and unsung -- not quite
Music for seasons
Ethics of reporting terrorism
We mustn't caricaturise terrorism or oversimplify the narrative needed to report on an issue that is deepening our perceptions on the subject
By Adnan Rehmat
It is merely an interesting coincidence that the opening up of airwaves to private ownership and the ensuing plethora of independent television channels and radio stations coming online in Pakistan and the rise of militant extremism in the country have been a simultaneous development over the better part of the first decade of the new millennium. What is not a coincidence, however, is that the two phenomena have come to so deeply affect Pakistan as to change forever the way of life in the country.
Since the seminal 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States in 2001 and Washington's tracing back its origins to al-Qaeda and the latter's presence in the Pak-Afghan region, terrorism, militancy and extremism have engulfed Pakistan, to put it mildly. Over 20,000 civilians alone have died in terrorist attacks across the country, a large number in suicide attacks during this period. Military casualties also run into a few thousand as the al-Qaeda-Taliban combine reacted to an apparent change in policy of Pakistan's security Establishment to counter the wave of militancy that posed a serious challenge to the state.
More terrorism, more coverage
As the attacks on civilian and military targets grew in numbers and brazenness -- and casualties mounted -- over the last six years in general and the last three years in particular, more current affairs TV channels in the private sector came online in Pakistan to coincide with this period and the coverage of ongoing terrorism has grown phenomenally to keep pace with the attacks. Currently there are about 90 TV channels in Pakistan of which around 30 are current affairs, news and information channels -- half of these in local languages such as Seraiki, Pashto, Sindhi, Punjabi and Balochi -- that run round-the-clock: 24/7 with their staple diet of sound bites.
More information in more languages -- and for the first time in real-time -- is being generated, processed and consumed in Pakistan now than ever in the country's history. It's almost if the virtual information darkness of the first 55 years of the country is now being avenged by a people whose hunger for information can't be easily satiated. Pakistan's is the curious case of a country whose prime time comprises, instead of entertainment to soften the sharp edges of their weary days, of talk shows that focus on hard politics. Virtually all of the dozens of current affairs channels are running 7pm-9pm talk shows, 9pm-10pm news and more discussion shows during 10pm-11pm; all this on top of on-the-hour news throughout the day.
Professional terrorists, amateur media
Consider the impact of ongoing terrorist acts in the backdrop of an information-crazy media and information-crazy people. As soon as there is even a rumour of an attack (and there have been over 2,000 in the decade), it is presented as "breaking news." It is routine for channels to run tickers or even interrupt normal programming to announce that an explosion has been heard in city "X" and efforts are afoot to locate the site of the blast and the cause of it! And before you can say "suicide attack," the reporters converge on the scene and start transmitting amateur footage with the watermark of it being exclusive (how can a public event being covered by dozens of channels be exclusive beats me) and more often than not, an out-of-breath reporter/correspondent offering a panicky description that is basically repetitive, uninformative and stating of the obvious. The on-the-spot coverage narrative almost invariably centers on four reporting emphases:
Where and why
1) "It is not certain whether this was a bomb blast or a suicide attack". Not sure why would a reporter want to determine this upfront. This is for forensic experts to find out as part of the post-event investigation by security agencies to offer clues to which groups use which strategies. It does not occur to the media that a final determination of this fact as part of live coverage is not essential as it will not change the fact that a terrorist attack has occurred and there are casualties.
2) "X numbers of persons are dead and/or injured". This one is understandable albeit unnecessary immediately; after all a media consuming public wants to determine how much it should be emotionally invested in absorbing the attack and its scale and fashion a response of outrage. However, the number of casualties is again for security, rescue and medical services to determine and it is a fact impossible to determine immediately. Unless it is a small attack with clearly limited damage, the number of casualties should not be the key part of the on-the-spot coverage of the immediate aftermath of the attack. We see that it invariably takes about 3 to 5 hours to get accurate figures and these in the event come not from reporters who don't go and count casualties anyway, but from the relevant authorities. In the meanwhile, various channels continue giving varying figures. This obsession of the media of immediate and intense speculation on the number of casualties is unhealthy for all parties. The numbers of casualties should be part of a post-attack analysis and motives, not live coverage.
Who and what
3) "X can be involved in the attack" / "No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack". This is usually forced out of a government functionary, usually a police officer, within minutes of the live coverage starting. Almost no reporter mentions the "T" word (Taliban) or the "A" word (al-Qaeda) although usually the blame is lain on safe if vague actors such as "mulk-dushman anasir" (anti-state elements), "dehshat-gard" (terrorists), "khufia haath" (hidden hands), and even occasionally "Bharat" (India). For live coverage of an immediate aftermath of an attack, what does it matter who was behind it? That should be for the security agencies to investigate and pin the blame and naturally that can only come after some time, not immediately.
4) "Tell our viewers what happened". Within five minutes of the reporter getting to the site, he thrusts the mike in the face of a usually dazed person who was in the vicinity of the attack and has survived, and asks this question. Blasts and their shockwaves affect the senses deeply. How is it possible for a survivor of sorts (even if s/he wasn't directly hit by a blast) to accurately piece together what happened? By using survivors thus, the media wants to substitute him/her as its proxy reporter. Naturally, the standard survivor narrative is something like this: "I was going (to place X) when there was a sudden blast and I fell down. There was chaos, and victims, everywhere."
What is wrong with the media?
Considering this predictable primal response mechanism of the media to a blast/attack, terrorist groups in Pakistan have recently been staging "media events" -- attacks designed to happen in a way that ensures: (1) media coverage that is almost immediate -- hence attacks usually happen in vicinities of media infrastructure concentration such as large cities like Peshawar /outskirts, Lahore, Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Quetta, etc, and (2) media coverage that is ongoing and stretched over several hours -- hence most attacks taking place around morning, noon and evening rush hours that can both claim big casualties and cause panic for a populace desperate to know the whereabouts of their family members, or like the serial blasts of Lahore recently aimed at forcing media to run all over the place in a short time in panic and to spread and translate that media panic on the screen and so easily terrorise millions of people.
What has to be right with the media
One of the key challenges of the media in Pakistan today is an institutional inattention to second-generation media. The first-generation media reforms in Pakistan entailed increasing media space, pluralisms of media operators and numbers of media practitioners. This has been successful. The second-generation reforms are not quite setting in, and require (1) building thematic expertise of media (reporters who specialise in particular subjects and stick to their beats and so know what they are talking about), (2) enhancing technical capacity of media (being creative about reporting events rather than make a mockery of information dissemination that requires mandatory extended live coverage of anything/ everything), and (3) improving professional media standards (particularly ethics of reporting terrorism in general and live coverage of events that spread fear, terror and despair, in particular).
At the start of the decade, there were about 2,000 journalists in Pakistan and at the end of it, there are an estimated 10,000. Their average age has come down from about their early 40s to their early 20s. That's a lot of inexperience permeating media. Lots of trainings of varying kinds are needed to build their professional capacities. Without this, the media in Pakistan will not just remain amateur in general (despite the many things that are right with it and can even generate pious pride) but even degenerate into tabloidisation, as is already happening. We mustn't caricaturise terrorism or oversimplify the narrative needed to report on an issue that is deepening our perceptions on the subject. It's great that media has helped the people and the powers-that-be in Pakistan de-link terrorism and Islam and exposed the militant forces using it as a political tool. But from a conceptual plane, there needs to be now an emphasis on humanisation of this issue so that the break is complete. The media can move its focus from terror (aspect on outcome) to terrorism (aspect on its impact) with an in-house, collective effort at greater professionalism.
Politics in art
Artists find it difficult to detach themselves from the issues of current times in a recent exhibition of Artists' Association of Punjab at Lahore's Alhamra
By Quddus Mirza
Perhaps only a statistician could keep a record of the frequent bomb explosions around us. Terror and the war against it have affected everybody, and there are diverse positions on them. There are sections of society that harbour sympathy for the extremists while others vehemently reject their fundamentalist ideas and narrow world view and openly criticise them.
Apparently the sympathisers are far too many because every attack is believed to have been the handiwork of "India", "Israel", "America" and the "West" in general. As for the warriors of faith living in caves, they seem to embody the forces of resistance against colonial powers, the anti-imperialists.
In this labyrinth of conflicting views and contrasting positions, the artist feels a sense of disorientation. Where he belongs is the existential question for him as a creative individual. A number of artists support action against extremists. But one realises that in the process of creating art there are no clear and specific spheres -- of being politically correct or incorrect. Most art emerges from the realm of unknown, impulse and (self) doubt.
This interaction with the unknown is probably the most fascinating aspect of an artist's craft. For example, a creative person may strongly believe in something, yet during the process of producing art (or a piece of writing) he starts suspecting his firmly-adopted and long-cherished beliefs. For him art-making is a way to discover the other side of accepted facts. And here lies the difference between a poet and a prophet; the former dwells upon the unknown, the latter presents and communicates the already established knowledge. Thus if an artist initiates an idea and later converts it into an ideology or dogma, he ceases to remain an artist and joins the ranks of a messenger or a reformer.
That pious position is difficult to attain because, in a sense, artists are the most devious characters; they are not too fond of faith or of being faithful. They live in an atmosphere of uncertainty. It is the grey area of doubt that paves the way for freshly-found truths. For an artist, it is difficult to say what is right because art by its nature poses speculations, suspicions and subversions.
However, this does not mean that creative individuals detach themselves from issues of their times. Thus art and its producers face a dilemma: make a commitment through their work and serve an immediate purpose for society or remain aloof for the greater service to humanity and art? According to Nadine Gordimer: "If destiny is political, politics and literature cannot be kept hierarchically apart". One can replace literature with art since in our circumstances artists can not avoid being political – they are equally exposed to becoming a subject of political violence while sitting in a coffee shop, shopping in bazaar, waiting for the bus or walking along a busy road. Their destiny can reach them anywhere and in an instant they can be transformed from living beings into the details of breaking news.
Yet when an artist faces the outside world and is required to assume a definitive position, he is perplexed -- because his stance differs from the official line or course of action. And in more than one instances, it is the artist's view that prevails. This is visible in the recent exhibition of Punjab Artists' Association (currently on display at Alhamra Art Gallery, Lahore). Here a number of artists have shown their deep concerns about the conflicts of our times -- with personal angle. Along with the usual examples of landscapes, figurative works and still life, a number of artists have rendered images pertaining to the current situation. This is evident especially in the paintings of Mian Ijaz ul Hassan, especially a man is lamenting while he stands alone against a scene of death and destruction; in the video installation of Rahat Naveed Masud that focuses on the altered urban scenario with barricades, barriers, barbed wires and sand bags.
Similarly Ishtiaq Sindhu paints a figure that is visibly affected by the cruelties in his surroundings and Yasir Azeem composes a bleeding heart placed on the plate and a pair of hands ready to slice it with knife and fork. These artists have approached the issue of violence, mortality, insecurity and fear that has modified both our social scenario as well as our psyche.
Looking at the exhibition at Alhamra, one realises that it difficult to damage the psyche of an artist; with his inner voice he is able to move away from the norm and focus on another – the personal – conflict. This is what makes him different, dissident and desirable.
The story of how one man's initiative set a chain of events that restored dignity to Mubarak Begum, a forgotten playback singer in Mumbai
By Siraj Khan
It must have been the saddest message that anybody would hope to receive on New Years Day. The year 2008 had just begun and the place was Boston, USA.
I had just learnt from a friend, SC Bhatia (based in New Delhi) that yesteryear's queen of playback singers Mubarak Begum was barely alive and was struggling amidst many hardships in Mumbai. I heard that in her twilight years and facing multiple health issues herself, she was having a hard time keeping her head above water. With little or no income she had the additional responsibility of taking care of her 40-year old daughter, who is suffering from advanced Parkinson's Disease. The singer's husband had walked out on her many years ago and her only son was a cab driver with his own family to look after. She did not even have money to buy medicines let alone food and was living in a two-room dilapidated government flat in Jogeshwari. Mubarak Begum was clearly a forgotten part of Bollywood's history, having last sung for films 40 years ago.
I obtained her phone number within a couple of days and called her from Boston. She herself picked up the phone. I introduced myself as her fan, and mentioned her song Nigahon se dil mein chalay aye ga as an ice-breaker to get the conversation going. As we talked, in response to my questions, she related her nightmarish tale of survival. During the conversation, I was struck by her lack of self-pity – and her voice: she sounded as if she was in her 40s, not 70s. Her unfortunate circumstances had clearly failed to contaminate the gift that God had given her in abundance. Despite her misfortunes, her voice remained miraculously unaffected: it was so saturated in melody even as she spoke that I could not help requesting her to sing a few lines from Mujh ko apne galay laga lo... She hesitated, but then obliged. I was dumbstruck.
On January 12, 2008, I sent an email to my inner circle of local friends, seeking financial assistance for her. We – expatriate Pakistani as well as Indians professionals -- managed to raise over a thousand dollars in just three days. I wired her the funds. More importantly, a journalist friend then based in Boston, Beena Sarwar, forwarded my message to friends in India. That set the torch alight. My e-mail ended up being published in various journals and periodicals in India, having been "upgraded" to an article. As they began hearing about Mubarak Begum's plight, admirers, Bollywood personalities included, started to take action. Visitor traffic started to form outside her humble abode. Reporters of prominent magazines followed.
Even women's rights activists wanted to support her. My next challenge was to convince her to perform on stage, because it wasn't just about sending her money to enable her to live with dignity. I also wanted her to regain her self-esteem and pride. Fortunately, I wasn't the only one to think on those lines. Actor Nana Patekar lost no time in arranging a concert for Bibi, as she is affectionately known, in Pune, early February 2008. Mubarak Begum was nervous and it took some time to convince her that she could do it. And she did. Her stage presence was simply magical. She received unprecedented appreciation and a standing ovation, plus a purse of Rs50,000.
Next to follow was an incredible benefit concert Hamari Yaad Ayegi organised in New Delhi on April 13, 2008, by friends Naveen Anand, Purinder Ganju and Prithvi Haldea. Salma Sultan of Doordarshan fame hosted the colourful event. Shikha Biswas Vohra, the illustrious daughter of the late maestro Anil Biswas, arranged the music with her music group Sangeet Smriti. Mubarak Begum received tremendous accolades. The organisers raised funds, and passed on a net Rs300,000 to her.
On the heels of the Delhi concert came her highly publicised Hyderabad concert in July 2008. By this time, a prominent Zee TV personality (who wishes to remain anonymous) had pledged to deposit a monthly sum of Rs10,000 in Bibi's bank account, an arrangement that continues to this day.
Mubarak Begum has not looked back. She has enjoyed performing regularly on stage in Baroda, Chandigarh, and several times again in Pune, New Delhi and Mumbai. In October 2009, The Rafi Lovers Circle invited her to Kolkata and presented her with the Rafi Memorial Award for 2009. The Rafi Foundation Mumbai presented her with the Mohammad Rafi Award on the late singer's birthday in December 2009. At all these events, she has been prominent on stage, coordinating with local musicians, singing her hit songs, leaving audiences spellbound with her performance, her sense of humour, renditions of classic Urdu poetry and contagious stage presence.
These concerts have obviously benefited her tremendously. In these past two years, she has managed to pay off all her loans and retrieve her personal jewellery held collateral by lenders. Her flat has been repaired and renovated appreciably. Her daughter is now able to get proper medicines and regular medical attention. As Mubarak Begum's story continues to unfold at this stage in her life, I am compelled to wonder whether there are likes of it anywhere in the world of music.
Post script: Put your speakers on and listen to this awesome song. Mubarak Begum sings a haunting number for a Pakistani film Raaz in 1957, picturised on Shamim Ara before she became a big star. We did so much towards cultural diplomacy in those days, before we lost our way -
http://tinyurl.com/ycbwn8m (incidentally, there are three other songs of Bibi singing in Raaz on YouTube -- in a way a raaz in itself!)
Siraj Khan is a Boston-based Pakistani lover of Indo-Pak film music.
Basant is considered by musicologists and practising musicians as one of the six fundamental raags
By Sarwat Ali
Spring is celebrated in a number of ways in this part of the world. The most striking festival has been that of Basant, which unfortunately now is only considered in terms of kite flying, and the security risks that it involves or truly speaking, we do not have an occasion to celebrate the arrival of spring barring the state sponsored events which usually go by the label of jashan-e-baharaan.
But for centuries and probably more, basant has been celebrated in many ways -- the most prominent being through music. So ingrained has been the musical expression that several raags have been named after basant and bahaar with a large number of melodic variations composed and elaborated around these raags. So ancient has been this tradition that basant is considered by musicologists and practicing musicians as being the one of the six fundamental raags from where all the raginis, purtras, bharayas etc. have been conceived.
There are, of course, conflicting views about the origin of the raags including the six foundational or fundamental raags. Depending on religious and cultural orientation/ denomination, these six raags were the gift of the gods to mankind, which showed them the way of making music from these primal sources. But according to others, these six raags were actually based on the six seasons that spanned the entire year. Basant was one of the six foundational raags celebrating and signifying the importance of spring. In some of the matts, raag hindol is substituted by raag basant, as hindol too has connotations of fructifying, blossoming and regeneration, the primary cause for the celebration of spring. The coming of life or a new born is always a source of extreme satisfaction with the implied announcement that mankind has not yet lost hope. Every new born brings his own recipe of hope to make the cycle of existence meaningful.
In Punjab, as indeed in other parts of the subcontinent, the arrival of spring was attached to basant which was a specific date in the calendar, the fifth day of Magh was vasant panchami. A weather-based solar calendar is lost to the culture that bases its division of the year on the sighting of the moon.
Along with basant, bahaar was also sung and one of the most famous bandishes in bahaar is attributed to Amir Khusro. The flying of the kites too is associated with Amir Khusro and announces even in that legend the recuperation from illness of Nizamuddin Aulia, and the subsequent expression of happiness in the form of splashing of colour. Many sufi shrines made basant a part of their ritualistic practices. Other than Nizam Auliya Ki Basant, Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki Ki Basant was also ranged around the shrine of the sufi saint.
Another festival for the arrival of spring is Holi and, besides the random throwing and spraying of colour, songs are also sung on the occasion. These songs over a period of time have assumed the status of a form and became specialised musical items. Thus hori, a composition set to a particular rhythmic pattern, the dhammar has became a form of singing. It is quite common for people to take the name of hori dhammar in the same breath.
Lahore and Kasur celebrated basant with vengeance. Other cities in Punjab, Sindh, Frontier and Balochistan have been late starters with basant festivities, that is kite flying, not more than forty years old. But, in Lahore, basant is always a big occasion meaning kite flying and revelry.
In the days gone by Mela Chiraghaan too was celebrated with splendour. Usually associated with Shah Hussan it was an occasion for much music and dancing. It is said that in the Mughal, Sikh and British era, it was celebrated in Shalamar Gardens where the main emphasis was on music and dance and not kite flying. People wore dresses, which displayed the colours of spring -- saffron in particular and sometimes dhani most striking in headgears. The entire Shalamar Gardens were lit with lamps especially the chinikhana and it was named Mela Chiraghaan as fire was lit around the shrine of Shah Hussain, and remained lighted till the end of the mela for full three days as people danced wearing ghongroos and played the dhol. It was the most important event in the cultural life of Punjab.
The relationship of nature with sound, unless scientifically spelled out, remains a myth or at best a commonly held belief but the underlying assumption that a certain sequence of notes can influence nature has been endemic in ancient scholarship. An organic link between the various manifestations in nature, whether it be in the form of a human body or in the form of elements, is obviously the result of a universe which is integrated and where man is not alienated. He forms very much a central part of the larger scheme of creation.
This integrative assumption was also obvious in other explanations of characteristics of music -- its relationship with time. There were laid down principles as to which raag was supposed to be sung at what time, and what aesthetic impression it created. And then there was the most nebulous relationship between musical sound and the state of human emotion. It was and is not possible to say that a certain composition can create happiness and a certain composition creates gloom.
Our musical system and its legends are all related to the worldview that it is one large whole where the sphere of individual activities do not operate individually but at some level are linked in a way that is a challenge for the frontiers of knowledge.