Ustad of acting
The ideological transformation taking place with the PML-N can be analysed in terms of changed political outlook of its top leadership and objective conditions
By Arif Azad
In Pakistani politics a silent revolution is occurring in the ideological configuration of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). While there has been an avalanche of commentary on the political and ideological somersaults of the PPP, an astute political and ideological repositioning occurring within the PML-N has been largely left uncommented by the commentating classes.
The ideological transformation taking place with the PML-N can be analysed in terms of the changed political outlook of its top leadership and objective conditions triggering a radical new strategy.
Let us take the question of transformed political outlook of its leadership first. PML-N was the first Muslim league which was ousted from power after it had won the 1997 election with a two thirds majority. This was a major achievement for a party which was historically tied to the coat-tails of the establishment and always branded a kings party. The establishment by default encouraged and overlooked its extension into the popular base as a counterweight to the traditionally anti-establishment Pakistan Peoples Party (Here comparison with Adnan Menderes-led Turkish Democratic Party Leader formed under the influence of Turkish military is instructive. Adnan, like Nawaz Sharif, developed his own social base and challenged the hold of Turkish military over power, paying with his life -- like Bhutto)
Thus, the Muslim League was able to considerably entrench itself in Punjab and conservative leaning parts of NWFP. With the party entrenching its popular base, it was natural for a leader of a popular right-of-centre conservative party not to take dictation from GHQ. The early sign of this popular-mandate-driven defiance came when Nawaz Sharif faced with great courage, first, General (r) Jahangir Karamat, and, then, the ever green man on the hill, Ghualm Ishaq Khan, who had serially aborted various elected governments in their mid term. These growing populist feathers of a party, nurtured initially by the establishment, were brutally plucked by General Musharraf in 1999 to reinsert the military into political equation.
The brutal coup jolted the PML-N leadership into a profound new realisation of the fragility of political institutions in contrast with the durability of undemocratic institutions.
An extended period of Saudi-controlled exile by its top leadership -- Nawaz family in principle -- further sharpened this sense of democratic fragility in Pakistan. The upshot was fence-mending with its erstwhile adversary: the PPP. This new understanding saw the signing of a landmark document called Charter of Democracy.
The spirit of the Charter, although not new to PPP's history, was entirely new for a party composed of homegrown leadership schooled in obedience to the dictates of the military rule. From this association grew the Muslim League tryst with concept of the rule of law, supremacy of the parliament, restoration of democracy and reduction in the influence of the militariat. The internalisation of these sophisticated concepts contributed hugely to a radical transformation of the political and ideological orientation of its leadership.
The echoes of this transformation are audible today in the party's strident defence of these concepts. While this was all happening abroad and at ideational level, domestic political developments too were not immune from the influence of the transformed worldview of the exiled leadership.
The PML-N began to play a critical role in the opposition. With most of its members having decamped to PML-Q, the remnant of the PML-N continued to outrightly challenge the eternal right of General Musharraf to disorder the country. Unsurprisingly, this stridently anti-establishment stance landed one of its top leader, Javed Hashmi, in prison for an unreasonably longer period. The combination of these external and internal dynamics turned the party into a rock-ribbed anti-establishment party, which has redounded to its huge benefit at the hustings and both long and short marches of the lawyer's movement.
Against this backdrop of ideological reorientation, the lawyer's movement further burnished the PML-N credentials as the anti-establishment party. As opposed to the PPP's calculated stance on the lawyer's movement, the PML put its rhetoric into action by throwing its full weight behind the movement. This astute move not only anchored the party in popular estimation but also tapped into the rich seam of a powerful social movement to have erupted in recent years in Pakistan. In doing so, the party was acting in line with its class character too. Given the PML-N party leadership's middle-class profile it was natural for the party to join a middle-class led movement for supremacy of law and democracy.
This clever strategic choice has procured the party a widening base in urban middle class, shown by its impressive showing at the election in February 2008. This is perhaps the first time in the history of Pakistan that a right-of-centre party has joined a progressive social movement (at a global level, though, ideological cross-dressing is a gathering phenomenon with right wing parties increasingly appropriating progressive causes). It has been postulated by theorists of populism that for any populist movement to take off and gather popular base, the generation of political antagonism against the established order is a sine qua non.
Moreover, the PML-N solid base in Punjab, coupled with its middle class urban character, is going to produce the type of adversarial politics without which fine-tuned and hotly-argued issues do not rise to radical political agenda. There are, however, potential snags in the way of the PML-N populist juggernaut. One potential snag relates to its closeness to religious right represented by Jama'at-i-Islami. The second important snag arises from the PML-N's presence in the coalition government. Though Nawaz Sharif has so far deftly garnered the credit for popular moves and distanced himself from unpopular measures the government, the long-term presence of PML-N in the government may dent its anti-establishment credentials which have been the mainstay of its popular appeal thus far. If the PML-N continues in its present political course, the political landscape of Pakistan in terms of left-right may acquire new meanings in the coming years.
writer is an Islamabad-based political analyst.
Pablo Picasso once said that his mother had predicted that if her son joined the army, he would rise to be a general; and if he joined religious order, he would definitely be Pope one day. The Spanish painter added he did not turn into a general or a Pope but became Picasso!
People who were familiar with Rashid Rana's work, during his years at National College of Arts Lahore and after, always knew he would rise to be one of the leading artists of this country. So his ascent to that status was not surprising; yet the immense speed with which he attained that position was astonishing for many of his colleagues and contemporaries. It is only in a span of five years that Rashid Rana has moved from being a local celebrity to an international one. His works have been shown at numerous important international exhibitions and sold at prestigious places including Christie's and Sotheby's.
Rana's work revolves around multiple issues -- both formal and conceptual -- in a variety of mediums and dimensions. It investigates the representation of reality, two dimensionality of an image; and addresses the politics of gender, violence, popular culture, and the authenticity of a work of art in this age of global distribution. In an interview held at his studio, TNS discussed with him his art and ideas. Excerpts follow:
The News on Sunday: Your chromogenic print, 'Red Carpet-1' was recently auctioned for a record amount at Sotheby's in New York. Although works from Pakistan have been sold at venues like this, but probably this was the first time it was put in the category of mainstream contemporary art, along with works by Anselm Kiefer, Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel and Damien Hirst etc. What was your reaction?
Rashid Rana: Success does make you feel good, and brings in an unexpected satisfaction. But at the same time it puts you under immense pressure; or more appropriately it puts you under a load of responsibility to come up with more work.
TNS: The response to your work in the international art world is linked to a general hype about Pakistani art. In your opinion is it going to have a lasting impact or is it just a bubble effect?
RR: It is definitely more than a bubble, but the duration of this kind of interaction with the outside world depends, to some extent, on the artists -- on how they are going to respond to this opportunity -- as well as on our own critical discourse to sustain the intellectual quality and theoretical ground of works produced here.
TNS: Do you think that the unprecedented presence of Pakistani art in the international art world is based upon the nature and quality of work, or on some other factors?
RR: It is a little difficult to determine exactly; may be our geopolitical situation -- of being part of Indian subcontinent and still associated with the Middle East -- helped in getting attention. But in reality the triumph of Pakistani art is not a general or generic phenomenon; it is only a few individuals who count, ones who are the recipients of the boom.
TNS: You have exhibited extensively in India. What differences do you see in the contemporary art of Pakistan and India?
RR: I feel that Indian nationalism or 'Indianness' from the 1960s and 1970s has not gone away; it has just transformed. Now the contemporary Indian art has two sides. It has to be cutting edge as well as representing Indian concerns and imagery. In addition, a number of Indian artists have created their own niche of contemporary art. Since Indian art scene is huge so there are niches of more than one kind.
On the other hand, here in Pakistan, artists by and large are not bothered about nationalism. There is no pressure to portray Pakistani themes or issues; so in a sense we have more freedom. At the moment nobody is demanding anything from Pakistani artists, neither exoticness nor ethnicity. Some individuals are still trading these for their own convenience.
TNS: Would you like to identify the elements which made your work so popular in the art world?
RR: I didn't have a pre-fixed formula for the work which I made in the last five or six years. Let me share an experience with you. On my first show in India, the gallery-owner told me that no one was keen about photography compared to painting or other mediums. But I continued making works in the same mediums which are now in much demand in India and at other places.
If I try to analyse, may be the execution of my work, the notion of duality, the scale and the fact that I deal with multiple issues contributed towards its recognition. Basically I did not confine myself to any existing definition of making art. Perhaps it also has to do with thousands of photographic images which build the narrative in my work, and which make it easy for a wider audience to relate to my work since photography is the visual vocabulary of our age. So when a person looks at my work, he does not find 'Art' -- something he is scared of or has to struggle to comprehend -- but something familiar.
TNS: In a way he can relate to the experience of watching a video, only that instead of making a movie, you create a sequence of visuals, which put together on a film can be viewed as a moving image. Does it have something to do with your interest in video art?
RR: Frankly I do not have the stamina for video art; in my work video becomes the two dimensional entity. Mine is the time-based work, which you can see on a flat surface. Along with this, my other concerns like grid and qualities associated with painting are also part of my new work. However I don't concentrate on one idea or issue, because I believe that work can address several aspects simultaneously. For me, to insist on a single concept or concern, whether it is identity, gender or post-colonialism is like being a fundamentalist and having one faith or dimension.
TNS: What are you doing at present?
RR: It is not easy to think that I am not making any new work these days, but I don't want to repeat myself just to retain my visibility in the art world. It comes naturally to me that I need to take break from deadlines, but not from thinking. I feel that I must do better than my previous work. But at the moment I do not know what I will do next. As a professional artist, I cannot take leave from work but I need to detach myself, and have the opportunity to do something substantial.
TNS: You studied at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. What made you return to Pakistan, instead of living in America, close to mainstream art, like your contemporary Shahzia Sikander?
RR: I was doing my MFA in the US, at the same time when Shahzia was there. She decided to stay on, while I came back. It would have been very frustrating in terms of my own art practice if I had stayed there. Being here one may have a problem with one's work, but over there a person not only has problems with his work but with himself -- of living as an immigrant.
Mehmood Ali's passing away provides an opportunity to take a second look at the early days of theatre in the country
By Sarwat Ali
Mehmood Ali who died last week contributed more towards the development of theatre in the country than may have appeared on the surface, by being part of Khawaja Mueenuddin Group, that struggled to set up some kind of working theatre in the early years after independence.
In the early years after partition, radio was the only nursery that could hone talent. The theatre had lost its actors, writers and stage hands to the wave of migration, and with the refugee influx the entire cultural temperament of Karachi too underwent a change. The actors who worked with Khawaja Mueenuddin in his early plays were mostly radio voices; gradually becoming familiar with the requirements of working on stage, and gaining both financial support and a wide range of recognition much later through television. Mehmood Ali's passing away provides an opportunity to take a second look at the early days of theatre in the country with the travails and the uncertainties it had to endure.
Television has a much bigger outreach than theatre and in the first thirty years the Pakistani viewers had no option but to stick with Pakistan Television. Amritsar Television had started its transmission in the early 1970s and could be viewed in and around Lahore but other than the Indian films which were a big draw, rest of the programmes were of a very poor quality. Pakistan Television plays were very good and viewed extensively and to most Pakistanis Mehmood Ali was primarily a television person whom they had seen perform with great surety in several roles that came his way. He was very talented and exploited the roles to their full potential.
Since television play had developed from the radio play, the opportunity to play diverse roles was greater, unlike the films where the young stole the show and the forty plus were condemned to play character roles. In television plays the older characters were also cast in the middle of the action. When television started its transmission from Karachi about three years after Lahore and Dacca in 1967, the actors of Karachi stage and the radio voices were introduced anew to a larger viewership. Mehmood Ali gave sterling performances in many such roles, to give a good account of his immense talent. He too was being recognised as a TV actor throughout the length and breath of this country but it was actually his stage days that one found more fascinating and of greater worth.
Khawaja Mueenuddin's first play that became very popular was Taleem e Balighan. Primarily written for the radio it became an instant hit with its cast comprising Rehman Khan, Azmatullah, Sheikh Mehboob and Sheikh Ali.
Lal qile se lalu khet tak was written in 1952 on the request of Maulana Abdul Haq, for the Golden Jubilee celebration of the Anjuman Taraqqi-e-Urdu. When performed again in 1953, it received a very generous response from the audience. Mirza Ghalib Bunder Road Per was written in 1956 and it was in this play that Mehmood Ali made his debut on stage and became part of the team for the rest of his life. Besides him the cast included Qayyum Arif, S.M Saleem, Anwar Khan and Subhani Ba Younis. When the Karachi Arts Council was set up in 1956 the first play to be staged was Zia Mohyeddin's production of Lal qile se lalu khet tak.
In the subsequent productions of Taleem e Balighan, Mehmood Ali played the role of a school teacher and played it so well that it became difficult to conceive the role in any other way. In other productions of Taleem e Balighan which have been few and far between, where some other actor played the part, it was clear that Mehmood Ali's performance became a benchmark to be emulated.
Khawaja Mueenudin's contribution, besides writing plays, was that he tried to build some kind of a repertory system. This group did not assemble for an individual performance and then disbanded after it was performed -- as a group it was committed to the theatre, choosing their vocation to be their main profession. Perhaps the original system of repertory with a body of plays and actors ready to play many roles in those plays was stretched a little to meet local challenges. Theatre was not limited to what was seen on stage as a finished product but a whole lot of activities like sets, props, lighting, costume, logistics, make-up, and even provisions like the selection of the script, direction, financial aspects, investment were involved. Then there was a whole marketing side to it -- the managers, advertisers, people to secure the gates, other security arrangements, getting permission from the relevant agencies, travel, and last but not the least sustaining the continuous effort performing one play meant mounting another, rehearsing a third, and thinking about the fourth. An effort that required whole time management. The actors that worked this repertory system were Qazi Wajid, Muhammed Yousaf, Subhani Ba Younis and Mehmood Ali.
From a small provincial capital Karachi suddenly became the federal capital and thus a focal point for the convergence of millions of refugees. It was a new country, Karachi was a new capital and despite the carnage, killings and uprooting of millions it was still expected of the city to host cultural and social activity as is the wont of capitals of newly formed states. With the death of Khawaja Mueenuddin, stage suffered a vital setback in Karachi, as the concept of working in a repertory system was laid to rest and the well-made play was supplanted by episodic happenings and surfeit of repartees. But his ideas and the team that he built displayed the values of such a system. The contribution cannot be erased from the history of theatre in Pakistan. Mehmood Ali being a part of that team will be remembered for it as well.
As learning music becomes costlier, what exactly can the passionate young enthusiasts do...
"It is only by introducing the young to great literature, drama and music, and to the excitement of great science that we open to them the possibilities that lie within the human spirit -- enable them to see visions and dream dreams," said Eric Anderson famous singer/songwriter.
At a concert Javaid gazes at the stage; his eyes full of awe, dreams and tears. Javaid has the passion. He knows he has the aptitude and he's willing to go the extra mile just to learn to play a guitar; what he doesn't have are the finances. He can't even buy guitar let alone afford music classes. Javaid finds himself increasingly aggrieved. In time he too, like many others who share this passion, will let his dream die out and slip into commonality.
The mere cost of learning music, at anywhere between Rs.6,000 to Rs.15,000 a month, is most expensive for a majority of our aspiring youth, not to mention the hefty sum which is needed to buy the instruments and then to maintain them. On an average, the price of an acoustic guitar begins at Rs.3,000 and can go beyond Rs.20,000; keyboards can cost you as low as Rs.7,000 and as high as a couple of hundred thousand bucks, while an acoustic drum set is priced at as much as Rs.50,000 and upwards. The variants of these instruments cost even more. This coupled with our society's widespread denouncement of music makes it incumbent on many elders to get the music out of the systems of the "naive" youth. "It really doesn't matter what kind of drums you have as long as they are tuned right," says an amateur musician.
In all candidness, anyone losing heart in front of such unfavourable odds would not be surprising. But do not fret for there's more than one way to skin a cat; there always is. There is a vast repertoire of learning material available on the internet. Just Google in the genre or the instrument you want to learn and up comes a list of numerous instructional blogs, forums and websites such as www.jamplay.com, www.about.com, www.cyberfret.com, www.onlinedrumlessons.com, www.drumlessons.net, www.onlinedrummer.com, www.freedrumlessons.com, www.learnpianoonline.com, www.gopiano.com etc. More instructional material is also available on video sharing websites like YouTube where you can meet people like you or people with a tad bit more experience playing their instruments. The internet hosts thousands of inspirational stories of real life people, their hardships in learning music, their take on the "where do I start?" questions and their success.
"I used to destroy my neighbour's peace, attend Jam sessions, listened and played good music -- played it out of tune at first, borrowed guitars, collected magazines aur boht baisti karwayee(got ridiculed) and that's precisely how I learnt," tells Shahzad Hameed, a blue-ribbon rock musician.
In addition to all these things music enthusiasts should listen to good music, understand the finer details and most of all feel what is being played. Buy an instrument, if you can't then borrow one and then play your favourite tune, play it out of tune, play it over and over again even if it be nothing short of jarring for the ears, continue playing it till you can play the tune with some semblance, though rudimentary it maybe, to your intended melody. The next step would be to start jamming with people who know music and learn from anyone who is better than you and continue doing this because if you carry this on long enough you will become better, much better than you ever were.
In the end "a pat on the back" for any would-be musician would be the inspirational words of Shahzad Hameed: "Never aim for mediocrity, aim for the skies because if you work hard enough you're bound to get up there."