Music or ecstasy
rhetoric of violence
A routine conversation with multiple award-winning film maker Sabiha Sumar can easily turn into a debate on President Musharraf's policies being dictatorial or otherwise. "You can't judge the situation as a blanket thing," she argues, "Ok, we had one military dictator who was terrible for the country -- Gen Ziaul Haq -- but I found in President Musharraf a very progressive, benevolent and secular-minded person."
Her statements gradually take on a more assertive tone, "That's what the country needs. I don't believe that ballot box or voting will bring democracy. It's not going to get us anywhere. We are not a democratic-minded people. We are a feudal minded people." Period.
We are talking with reference to her latest documentary, titled Dinner With the President, that recently won Sabiha the grand Anasy Documentary Award in Dubai; but back home, it has provoked a mixed response even from those who knew of Sabiha's works and held her with great regard, especially post-Khamosh Pani (Silent Waters; 2003), her first feature film. One of her earlier works, Who Will Cast the First Stone? -- a hard-hitting documentary on women prisoners in Zia's 'Islam-ised' Pakistan -- had got her the prestigious Golden Gate Award at San Francisco Film Festival, in the year 1998. Dinner... comes as a 'surprise', so to say, because it discusses (read endorses) a military dictator's "vision of democracy".
Sabiha accepts the 'blame', saying "We have lived for 60 years with the contradiction that a feudal woman or man had a democratic vision. So, tell me what's wrong with this contradiction?"
Karachi-born Sabiha attended Sarah Lawrence College, New York, where she studied Film making and Political Science, before she went on to make her first film. Later, she attended Cambridge for a course in History.
By Usman Ghafoor
The News on Sunday: Your documentary, Dinner With the President, has come out at a time when Pervez Musharraf isn't a very popular person. What kind of response were you expecting for the film?
Sabiha Sumar: Well, the whole film is about a very broad question -- that is, how democracy will come to Pakistan. It takes stock of our country which is tribal and feudal. The point is that democracy comes out of the bourgeoisie tradition, it comes out of the French Revolution, and it stands for the primacy of the individual rights. Now, where in Pakistan do you have that concept? What do the people of Pakistan want? Dinner With the President addresses all these questions. So, in my view, the popularity of the President or the lack of it doesn't have anything to do with the film.
TNS: What prompted the idea, in the first place?
SS: Back in 2004, my co-director and I were looking around the country, and we felt that President Musharraf was introducing a lot of changes but he wasn't finding support among the liberals in Pakistan. For example, he had worked on the Hudood Ordinance, tried to remove the religious column, among other things. But, he didn't find any support.
On the other hand, we also noticed that before 9/11, President Musharraf had already started banning Taliban and other jihadi outfits. Why would he do that before 9/11 itself? What was the threat he saw to the army, or to the country? It wasn't at the behest of American policies that he wanted to ban the Islamic extremists. Our question was why. So, that is what prompted the film.
TNS: Would you say that the film -- directly or indirectly -- glorifies Musharraf? Don't you find discussing a military dictator's "vision of democracy" to be a contradiction in terms?
SS: Yes, but it's time we learnt to live with contradictions. We have lived for 60 years with the contradiction that the feudal woman or man had a democratic vision. So, tell me what's wrong with this very contradiction? We have already told ourselves that we have no choice. We are cheating ourselves as a nation. All we are doing is legitimising feudal rules, corrupt rules, in the name of law and democracy.
See, I can't have a knee-jerk reaction and say that everybody in uniform is bad. I will never say that. If one military dictator was terrible for the country -- Gen Ziaul Haq -- I found in President Musharraf a very progressive, benevolent and secular minded person. And I think that is what the country needs.
TNS: After the people's verdict in the Feb 12 elections, would you still maintain your viewpoint?
SS: What verdict of people are you talking about? As far as I know, the people who voted were those who were dragged out in buses and trucks to the polling stations. You know, on Feb 8, this year, I went back to the woman farmer who features in my documentary also, and asked her who she was going to vote for and why. And she said she'd vote for whoever her family people voted for. I asked her what were her expectations? She looked at me blankly, and replied, "I don't have any expectations. What difference would it make anyway? Our condition has remained the same and it will remain the same."
So, if you say that the practice of ballot box can establish a democratic system, it's a huge misunderstanding. You are keeping the entire people in the dark. I don't believe that ballot box voting could bring democracy. It is not going to get us anywhere. We are not a democratic-minded people. We are a feudal-minded people. That's what our leaders represent, and that's what's happening in the country. Can you not see?
Democracy is a central practice. It's about individual rights, and it's about individuals being more important than the State itself. Now, where do you find that importance for individuals in this country?
TNS: What do you have to say about Musharraf sacking the Chief Justice of the apex court on March 9 last year?
SS: A lot of these things happen in a democracy, too. Look at what Nawaz Sharif did to the judiciary; look at what he did to the journalists; he put Sethi in jail. A lot of other journalists were threatened. In my film, Khaled Ahmed, a leading journalist, talks very openly about the same. He says that it's a contradiction but it's true that this military man has an intellectualised vision for the country. The whole country is full of pseudo-intellectuals who have no understanding of the country, and it's pointless to go on like this.
TNS: How do you justify a military person toppling a democratically-elected prime minister?
SS: It is very much justified. How can you say it's not justified? If you remember correctly, on Oct 12, 1999, the President was on a plane together with 180 civilian passengers, and while he was in the air, Nawaz Sharif ordered the plane not to land. It kept circling and was lacking fuel. It would have crashed with 180 civilians. But because he was a democratically-elected prime minister, so he could get away with anything.
TNS: The film starts with the strong assumption that Musharraf has a "vision of democracy". Comment.
SS: Very much so. That's my assumption. I am the film maker. It's my journey. And, it's not about having an assumption, it's about having a curiosity about his vision. The vision was making itself apparent in the kind of changes he wished to bring about.
TNS: What is the worst criticism that you have received so far, for Dinner...?
SS: That it's outdated.
TNS: Maybe because you completed the film a few years earlier?
SS: Well, it was shot over a period of three years -- 2005, 06 and 07. One version of it was released in October 2007, in 200 countries simultaneously, and 300 million viewers got to see the movie. Then, a larger version -- of 82 minutes -- was released at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute of Film in January. In America, we're releasing the film in November this year.
TNS: By "release" do you mean a festival or a theatrical screening?
SS: No, it will be a TV broadcast.
TNS: When you set out to make Khamosh Pani, your first feature film, what kind of audience did you have in mind? Did you envisage that the film might end up in festivals?
SS: I never make films just for festivals. I always make films for a very broad audience. I believe that if you make a film well, it should have a universal value to it -- human values that everybody should be able to identify with. So, this film was really made for a worldwide theatrical release, which it got. It was distributed everywhere in the world and then it was released on some television stations and shown in international film festivals, and it won some 17 awards.
Khamosh Pani was also the first Pakistani film to release in theatres in India in 35 years. It ran side by side with Veer Zara and other major Bollywood blockbusters to full houses for 11 weeks in Mumbai, Delhi and other cities.
TNS: Why couldn't you release it in cinemas in Pakistan?
SS: Well, because the people here weren't interested in distributing the film.
TNS: Who did the funding for Dinner...?
SS: Mainly Sundance Institute. I basically sell my ideas to the commissioning editors and broadcast companies.
Residency is a good exercise to bring together artists who look beyond the commercial aspect of art
By Quddus Mirza
Imagine yourself waiting to collect your luggage inside the arrival lounge of an airport after a long flight, and gazing at carousel to spot your baggage. You are likely to come across a number of suitcases in different colours, sizes and shapes; all part of a group rotating on the moving carousel. As soon as you recognise your piece from its surface marks, name-tag or coloured ribbon tied on the handle, you hurry in order to remove it from the line of other cases.
Artists' experience of being in a residency is not too dissimilar to the journey of these suitcases -- different but destined to be together. In the residencies, professionals spend time together sharing ideas, materials and methods. After that period is over, they return to their own studios and customs (if not to another residency or workshop in a distant land!).
It is often observed that the visiting artists join these residencies with their preconceived schemes and work plans. They even bring their own tools and objects, but usually the opportunity of being with others transforms their concepts and attitudes towards art. It is completely different from the normal course of art world, where creative people are supposed to be in a continuous process of producing work, projecting it through media and selling it in the gallery.
The artists' workshop or residency offers a separate approach to art-making. It encourages the artists to move out of this cycle of studio, commercial gallery, academic conditioning and private collection. A challenging task, it manages to introduce a different dimension to one's thinking process and pictorial productions. Individuals find fresh approaches and new schemes of converting ideas into tangible forms.
There are various residencies/artists workshops, both in Pakistan and elsewhere, that invite artists to work in a given space and time. Their output is then shown at the premises where they work, in an alternative space or at a gallery. In fact the word alternative is important in connection with these activities. Because in its essence these residencies offer a venue to those artists who are not accepted or appreciated in the art market owing to their young age or experimental work.
Actually this concept of having an alternative voice in the visual art has led to an interesting phenomenon. Now along with artists who defy art establishment exist another kind of artists in these workshops and residencies who are aware of the benefits from both sides. So while they keep creating conventional works for commercial galleries and collectors, at the same time they give in to the internal demand to manufacture work in an unusual medium with some new imagery.
The case of Usman Ghouri is a perfect example to illustrate this trend. He participated in the 'Studio RM Residency 2008', along with four other artists, Tayeba Begum Lipi, Irfan Hasan, Sadaf Naeem and Saba Khan. During his residency, Ghouri produced a range of works (more than any other participant) in a variety of mediums such as acrylic on canvas, wooden sculptures, mixed media on wasli and digital prints. In this body of work one could glimpse influences of Mehr Afroze, Anwar Saeed and Imran Qureshi. But, by and large, these pieces represented Usman's typical style and scheme of working.
However it was the other set of work, the three dimensional objects titled 'Seeds', and 'Playing with Heart' a sequence of artist's pictures holding, eating and throwing a human heart that was intriguing . Both the wooden pieces and photographs were displayed in a series. These affirmed the artist's attitude that being in a residency it is preferable to fabricate works that are different from his usual stuff.
Contrary to Ghouri's example, other artists seemed to be gaining a new experience. For instance, Sadaf Naeem appeared to be moving further in her quest to formulate a personal and private language. Her canvases, with women in rural and urban settings, reminded of her previous works, except a piece that was created for a specific space in the gallery. A recurring image of woman covered in a shawl was composed with a background cut in such a way that the section of board revealed a portion of the gallery -- a view that was in harmony with the painted part in the work. Trees and leaves outside the gallery blended with the same motif drawn in the painting.
Likewise, Lipi and Hasan continued with their chosen way of shaping imagery and conveying their particular content. Tayeba Begum constructed an installation with shaving blades (next to her two canvases) but her concerns seemed to be rather contrived in connection with the issue of female presence in a society. Her work confirmed how a strong position can consume the poetics of image-making.
This was an aesthetics abundantly visible in the work of Saba Khan. She seemed to be confident of her medium, choice of imagery and formal concerns. In an unpretentious manner, she painted subjects such as a model changing his attire, maid holding a child and crows gathered after an explosion. Her themes -- instead of odd ideas and complicated methods -- reflected our immediate reality. The day to day life -- inside a house, on the street and as a nation (alluded to with titles 'Blast' and 'Government') -- was converted into sophisticated visuals. Patterns behind the figures and loosely-applied paint along with lines of charcoal showed a range of pictorial strategies. At the same time, the work called 'Blast' with crows rendered in realistic and stylised scheme suggested a new interpretation of miniature's aesthetics. Not only the selection of pure and strong colours, but the division of spaces also signified the artist's interest in the historic art of miniature.
With the diversity it offers in terms of artists' approaches, the residency is a good exercise to bring together artists who look beyond the commercial aspect of art, though this was not an exhibition without its share of price list.
Despite the fact that at the urs at Sehwan and even otherwise singers sing the kalam of Lal Shahbaz, little is known about him and his contribution to music
By Sarwat Ali
Sehwan is one of the music centres in Sindh. During the urs, hundred of thousands of devotees who throng to the mazaar of Shahbaz Qalander participate directly or indirectly in the song and dance activity exemplified by the naubat and dhammal.
This makes one wonder if Shahbaz Qalander's contribution to music was more than that of a patron and that he was more actively involved in music making like the other sufi saint from Sindh who followed him many centuries later -- Shah Abdul Lateef Bhitai. As in almost all cases concerning music, the evidence that can be backed with documentation is scant. If the reality of continuous practice of musical rendition and performances at his shrine for centuries is considered solid evidence, the proof of a living tradition points that he had strong links with the art form.
Naubat is played on the shrine either solo or collectively. It is a little difficult to trace the history as to when it started being played on the shrine but it is an accepted belief that it had been played since the days of Shahbaz Qalander himself. It is played twice in twenty four hours -- at dusk and dawn and on both occasions it is accompanied by dhammal. To many, dhammal also started with Shahbaz Qalander and the tradition has continued till the present. It is a dance performed on the rhythmic variations of the naubat and is probably the most artistic manner of losing one's identity and merging it with the collective and bigger identity. All this invokes a state of trance and helps in obliterating the distinction between the self and the other.
In mystical practices all over the world the state of being in ecstasy is the nadir of mystical experience. It is through the negation of the self that one attains a state of abandonment. In our tradition the terms used for ecstasy are "wajd" and "sukr" And usually it was attained through some form of musical expression. Throughout the Muslim world there seems to be some kind of a similar pattern followed on the shrines.
The other term that is used or associated with Qalander is that of kafi or qafi. This term both in Sindhi and Punjabi is used for a form of poetry which is popular and one of the major forms of expression. Kafi is also a parental musical mode and is sung as a raag. It has been a debatable point as to whether kafi was a musical form to which lyrics were composed or was it a poetic form which was then composed according to a certain tonal arrangement.
But in the case of Shahbaz Qalander, apparently it was a designation of a group of people who supposedly looked after the shrine, mostly doing menial duties of cleaning and keeping it spick and span. This group also participated vehemently in dhammal, especially on the occasion of the annual urs of the saint. The name of Syed Haji Fateh Ali Sabzwari, keeper of the shrine, is mentioned as having organised it formally as an institution. Fakir Nadir Ali Shah Pathan too played some major role in it according to Dr. Ghulam Hussain Haider Sindhi.
It may seem unbelievable to link this kafi or qafi to either the musical or the poetical form but it is clear that their association with dhammal does have some connection with music and dance. What exactly had been the equation between the two is very difficult to tell, and at best like in so many others of our terms and expressions intelligent guesswork remains the final recourse.
What exactly do we know about Shahbaz Qalander? He was a Jelali Fakir and according to Richard Burton, Jelali Fakirs were generally poor, lived from hand to mouth compared to the Jemali sufis in Sindh who were a more respectable class than their Jelali brethren. The latter openly dispensed with the formalities of religious worship. His real name was Usman Marwandi, and was a great grammarian, philologist, traveller and saint. He died in Sehwan in 1274. As a Qalandar he was a rigid celibate and left no children. His modern disciples are initiated by his khalifah, (successors) and mujawar, (who attended the Holy Sepulchre).
From the 13th century onwards there was a great immigration into Sindh of learned and religious-minded men from the centre of the Muslim world. Lal Shahbaz who came with several companions, some of whom made name for themselves elsewhere in India, was a man of this kind. It was a time when Islam was territorially expanding once more. The labours of the Muslim scholastics had hammered out a kind of stabilised religion in which the austerities of the religion had been widened and softened by the influence of the Persianised Muslims of Central Asia.
For Athar Abbas Rizvi the establishment of the Sufic khanqah synchronised with the penetration of the Qalandria movement. They were divided into several branches as the Hydaris and the Jawalqis. Their reputation to perform miraculous deeds had filled both the Suharwardia and the Chishtiyya khanqah with consternation. They were deeply devoted to music and loved to sing the songs eulogizing Ali and Ahle Bait. H.T. Sorley too is equally in the dark about the past, "there were a number of cultured and thinking men imbued with the highest tenets of Sufi philosophy is open to no doubt - but we have very little information about them. The best known early one was Sayid Usman Shah Marwandi who became famous as Lal Shahbaz with a popular shrine at Sehwan".
One of the biggest congregations of musicians does take place on this urs. He seems to be one of the favourites with the musicians because his kalam is sung in the length and breadth of Sindh and Balochistan. Despite the fact that at the urs at Sehwan, and even otherwise most singers sing and chant the kalam of Lal Shahbaz little is known about him and his contribution to music. Like most musicians the most authentic and detailed knowledge about him lies in the oral tradition. In this age of accelerated change in society, when the oral tradition is dying out, these need to be recorded and preserved.
A recent 'summit' on the thorny issue of Pakistan India relations provided much food for thought. The event, held in central London at the end of last month, was subtitled 'Designing a New Future'. Organised by the Indian media group 'Tehelka', it had several interesting sessions, the first of which dealt with the question of Kashmir. It had, on the panel, people like former CM Kashmir Farooq Abdullah, former law minister BJP Arun Jaitli, Mehbooba Mufti of the Jammu and Kashmir People's Democratic Party and Mushahid Hussain of Pakistan Muslim League-Q among others. As expected, this session proved to be quite lively with a number of provocative points being made.
For me, the most interesting session was the one discussing 'inherited poisons' and asking whether the young could 'defang' these poisons. The discussion revolved around stereotypes and propaganda in both countries that demonises each other, and this obviously included things like the rewriting of history in school text books.
The main reason this session was so heartening was the presence and contribution of the two (relatively) young panellists: Congress MP Sachin Pilot from India and former civil servant and youth activist Arshad Bhatti from Pakistan. Both were extremely articulate and seemed unburdened by a legacy of distrust and resentment.
Nearly everyone seemed to agree on the fact that the two countries needed to strengthen cultural, trade and sporting links and make it easier to get visas. Alongside, of course, were mentioned the hijackings, Masood Azhar and so on, to underline the fact that it was not that easy to trust one another.
Tehelka's choice of panellists was interesting but in some instances questionable: for example the former head of the ISI General (r) Asad Durrani was there. Why? I am bemused by the way former ISI chiefs are given so much importance by the media. Some TV channels have given so much coverage to General (r) Hameed Gul that they have reinvented him as some some sort of a champion of civil society, whereas he is actually an ultra-rightist, anti-democratic and a very regressive personality. Or at least that is what his career record seems to indicate. Anyhow, General Durrani was there, and apparently General (r) Aslam Beg would have been too if it were not some (so it is rumoured) problem vis-a-vis his UK visa.
But perhaps the greatest disappointment was Imran Khan. He looked as aesthetically pleasing as ever (good skin, more hair, terrific suit), and he spoke as bluntly as usual, expounding his criticism of nearly everything that everybody was doing. But what shocked me most was his irresponsible rhetoric. In his keynote speech on the second day of the summit (he was filling in for Information Minister Sherry Rehman), he said that "Musharraf should meet the same fate as Saddam" and that Musharraf "should be strung up".
I am not now, and and have never been, a supporter of General Musharraf, but I object to this rhetoric of violence. Imran's bloodthirsty words are irresponsible: they constitute an incitement to violence and they encourage a lynchmob mentality. On the one hand the man is preaching about the rule of law and the need for institutions while on the other he is baying for blood and whipping up hatred in the rightist, religious, jamaati pattern. What politicians say does have a profound impact on the psyche of the people. Imran's words favour prejudice, hatred and mob hysteria: they foster a culture of retaliation and revenge, of effigy burning and rabid fanaticism.
So despite the sharp suit and the nice hair, Imran is in ideological terms a close buddy of Qazi Hussain Ahmed and General Asad Durrani. Perhaps in that sense we needed him at the conference so he could enunciate views as extreme as the RSS's Tarun Jaitli.
There we were discussing how India and Pakistan could design a better, more progressive and harmonious future for themselves, and here was one of our (educated) politicians using the rhetoric of hatred and violence. Even more depressing is the fact that when I reproached him for this he was most indignant and insisted he would carry on saying this about Musharraf and that he was quite right to do so...
Anyhow, even though many of my rather jaded and (increasingly) cynical colleagues were scornful of "what the conference achieved", I think it was a great effort -- not because it made earth-shattering decisions, but because it brought so many people together, and exposed them to so many different points of view.