec 20, 2010, to Jan 10, 2011) at Koel Gallery, Karachi along with his most recent paintings.

The exhibition consists of works from various phases of Iqbal Geoffrey’s oeuvre — ranging from his painted surfaces to collages and ink and mixed media drawings on paper. A number of these have been displayed in previous shows, while other works are seen for the first time in Karachi. So in a sense the exhibition serves as a mini retrospective of the artist, who won Paris Biennial in 1965, lived in Europe and America since 1960, and returned to his homeland in 1990. During all these years he has been producing works — in his unmistakeable ‘Geoffrey genre’ — and has exhibited both in Pakistan and internationally.

The art of Geoffrey has a unique quality, with its unusual approach towards concept, imagery and materials. These elements emerge in his work in a completely unexpected scheme, often for a short duration, since works keep on changing their forms after each display or a couple of years. So the works of Geoffrey remain part of a singular aesthetics that is manifested in a variety of techniques and mediums but possesses an individual trait.

That trait is the way Geoffrey looks at the world and twists and turns and transforms it. Not only in his art but in his life too, where he engages with the lawsuits of public interest and human rights issues, posing a threat to the status quo. A similar temperament is apparent in his art, with its challenging vocabulary and unconventional position, which was anticipated by Ali Imam in 1989 as: "The arrival of Geoffrey on the art scene in Pakistan may topple many applecarts."

Like the potential of threat envisaged by Imam in the late eighties, the pictorial construction of Geoffrey has continued in the last decade of twenty first century. Segments from different sources are collected, composed and recreated with a sense of humour and deep set irony. Due to their formal features, one finds a strong link between new and old works as Geoffrey explores the unexpected dimension of his ‘material’ (in terms of concepts and images) in these, thus presenting a combination of seemingly unplanned marks and carefully-arranged visuals.

So the difference between the past and the present ceases to have any meaning, more so because the works keep on regenerating as new pieces from the older versions. Hence the idea of development or progress apparently does not hold much significance at least in the art of Iqbal Geoffrey.

Carefully looking at his art from across periods, one encounters a reality often neglected both by the viewers and art writers. Actually, Iqbal Geoffrey has been merging two sides of his self in his art. His activities as a lawyer and his standing as an artist, two contrasting careers, have blended in his art pieces. The art-making has turned into an exclusive pursuit in an elitist and selective environment; exhibitions, art discourses and other art related activities take place within a small and enclosed circle. The profession of law, on the other hand, provides an opportunity to deal with a larger general public on regular terms, making the lawyers aware of public issues.

In Iqbal Geoffrey’s example, the façade of a (public) lawyer and function of an artist are being negotiated in his art pieces as well as in his writ petitions. His files, letters and other legal documents could have easily been exhibited as works of art (and may be one day these will!), and likewise his works of art aim to alter the notion of art as the preciously manufactured or marketed aesthetic pieces. The casual arrangement of materials, the ease in handling the medium and the convenient scale can be considered as attempts to bring art down from its high social, cultural and economic status and to (re-)make it an accessible expression.

Iqbal Geoffrey’s art breaks the boundaries, within the discipline as well as beyond it, so much so, that now he des not need to convert his paintings into Kushtas anymore. The work itself is about the essence of art!


Taj and theatre

A minefield of information about Imtiaz Ali Taj and his first love

By Sarwat Ali

The recently published book by Majlis Tarraqi-e-Abad titled Imtiaz Ali Taj Ki Tamseel Shanasi and edited by Muhammed Salim Malik is a minefield of information about the man and his first love — theatre.

The cardinal issue for many including Imtiaz Ali Taj had been the quality of theatre and the lack of acceptance of it among the pantheon of the arts. He seemed to be acutely aware of the problem and was writing analytically about the causes, both historical and social, for the way it was perceived by the literate of this land.

It is generally assumed that the quality or type of theatre in our midst was not considered worthy of debate in the past. It was only later in the past three decades or so that this became a burning issue and started to bother writers who were either poets or fiction writers ready to make a foray into the forbidden area of the performing arts.

The assumption has been proved to be an incorrect reading of the situation if the book under review is taken as an example, for Imtiaz Ali Taj was concerned even in the days before independence as to what the form of theatre was going to be, ridding itself of some of the historical baggage associated with it. He was of the view that the inheritance of theatre had very little to do with the ancient Sanskrit theatre, best represented by Shakuntala and Ratnawali and that the big hiatus of about a thousand years that saw theatre being reborn really took off with the lavish patronage from the Nawab of Awadh, Nasiruddin and then Wajid Ali. He attributed the type of theatre that evolved in that period to the objective conditions that prevailed then. According to him, the rulers that lost all political power and with the ample resources at hand were more involved in indulgence at all levels including through the arts. A kind of theatre took shape that had all the elements of fantasy with very little to do with the reality on ground. The exaggerated emphasis on fantasy made them rely overtly on glamour, myths and legends laden with overwhelming role of music and dance.

He also attributed this to the influence of French advisors who emphasised that the kind of theatre in their own country was largely operatic in nature. Awadh had many French advisors and people who were both advising and fighting for the kingdom against the British/East India Company domination. One colonial power was aiding the local rulers so as to checkmate the other dominant and more influential colonial power in the Indian sub continent. On the suggestion of those advisors Wajid Ali Shah conceived theatre as based on music and dance with very little or no dialogue and placed in an area that was more fantastical than real. All these hallmarks of the opera did not have any linkage or connection with the ancient Sanskrit theatre which had been lost in the battle between Buddhism and Brahmanism during the first millennium.

Since the eighteenth century in Europe a new form was introduced and then institutionalised which had for its formal aspects life as it appeared to us. The best example of this new formal introduction was the novel as it rose steadily during the next century to become one of the major platforms of literary expression. This realism was further indemnified by the influence of findings in natural sciences and theories derived from Marxism during the course of the century. The same trend continued well into the twentieth century when all kinds of realisms were glorified including socialist and critical realism.

Anything not written in a realistic form was not considered worthy of serious consideration as it was labelled as escapist and indulging in fantasy. But during the later half of the twentieth century, fantasy staged a comeback and was placed right in the middle of the literary/artistic discourse. As if to make it palatable the word realism was not dropped but a qualifying word was added instead. Many other names were coined for the re-entry of fantasy but the most mentioned has been magical realism.

Now, of course, there is no watertight compartmentalisation between realism and fantasy. The two have come together again with varying proportion in yet another attempt at a meaningful interaction with the unknown. Even if we look at our classical literature nearly all of it does not fall within the ambit of realism as it is known and defined in the West.

During the early days of the encounter with the East, the scholarship that gave birth to Orientalism, the literature and the arts of the East were either treated as a mystique or outrightly dismissed as harbouring the fantastical not worthy of serious consideration. Now there is a renewed interest in classics which weave their narrating without distinction of the real and the fantastical. The recent interest in one of the greatest works of our literature Dastaan e Amir Hamza is a testimony to that. Without preconceived notions the works are being looked at again in the light of the redefinitions of literature and the arts in a world that has outstripped Eurocentrism.

The performing arts, especially dance, drama and films, are still looked askance at by most and not given their artistic due. Somewhere in the past couple of centuries the moral opprobrium against the arts got entangled with the Victorian prudery to set up conditions for the understanding of the arts. After so many decades it appears that we have not really been able to rid ourselves of the prejudices and conditions which were established then.

It is about time we revisited our past and made an attempt to place the critical conditions on to a solid basis derived from the works themselves, rather than be smug about importing them from outside.

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