He lived in his art
Crime, politics and religion
The rescue of two kidnapped Sikhs in a military operation and the beheading of their fellow captive have shaken the local Sikh community to the core
By Shehar Bano Khan
There is jubilation and relief at the dramatic rescue on March 1 of Gurvinder Singh and Surjeet Singh, two of the three young Sikhs kidnapped five weeks ago. Their freedom, gained after Pakistani security forces on a tip-off attacked the house they were being held in Orakzai Agency, is marred by sadness at the beheading of their fellow hostage, Jaspal Singh, on February 20.
The brutal murder of Jaspal Singh sparked off anti-Pakistan demonstrations at Attari village, 32 km from Amritsar, on the eve of the first formal bilateral talks between Pakistan and India since the Mumbai attacks of November 2008, after which India suspended the composite dialogue with Pakistan.
With news of Jaspal Singh's murder sparking widespread outrage in India as elsewhere, S M Krishna, the Indian external affairs minister affirmed that India would also raise the issue of the militants' brutality in Pakistan's tribal areas and their targeting the Sikh community of the North West Frontier Province.
If strictly contextualised within political confines, the kidnapping of the Sikhs and Jaspal Singh's murder should not be used as tools of political leverage by the Indian government any more than the persecution of Muslims or Christians in India should be by the government of Pakistan. However, events in Pakistan's tribal agency force us to interrogate two aspects. There is firstly the issue of security, despite the Pakistan army operation against the militants. Lawlessness in the tribal belt manifested through beheadings and kidnappings for ransom only reinforces the necessity of attacks by Nato forces in Afghanistan on those purportedly bound by the same ideological framework as the militants in the tribal agency of Pakistan.
The local Taliban were said to have killed Jaspal for his refusal to convert to Islam. However, the non-payment of ransom and efforts to undermine relations between Pakistan and India cannot be ruled out.
Pyara Singh, the father of the 29-year-old Jaspal Singh, finds no solace in any political or religious rationale for the murder of his son. Jaspal's distraught family is beyond consolation. Jaspal's three sons and one daughter, the eldest a nine-year-old boy, huddle tearfully around their mother who lapses into fits of unconsciousness as the realisation of Jaspal's death hits her. The family finds it hard to translate their shock into words and harder still to associate Jaspal's death with non-conformity to religious differences.
Harnam, Jaspal Singh's elder brother, struggles to speak over the phone, but is unable to do so and turns to their family friend Swaroop Singh to make sense of the tragedy. Swaroop Singh categorically refutes reports that Jaspal Singh was killed for refusing to convert to Islam.
"We've been living here in Peshawar for decades. My family, Jaspal's family, and the families of Surjeet and Gurvinder (the two Sikhs still held captive at the time) have been living in this area since well before the Partition. We never had any problems with the Pakhtuns. Believe me there was no issue of forcing the Sikh community to convert by anyone. Do you think we would have lived here if we were forced to convert?" he asks.
Dr Swaroop Singh, as he is commonly referred to in Peshawar, is a medical technician working at a government-run hospital. He has six daughters. His family is among the 400 or so Sikh families living in Peshawar.
"After the Jaspal incident many Sikhs are thinking of either moving to Nankana Sahib or migrating to India," he says. "For me the option to leave Peshawar does not exist because I love this place and this is my home. We as a family have never felt insecure. It is impossible for me to relocate in India with six daughters. We live in relative freedom here than we would if we went to India. It is only in the past year that some people in the tribal area are taking advantage of the current situation in Pakistan. I honestly think it has to do with money and not religion."
A few months ago, another Sikh, Kalyan Singh "Kalucki", was kidnapped for ransom. He was released after the Sikh community in Peshawar reportedly paid the abductors Rs12 million. Jaspal Singh's family believes that this is what set the tone for his kidnapping along with his relatives.
"We should not have paid ransom the first time. Now the kidnappers think they can claim money through ransom because the Sikh community is closely-knit and united and will go to any length to help each other," contends Jaspal's cousin, asking not to be identified.
After Jaspal Singh's severed body was thrown in the Upper Tirah Valley bordering the Khyber and Orakzai Agencies on February 20, Dr Swaroop Singh received a call from Mahinder Singh at 4:30 pm the following day. It was decided that Jaspal's body should not be immediately sent to his family. It was instead brought to Bhai Joga Singh Guradhwara in Peshawar, where Swaroop Singh and his colleague Abdul Akbar stitched the severed head to the body.
"My family and Jaspal's are so close that had it not been for Abdul Akbar it would have been difficult for me to do that. My hands were trembling as I put the stitches, thinking of his wife, four children and his old parents. We didn't want them to see his body in the state it was given to us," Swaroop Singh stopped momentarily. "It is also wrong to blame India. How can Sham Singh make irresponsible statements against India? When will we stop blaming each other?"
Sham Singh, the new head of the Pakistan Sikh Gurdawara Parbandhak Committee (PSGPC), appointed by the Chairman Pakistan Evacuee Trust Property Board Asif Hashmi, has come under severe criticism by the Sikh community for stoking anti-India sentiments. The PSGPC was constituted in 1999 by the government of Pakistan to manage and take care of the Sikh shrines in Pakistan. According to one press report there are nearly 172 historical Sikh shrines in Pakistan.
The families of Surjeet Singh, 23, and Gurvinder Singh, 18, then still captive, were hoping that Mangal Bagh, head of a local Taliban faction in the Tribal area, who charges non-Muslims of the area Rs1,000 per year as jaziya (tax imposed on non-Muslims by Islamic law) would negotiate their release without paying the Rs30 million ransom.
Eventually, they were rescued without paying any ransom -- thanks not to the intervention of any local Taliban but the military operation launched by Pakistani security forces. They made it out alive, although Surjeet Singh received a couple of gunshot wounds in the military operation.
That several militants were killed in the operation indicate the seriousness of the battle. This, however, may not now be enough assurance for the Sikh community of NWFP, shaken to the core by the killing of Jaspal Singh and the ongoing lawlessness and criminality in the area.
The writer is a freelance journalist
"I am like putty in the director's hands"
Shoaib Mansoor thinks no one can cry as convincingly onscreen as Zaib Rehman does. A lot of her costars in Shoaib's underproduction Bol regard her as a 'thinking' actress. The sequence in the film where she breaks down because her daughter has been given the death sentence is said to be scene stealing. Tell her all this and Zaib squirms, with an obvious sense of unease. "Oh, I've absolutely no such illusions about myself as an actor," she says softly, leaving the interviewer rather intrigued. "I don't know what is the theory or method of acting; I just try to follow the director's instructions. Period.
"You can say that I'm a director's actress," she concludes, rather defiantly.
As we settle in the exquisitely done, lower-ground drawing room of her large (read luxurious) mansion, led downstairs by a panel of speckless wooden stairs, where everything that meets the eye is satin and silk, one cannot miss a degree of serenity on her face. It's a quality that should be common only to women of substance. An LLM from the University of Punjab, Zaib is today a successful entrepreneur -- the CEO of Memaar Associates (she describes herself as a "builder"!) -- but the television audiences know her primarily as the powerhouse performer of such PTV classics of the 1980s as Andhera Ujala, Ragon Mein Andhera, Shikayatein Hikayatein and several other thought-provoking plays. And, it was this penchant for 'thought-provoking', meaningful drama that attracted her to such TV geniuses of the time as Muhammad Nisar Hussain (aka MNH), Ayub Khawar and, finally, Dr Enver Sajjad -- the man she went on to marry.
A proud wife ("Dr saheb and I are great friends with each other; we aren't your typical husband-wife!" she enthuses) and mother of two grown-up daughters, Zaib likes to spend time with her family. Socialising isn't her scene, she says. "When I am free from work, I like to be home. This helps keep my sanity intact. I listen to music, watch a lot of movies and I am a big foodie, too. Of course, I exercise religiously."
Acting, she adds, was never a priority. But she admits she is open to substantial offers "particularly of films. After MNH's death, I stopped doing TV". Her last stint on small screen, Pehli Si Mohabbat, happened eight years ago. It was penned by her scriptwriter cum actor hubby. Later, Zaib famously dubbed for the characters played by Irene Papas, in the Urdu versions of The Message and Lion of the Desert. Shoaib Mansoor's Bol seems to have come just at the right time "when film is all that interests me". She is all charged about the character she plays in the film. One has got to see her on the sets to believe it. Her childlike enthusiasm shows through, just like her ageless grace and poise. For Zaib Rehman, life after 40 has only just begun.
By Usman Ghafoor
The News on Sunday: It's after a gap of many years that you're returning to showbiz. What kept you away all this while?
Zaib Rehman: Well, honestly speaking, I didn't even realise so many years had passed. I was busy raising my children, managing home and my own business enterprise.
TNS: Isn't acting kind of addictive?
ZR: If you ask me, acting was never a priority. So that should explain why I wasn't 'addicted' to it, as you say. I worked for as long as I liked it. After MNH (Muhammad Nisar Hussain)'s death, TV was never the same. So I called it quits.
TNS: What tempted you to sign on Shoaib Mansoor's film?
ZR: Obviously, Shoaib Mansoor's name itself. No question about that. I was thrilled to bits when I got his call. I didn't even ask about the story line; I said yes rightaway.
TNS: How did you find his style of working?
ZR: It's great. Simply. In fact, Shoaib saheb reminded me of MNH. I was ushered on the sets that had the same ambience, the same seriousness about work, the same attention to detail.
TNS: Bol is your first film, right?
ZR: Right. But I am hoping we have more of such films and film makers here in Pakistan. Bol has been a very refreshing experience. Here I am, working among a bunch of educated, well behaved youngsters most of whom are film graduates from NCA or BNU. Look at the young girls who play my daughters; they're all doing amazingly well. Finally, there's a film that doesn't rely on the infamous 'bazaar'. This film should prove to be a turning point in the history of our cinema.
TNS: Interestingly, you never had a chance to work with Shoaib Mansoor on TV, did you?
ZR: No. I worked mostly with MNH and, later, with Yawar Hayat, Ayub Khawar and Rashid Dar.
TNS: Do you have any fond reminiscences of MNH that you can share with us?
ZR: Well, he was a very organised man. And he knew his scripts like the back of his hand. He wouldn't overlook a single stress or a single pause in a line. He'd make us rehearse for a good ten to fifteen days before we hit the floors. We were required to carry a pen and a notebook all through the rehearsals. He was an institution for us.
TNS: Which was your first acting assignment on TV?
ZR: It was Drama 81's Shikayatein Hikayatein, written by Bano apa.
TNS: Almost all the characters you played onscreen were strong, forceful women. Did you ever play lighter roles?
ZR: No. But then I don't know if I can play them at all!
TNS: Your plays with Dr Enver Sajjad were mostly surrealistic. Did you ever face any difficulty performing your parts?
ZR: Not at all. Sab khud hi ho jata tha!
TNS: That means you are a spontaneous performer?
ZR: I don't know. Perhaps, I am, in the sense that I don't know anything about the art or craft of acting and yet I am acting.
TNS: Would you call yourself a director's actress?
ZR: Completely. I am like putty in the director's hands.
TNS: Ever considered doing the kind of soap operas private TV channels are churning out these days?
ZR: No way. I am not comfortable doing serials, let alone soaps that go on and on. I am not trained in that format. I think I am good only for single plays. A single, complete play requires a unity of mood; it's easy for an actor to sustain that mood throughout. Whereas in a serial, the mood is lost. At least, I feel that way.
TNS: Are you your worst critic?
ZR: I sure am; that is why I never see my performances on TV. This can depress me, you know! (laughs).
TNS: What about doctor saheb? Is he critical of your work?
ZR: Well, first and foremost, he's a teacher and an inspiration. He bucks me up every time I am down. But my daughters are my harshest critics.
TNS: If you were asked to define your relationship with him, what would you say?
ZR: I'd say, he's a wonderful companion.
TNS: Was it easy for you to come out of his shadow?
ZR: I love being under his shadow, and I'd not like the situation to change. It gives me a great sense of security. I am not one of those female chauvinists who rant about their individuality and superiority over men, blah blah. I am a mother and a friend. And I am not a typical wife.
TNS: Are you a movie buff?
ZR: Big-time. The funny thing is, whenever I watch a movie, I watch it from the production point of view.
TNS: You were acting at a time when TV was ruled by star performers like Roohi Bano, Khalida Ryasat, Sarwat Ateeq, Uzma Gilani and Tahira Naqvi. Did you socialise with them?
ZR: No, unfortunately, I didn't. I'd be occupied with my own things all the time. Otherwise also, I am not a social person. Whatever socialising I get to do is thanks to doctor saheb because he has guests over. It's compulsive socialising.
TNS: When did you start your own business?
ZR: In 2002.
TNS: What is your average workday like?
ZR: Let this be a secret, please! (smiles) Let me just say I am a gym person. I do cardio regularly. But I don't diet; I am a big foodie.
TNS: Is there a secret of your timelessness?
ZR: I think the secret is positivity. I try to stay positive. I mind my own work and don't indulge in family politics.
TNS: Are you a reader?
ZR: No. With doctor saheb around, I don't need to be. He is a walking, talking book. So, I just listen to him. That's it.
Ajoka's latest production Dara courageously took up an issue that is outside the pale of intellectual discourse
By Sarwat Ali
Historical characters and events often have been the subject of art. Some great man, some event or series of events with historical bearings have been the choice of many writers, poets and above all playwrights. Most of the plays of Shakespeare are about figures that ushered in some new era or unleashed a series of events that have had a bearing on the course of history.
One such period in the history of the subcontinent has been the last phase of the Mughal rule which cast its long shadow on the course of history because the political acumen of the Mughals expressed through sulah e kul was replaced by a more stringently exclusionist policy.
This debate about what would have happened if decisions had been taken differently at critical junctures is a matter of endless curiosity and academic sophistry. But it assumes importance if the society is placed in a historical situation where the same kind of choice becomes relevant. Obviously many options can be considered, weighed against each other and rethought in the light of the historical decisions and a play created. Ajoka being more responsive to the contemporary happenings chose to bring forth the dilemma which has often rocked societies -- the choice between strict, narrow exclusionist roads to be taken or the one which is broadened, inclusive, determined more by circumstances of history than righteousness of exercising a belief. In both cases the decision is political; the flood caused by an individual act inundating larger area of society by breaing the dykes.
Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb found themselves at one such juncture of history and the man of action, as usually happens, was pitched against the man of ideas. Thinkers and philosophers have always tried to bridge this essential gap and labelled such idealised construction as the priest king or the philosopher king but it has been rare in history that such a gap was bridged. The men of action have mostly triumphed on the firmness of one dimensionality and dithering on the multiplicity of options has defeated the philosopher. Dara Shikoh's all-inclusive approach in the realm of ideas could not withstand the onslaught of ruthless pragmatism.
The levers of practical and power politics were pulled more pragmatically by the power broker than the ones indulging the fanciful flights in the realm of the possible. Again the divide that has hardly been bridged stood poles apart in its tragic inevitability. The play, as indeed the historical episode, had overtones of the tragic weaved into the fabric of the play.
In Dara, Ajoka's production written and directed by Shahid Mehmood Nadeem and staged at the Alhamra last week it appeared that the play, despite the rhetoric and the charged ideological debate, remained external to the characters. The focus was blurred and Dara Shikoh did not stand out as the main character as the effect was spread thin over three characters, Dara Shikoh, Shah Jehan and Aurangzeb. It seemed there were three tragic figures seeking redemption in a primarily damnable world.
Dara had strong overtones of Bullah, the play that had been hugely successful for it debated the various attitudes in life and philosophy and it seemed that the same argument was carried forward in this play but was not internalised enough to become an authentic conflict. It appeared more to be a tragedy of circumstances than the consequence of an unkindest cut. The antithesis to Aurangzeb was in the form of Sarmad Farsi, the mystic who represented the more humane and liberal outlook on life. Perhaps it would have been better dramatically if the antithesis had been placed within the person of Dara, his character infused with more angst to fret over the issue.
The quality of music in Ajoka plays has improved over the years. Initially it was in the hands of rank amateurs. Someone initiated like Israr Ahmed probably made the compositions but its execution was by actors not fully trained to be musicians or vocalists. The result was quite discordant -- it was more like paying lip service to the traditional forms replete with music and dance or it appeared to be a wilful parody of that traditional theatre. Even if it were not, it did not add to the overall impact of the play because of its poor quality. It was in earnest an effort to supplement the action of the play and to make its message more palatable. In the last few performances the quality of music, singing in particular has improved primarily because Ajoka has been working with professional vocalists and musicians and that has added another dimension to the quality of the production of the group.
The contribution of music composer Ustad Talat Hadayat and vocalists Khawar Qawwal and Party should be lauded. Now it appears, as it has happened in our subcontinental films and also our commercial/traditional theatre, the musical input is so strong that it takes over and assumes an autonomous form. This, of course, is a kind of a throw back to the essential vision and understanding that the unity of form is only achievable in the arts. This was one of the great attractions of the traditional vision of life and existence which saw and made the arts the place where the irreconcilables were unified which otherwise was not possible in existence. This also betrayed the necessity of art.
It may be said in the same breath that it has been quite courageous of Ajoka to be staging plays on the issues now seen to be outside the pale of intellectual discourse and capable of inciting a violent response. The most impressive performance was by Sarfaraz Ansari as Aurangzeb and others with notable presence were Furqan Majeed as Dara, Imranul Haq as Shah Jehan, Tahira Imam as Jahan Ara and Eva Majid as Roshan Ara. Usman Zia as Sarmad Farsi also showed promise.
Discovering Shahbaz Malik a year after his death
By Quddus Mirza
The door bell rings in the middle of the night. I rush to the gate, open it and see Shahbaz Malik standing there. Dressed in a blue shirt and dark trousers, he looked slightly larger than his usual built. My instant reaction is to greet him... but I realise Shahbaz died more than a year ago. I scream and rush inside the house.
A strange dream. It frightened me. I couldn't fall back to sleep for the rest of the night, and a few nights after.
Yes, strange as it may be, his appearance in my dream signifies multiple things: it was perhaps a recollection of his routine Sunday morning trips to my house -- often unannounced, with new paintings or pictures of his latest canvases or to talk about art in general. How we disagreed with each other in discussion! We both knew our relationship sometimes turned cold (due to heated discussions) but we were one family; as close as blood relations.
More than a year has passed since Malik left us (in December 2008). It would therefore be relevant to examine all that surrounded the painter who despite difficulties continued to produce till his last days. Malik chose art as his profession after his graduation from NCA in 1986. Although he enjoyed brief stints of teaching in Bahawalpur and Lahore, he was primarily a painter. His canvases reflect a strong soul that may be turbulent but not tarnished.
After the initial overwhelming success with galleries and collectors, his later years were marked by a decline in the reception of his art. But this change neither dejected nor distracted him. On the contrary, it motivated him -- to paint more, and to call me in the early hours eager to inform me about the number, medium and scale of paintings he had done and the new imagery he was dealing with. Our conversation always ended with him promising to courier pictures of his recent work to keep the discussion going -- that discussions never happened is another story. I regularly received packet from Bahawalpur or Multan, but by the time I dialled his number to discuss the work there would be new work on the way, more images to discuss and so on.
Now with all that in the past, I wonder about the phenomenon Shahbaz Malik was. Despite financial constraints and emotional failures, Malik continued to paint -- even if his work was not exhibited regularly or purchased sufficiently. He painted every day. He even reworked his old canvases. And so he has left a vast quantity of artworks.
Now the claim of an Islamabad-based art critic of possessing Malik's prime canvases (acquired free), and the rise or decline of his prices is pointless -- for the painter did not strive for a place in the market or favours from writers. He was never bogged down by the growing distance between him and his friends, (including the scribe), cold shoulder from the galleries and reluctance of the collectors to purchase his art. He lived in his art -- and was an apt example of Salman Rushdie's statement that an artist's or a writer's real home is his art.
Though prolific in producing art, he was not a labourer. His comments, reactions and responses were profound and candid, true and humorous, and hence were eagerly awaited and enjoyed by a generation of younger artists, including Ahmed Ali Manganhar, Mohammad Ali Talpur and others.
Sadly, in the later years, Malik got a rough deal – a heart disease combined with a disheartening attitude and behaviour extended to him by his contemporaries. Malik belonged to a different league of artists. He was not interested in networking, self-projection or aggressive marketing. He believed in making images and sharing them with others in the form of exhibitions (normal course of action for a painter).
Presumably this 'odd' behaviour was reflected in his selection of unusual colour palette. Several admired it. A few felt uneasy. Essentially, his vibrant and clashing hues left the same effect on a viewer as his unique personality had on his contemporaries. He made others nervous. Shahbaz was a mirror for them, in which they could see themselves, their fame, their desire to succeed and the short history of their compromises – often necessary to retain their position and power in the art market. The visitor from Bahawalpur posed an existential question relating to the role of artist -- whether he should function as the conscience of society or just succumb to worldly temptations.
There is no harm in artists' ascent to power and privileges. Perhaps Shahbaz Malik aspired to that position too. But he was not the corporate seller of ideas and images. Today there aren't many like him around us. Probably his second coming in my dream reiterated that an artist cannot be gauged by his cash value but his aesthetic outputs.
A year after Malik's death, I realise he belongs to another world – and so I finally delete his name and number from my mobile phone.