Silent night
The first of a three part series of exhibitions dedicated to the memory of Salmaan Taseer
By Ali Sultan  
In a strange twist of fate, barely 36 hours before the greatest moment of painter Francis Bacon’s life —the opening of his retrospective exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris— his companion of many ears, George Dyer, committed suicide in the hotel room they were sharing. They say Bacon showed rare powers of self control. He took care of the medical formalities; he later showed up at the exhibition on time, never once showing anyone that it was perhaps the unhappiest day of his life, but he lived and we live.

Rumour mills
Dear All,
So there I was sitting in yet another Karachi drawing room listening to yet another diatribe against the ‘corruption’ of the government and the sad state of affairs in the country...
Blah, blah, blah. The refrain in these instances is, roughly, always the same: that “things have never been so bad”, that the “government is corrupt”, that the root of all evil in this world is called Asif Zardari.


Many parents as well as teachers (of other subjects) feel that art is a non-essential subject and children/students should therefore not be made to “waste” their valuable time indulging in art-related activities. There seems little use for the subject in their minds, and it is looked upon much as music, drama and dance are seen (as extra-curricular pursuits offered in a handful of schools).

The magic and mystique of the awareness and appreciation of art is snatched away from our children’s lives at an early age and, in its place, a highly regulated process of reproduction of drawings is usually taught in the name of art. Similarly, it has been proved that colouring books tend to diminish children’s own creativity, originality and curiosity as they are not required to observe, imagine and draw but only to “fill in the blanks.”

Education comes alive when students are encouraged to reach beyond their books. Also, fostering positive ideas and encouraging the visual and performing arts can do away with many inhibitions and prejudices.

Over the last three decades, I have had personal experience of teaching art as well as of conducting workshops for art teachers who may not have had any formal education in art. In recent years I have noticed that there are always some participants who refuse to draw human figures, and even if they concede to work, say on a self-portrait, they resist drawing recognisable details such as eyes, often “quoting” from religious texts for my benefit:  those who indulge in such activities will surely burn in hell.

The majority of schools in the country are government-run schools in which the prescribed syllabus set by the National Curriculum Board is generally followed. Art education is of the least priority in these schools.  Whereas, from the moment a child is able to hold a pencil, a piece of chalk, crayon or even a piece of coal, she should be encouraged to play randomly and to explore her skills with line and colour, texture and perspective. Instead, an artificial and formal drawing regime, devoid of creative vitality, is forced upon children at the most receptive period of their lives — the primary school level. 

The opportunity to discover the artist within each child is therefore wasted, and nurturing of the arts is promoted only in a lukewarm manner. This, in effect, discourages and inhibits the growth of individual talent. Also, a systematic approach towards confidence building in children, using the visual and performing arts as vehicles, is therefore lacking. Moreover, schools revel in promoting only those students who are naturally confident and have an edge over their peers. This is sheer discrimination.

The artist Paul Klee once said, “Make your pupils acquainted with nature, let them see how a butterfly becomes a butterfly, so that they may learn to be as rich and versatile and original as nature itself.”

Let us ask ourselves if we ever encourage students to observe the dramatic climatic swings, the gentle pitter-patter of raindrops in the school yard, the mystical colours of a rainbow, a dancing beam of sunlight, the chirping of birds or the noise of crows announcing a catastrophe. In most cases the answer is in the negative, and while all these wonderful occurrences are taking place right outside the classroom, chances are that our children are devoid of appreciating these deep spiritual experiences.

Moral-building and character-building remain high on the list of vital teachings in most schools, and children rote-learn the prescriptive attributes that are supposed to make them into good “Muslims.” Moreover, the education departments of all the four provinces have shut their eyes towards the presence of non-Muslim pupils in schools, which itself is another tragedy of the education system.

Schools need to develop an approach that provides support for the implementation of the various experiences of life by incorporating the visual arts into the core curriculum for all students. A sort of multi-media and all-inclusive approach is required, whereby the arts programme in every school is not only comprehensive and sequential, but also thematically integrated with other courses being taught at each stage. Students thus become more diligent and sensitive, exploring and understanding the world through observation and activity.

It is common practice in many schools to organise art and drama activities on special occasions such as the Parents’ Day or the Annual Concert. On such occasions they showcase their “liberal” outlook by holding an art exhibition and/or a theatrical extravaganza which is also useful for the school’s image. However, these should form an ongoing and regular component of the school curriculum rather than once or twice a year activities only.

As a part of opening students’ minds further, a nexus of art and our collective national heritage should be created. Excursions to heritage buildings/sites and to art galleries, museums and art schools within the reach of primary schools would be quite helpful in this regard. By integration of the arts with the more “formal” subjects such as languages, math and social studies, schools can encourage students to freely explore and develop their talents, in the hope of becoming not only better informed  citizens, but also citizens with a sensitivity and pride in their culture and artistic heritage.




My first exposure to the music performed at Bhit Shah was in the early 1980s. Bhit Shah was a very small settlement around the mound that housed the shrine of Abdul Lateef alongside a large pond, which had mythological association with him. Every Thursday the hamlet would come to life with thousands of devotees thronging to the shrine to pay homage to the sufi. It was a different matter on the occasion of the Urs as hundred of thousands of pilgrims visited the shrine for three days. A whole bazaar sprang up for the visitors and the place buzzed with activity of all kinds as people slept, ate and loitered around the shrine and its environment — living the true spirit of an annual Urs of the subcontinent.

But the focus of the rites every Thursday as indeed on the occasion of the Urs is music sung at the shrine of the saint. When I first heard the music in the outer courtyard of the shrine, which was in the form of a chant I could not determine my reaction to the seemingly unmusical quality of vocal music.

There were three strains that were sung, one that alternated between the second and the third octave, the second who was in either the fourth or the fifth octave, so high that its pitch sounded more like a desperate shriek, and the choral chant in the middle octave along with rhythmic accompaniment of the dhambora.

As time passed, the alternation of the first two strands began to grow on me and its pull became gradually irresistible. The music was very moving and effective, it had all the qualities to captivate and it was not the ordinary sound that one associated with music or with singing. Despite my exposure to the various forms and styles of music its intonation was unique in its production and impact. The tone of the voice needed immense practice to be produced through a constricted throat.

I knew that Shah Lateef had selected 36 raginis. Thirty earmarked for the exclusive singing of his own poetry while six were used for singing other compositions. The raags of classical music mentioned in his works are Kalyan, Khambhat, Siri, Suhni, Sarang, Kedara, Desi, Baruva Hindi, Sorath, Baruva Sindhi, Ramkali, Bilawal, Asa, Dhanasari, Purbi, Kamod, Yaman, Husaini and Basant. He retained Kalyan, Khambhat and Bilawal in their shudh (original) state because these constituted the three basic thaats to which belong some other melodies of the group. 14 other melodies of the classical tradition were retained in the form in which they were sung by the people, as the functional compositions of each of these melodies do not necessarily conform exactly to their classical prototypes. The following seventeen were selected from Sindhi folk music Samundi, Abri, Madhoor, Kohiyaree, Rana, Khahoree, Rip, Lilan, Dahar, Kapaitee, Pirbhati, Ghatu, Seenh Kadaro, Marui, Dhol Maru, Hir and Karayal.

As I went to the shrine before midnight in search of the source of the sound I was even more intrigued. Those days the shrine was not lit up with the vulgarity of full flashing lights as it is done these days. As the night fell, the light and sound played hide and seek adding to the mystery of the occasion. With the night deepening, the shadows started to lengthen and a kind of eeriness descended on the place with the sound of this very disturbing music heard with varying intensities. In front of the main shrine, I saw four musicians sitting with instruments, the dhamboris upright in their hands, dressed in black, had matted hair wearing dozens of bead necklaces and rings of all kinds and shapes. The air was thick with smoke and by the door of the shrine which was bolted, an elderly woman lay on the floor tied to the handle of the door.

These musicians chanted endlessly throughout the night as other sets of musicians similarly dressed and carrying the same aura replaced them on a regular basis. The wai was in the form of a chant where seemingly one chant by a vocalist was reciprocated by the other to the strumming of the dhambori. After about half an hour the group broke into a choral rendition again to the playing of the dhombori time with the regularity of a rhythmic cycle.

It was a strange sight and as the night became deeper it really became very moving and there was hardly any chance of escaping the effect of music and the impact of the entire environment. There was something very terrifying in that scene but it so riveted me to the spot that even if I wanted to move out due to the intensity of the happening it was not possible to do so. It was strangely captivating. I have visited the shrine many times since to listen to music and imbibe the scene and inhale the ethos. It has a magical quality about it.

These musicians have been made to sing outside the environs of the shrine and have since been also taken to international festivals of so called mystic music. Gradually these musicians also have made regular appearance of television programmes and other shows. The performance is much changed, pruned and made palatable. The length of the performance is also regulated and the intonation too is directed and controlled. The appearance of the musicians have become respectable, the hair and the necklaces and the rings all cleverly made up. Their performance has become a concert item.

But the impact and the effectiveness of the performance on the shrine in the early hours of the morning with darkness all over, some elderly women tied to the door of the shrine and the alternating chant with the thumping on the dhambori is perhaps lost forever. Its strange other worldly quality has gone missing. It has been uprooted from its soil and environment and has lost the flush of its peculiarity.

This year I received an unusual message from an artist wishing me a happy new year on the first of Muharam. The imagery of the first month of the Islamic year is that of blood. Devotees observe their period of mourning by replicating — in a symbolic way — what happened to Imam Hussain, the grandson of Holy Prophet (pbuh).

However the Muslim communities, which do not follow the Shiite faith, also experience scenes of blood and gore. Each year, exactly a month before the Ashura, the day of martyrs at Karbala, the entire Muslim population offers sacrifice; goats, cows and camels are slaughtered in the name of God. The ritual of sacrifice demands witnessing the slaughter, hearing animal’s last cries, and watching how the blood oozes out of the freshly sliced throat.

Each year we see these scenes which have a religious and ritualistic significance in our belief system. So if our artists are obsessed with images of violence, it should not come as a surprise. The fascination with blood and violent acts may be rooted in our experience of looking at these from close-hand. This first hand encounter with slaughter of animals or self-flogging to the extent of bleeding has no parallel in other societies. So, naturally, our artists are more inclined to take violence as their favourite subject.

With these demonstrations of violence embedded in our cultural experience, the modern day violence has added another dimension.

Long time before the society’s actual brush with terrorism, bomb blasts and mass killings, violence became a favourite topic for our film makers. Punjabi movie, Maula Jutt, was the first such depiction of brutality, which led to a number of other attempts in presenting barbarity in a glorious guise. The audience would admire and identify with the hero — or villain — who instead of relying on a legal procedure prefers to take matters in his hand and resolves disputes and conflicts through his gun, knife or machete.

In the present times, the society is faced with the reality of violence — incidents like explosions, bomb blasts, suicide attacks reported in the media are an everyday occurrence. During the same time, we have witnessed a new phenomenon: of public justice (which must not be confused with ‘popular’ justice). Mobs in the streets of Karachi, Gujranwala and Sialkot hunted down criminals and lynched them before any court proceedings sometimes in front of the police.

Due to these shows of public ferocity, when a security guard decides to assassinate the very same person he is supposed to save from enemies, he is glorified by millions for his great deed. We seem to have forgotten that if each individual takes the roles of accuser, judge and executioner, the society may not survive as a civilized setup. But, like Maula Jutt, the act of a murderer is exalted by a large section of the population — not only on some sentimental or religious grounds, but due to that instinct which celebrates the ritualistic annihilation of animals, or the hunt of beasts and burdens for the simple pleasure of human beings.

Arguably, the killing of animals cannot be equated with the assassination of human beings, since one is ordained by God and the other is prohibited by Him. Artists in this situation face a dilemma. They are unable to avoid the scene of death around them. The creative person who is trying to communicate with his audience has to communicate with himself first; he is thus bound to pick these subjects. However there are various aspects of the theme, because the issue of violence can easily be understood as a sensational subject, both by the local spectators and international viewers. Thus the immediate concerns for a creative person is — how to deviate from the ‘news-item-ness’ of the subject and transform it into an artwork of sustainable and substantial quality.

This is a difficult task but has been achieved by a number of contemporary artists here, including Rashid Rana (Red Carpet) and Imran Qureshi (You Who are my Love and Life’s Enemy Too), where the immediate is translated into a language that draws its understanding/source from the images and practices rooted in the past. Hence the present is comprehended through investigating and exposing the tradition in art, but in life also (because apart from our culture or faith, in our physiognomy, too, the past breathes in the present.) So the remembrance of martyrs of fourteen hundred years ago, or following the custom of Abraham’s sacrificing lamb (in the place of his son) is not about history, but is a way of responding to ourselves, both as part of a society with a certain system of beliefs and as an individual who just loves the colour of blood.



Silent night
The first of a three part series of exhibitions dedicated to the memory of Salmaan Taseer
By Ali Sultan

In a strange twist of fate, barely 36 hours before the greatest moment of painter Francis Bacon’s life —the opening of his retrospective exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris— his companion of many ears, George Dyer, committed suicide in the hotel room they were sharing. They say Bacon showed rare powers of self control. He took care of the medical formalities; he later showed up at the exhibition on time, never once showing anyone that it was perhaps the unhappiest day of his life, but he lived and we live.

There is a small crowd gathered in the cold outside Drawing Room Art Gallery. The mood is quiet, except for a few scrapings of boot soles, some hushed undertones of conversations melting away in the cold night. And as Najam Sethi speaks into a mic about his very last conversations with Taseer, the gathered crowd, the silent night take notice that his voice neither cracks nor changes intonation, it may have been somber, but never weak and one would think of Francis Bacon in Paris that night, because he lived and we must as well.

The show inside, strangely is also somber, subdued. There are no blood stains, no traces of violence in any of the pieces, —except perhaps Quddus Mirza and Faiza Butt— yet because these art works are themselves “letters” to a man brutally killed; they carry a charged air, a heavy air, bigger than their parts.

Noor Ali Chagani’s Frozen and Silence structures made mostly out of Terracotta bricks and cement display almost a didactic simplicity, both show brick walls but one has some space to peak through, as to start a conversation, or to get something, someone across. The other completely closed off, almost bitterly.

But while Chagani might be making a simpler statement, Mohammad Ali Talpur is speaking in tongues. Mashq, ink on paper, in a replication of squares and patterns that look like water bubbles (read tears) Talpur spins out optical illusions, formalism and a bewildering sense of sadness, what you see from afar is not what you see from a close distance, what you may feel now, you may not feel that later.

Thankfully Quddus Mirza and Faiza Butt delve into the cluttered, painful ambiguous parts of letter writing. Butt’s lightbox Zaever Zangeer is a messy white monolith, prose poems in both English and Urdu scribbled angrily on either side, covered with cigarette butts, bones, plastic bags, old thrown away letters, Zaever Zangeer seems to be both angry F—— off and Voodoo exorcism. Mirza’s In praise of red is a swamp of reds and yellows, broken bits of languages, picture of burials and muscled skeletons.

But if anyone really captures death, the madness of it, the bare bones of the fact that after ashes to ashes it’s finished then it has to be Saba Khan’s installation called Going Home. There seems nothing much to write here except that Nylon meshes and cotton threads might not make anyone aware of the always present feeling of death, but the dust would. It would make one shed a tear.



Rumour mills

Dear All,

So there I was sitting in yet another Karachi drawing room listening to yet another diatribe against the ‘corruption’ of the government and the sad state of affairs in the country...

Blah, blah, blah. The refrain in these instances is, roughly, always the same: that “things have never been so bad”, that the “government is corrupt”, that the root of all evil in this world is called Asif Zardari.

The hysteria goes on and on. Politicians with no party and no elected office (eg Sheikh Rasheed Ahmed) are given ample airtime on various television channels where they repeat this narrative self-righteously while at the same time extolling the virtues of the defenders of our Borders and our Faith; wanna-bes from wannabe parties (eg Tehreek-i-Insaf) are also given ample airtime where they are disparaging about government officials in the most offensive of tones...

People like the retired general Hameed Gul, who dreams of establishing a ‘khilafat’ in Pakistan, and who likes people to forget that not just was he head of a jehadi linked ISI but also a Zia-ite, is given lots of airtime to propound his valuable analysis — which of course is neither linked to his ISI experience or his Zia links but which casts him as some sort of ‘political analyst’.

Meanwhile, Kamran Khan in his TV show would have us believe that it’s almost the end of days for Pakistan: his apocalyptic monologue assures us that this is a serious, worrying, critical, terrible, crucial, devastating, horrific time for the country, and we are in a state of crisis from which we must be saved...

And, yes, back to those Karachi drawing rooms where I spent so much time last week, those, breeding grounds for the usual rumours...The sad thing is that all this feels like déjà vu. Flashback to the 1990s: the disinformation then was so effective that most journalists did not even understand how they had been manipulated; but now many of us who witnessed that can see a similar pattern emerge... The usual clumsy process is that a prolonged defamation campaign against the elected incumbents is followed by the country being ‘saved’ by people aligned to right wing, military elements. The democratic process is thus subverted and distorted.

But what people in drawing rooms don’t really seem to realise is how they are being manipulated and how they rarely reflect on the facts before them. They just continue to repeat hearsay and think it is perfectly normal that senior government functionaries should spend all day in courts being scolded by learned judges instead of getting on with their work (policing, administration, legislation etc). They don’t think it’s odd that non-issues are whipped into matters of ‘national security’ and taken into the realm of courts and commissions and and hysterical tv shows. Everybody is convinced there was never a more terrible period in Pakistan’s history and so nobody bothers to recall the not-so-long-ago days of Musharraf’s emergency, the civil war in the north, the Lal masjid siege or the suicide-blast-a-day era.

We all have short memories, and we all love the idea of a “saviour” we are easy prey to this sort of propaganda but the truth of the matter is that we should be able to see beyond it and we should insist that this government be able to complete its term. But then what would we talk about in our drawing rooms? Progressive legislation? The need for an effective Family Planning programme? Taxation? Egalitarianism? Education? Oh dear, they all sound so boring, the rumours are so much more fun — aren’t they?

Best wishes,

Umber Khairi

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