Butterfly Begum is back
Dear All,
I have just finished reading Moni Mohsin’s new novel ‘Tender Hooks’ whose narrator is the “social butterfly” of the memorable The Friday Times back page column Diary of a Social Butterfly.
Those of you familiar with that particular column will remember that the eponymous Butterfly was a superficial, materialistic Lahori socialite whose life was measured in terms of diamonds, pashminas, social ‘triumphs’, being invited to the right parties and generally being part of the moneyed, label-conscious elite. She sounds dreadful but actually her naiveté and her honesty made her rather an endearing character, and by the end of this novel she somehow manages to endear herself to the reader even more.

As soon as Abdul Mateen Shinwari parked his 55-feet long 22-wheeler vehicle in the spacious parking lot of a roadside hotel on the Kohat Road in the suburbs of Peshawar, a cleaner started running to place wooden planks on both sides of the trailer’s tyres. Another helper climbed up the vehicle to pour fresh water into a hosepipe that was connected to the radiator as the driver revved the noisy engine for a short time to cool it down before switching it off.

It was a break for the afternoon prayers and lunch for Abdul Mateen Shinwari and his two-men crew. They had last stopped for morning prayers and breakfast near the Bannu city in the southern part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Abdul Mateen headed to the toilets to make ablution for prayers while one helper went inside the restaurant to place the order for meal. The other helper started to check for any leakages in the 45-feet long tanker carrying 60,000 litres of GP1 fuel that would fuel the American tanks, armoured vehicles, power generators and other mechanised equipment at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. He then surveyed every tyre by knocking it with his fingers for any unwanted sound that could mean low air pressure.

After the three men had offered their prayers, they sat to eat chicken karahi. “Our life is now full of fear and we try to forget the worries by eating good food wherever we go. This is how we make ourselves happy,” Abdul Mateen told TNS while ingesting a chunk from the well-cooked meaty chicken leg.

He said the situation changed drastically over the past year for him and other drivers of oil tankers from Karachi to Afghanistan. “I feel relatively safe driving all the way from Karachi to Mianwali. After that fear of mishap crowds my mind,” he conceded.

Abdul Mateen, wearing shalwar-kameez and a white cap, was joined by two drivers after lunch. They rested against big pillows placed on the elevated cemented structure inside the restaurant while sitting on low-cost carpet. Eating while seated on the floor is the preferred way for the drivers in these roadside ‘dhabas’. Tea was ordered and the men began discussing their tough life.

For Zarin Afridi, another driver, life had completely changed with the rise in attacks on oil tankers supplying oil to Nato forces in Afghanistan.

Four months ago Zarin Afridi’s oil tanker was destroyed in a terrorist attack in Khairabad near Nowshera. Up to 49 tankers were destroyed in that attack by unknown militants on October 6, 2010.

Zarin Afridi told TNS he was compensated for his destroyed oil tanker, but still lost nearly Rs700,000 as the insurance company had a policy of paying 12.5 per cent less than the actual price of the vehicle. “My Hino truck cost me Rs4.5 million but I got back less than Rs4 million. I paid Rs60,000 to register the incident with the police while towing the burned vehicle by a crane to Karachi cost me another Rs65,000,” he explained.

According to Zarin Afridi, his family has been in the transport business since the time of his great grandfather -- therefore it is impossible for him to change his occupation. “This is the only job I know. From Karachi to Khyber all the religious leaders say that drivers like me, who are transporting Nato supplies, are working for infidels and it is fair to wage jihad against us,” he said.

Almost all the owners of oil tankers destroyed in the October 6, 2010, attacks in Khairabad have been compensated by their respective contractors, but only a few have been able to restart their business after suffering heavy losses.

Before those attacks, Muntazir Khan Shinwari owned three twenty-wheeler trucks worth Rs12.5 million. All his fuel-filled vehicles destined for Bagram airbase were destroyed in the incident.

Muntazir Shinwari told TNS he received a phone call about the attacks from one of his drivers within 10 minutes of the incident. “I could hardly hear my driver’s voice due to the noise of gunshots and screams of labourers in the background. I advised my workers to forget the vehicles and run for their lives,” he recalled.

Muntazir Shinwari had bought his vehicles with money borrowed from contractors in Karachi and had only recently returned the loan of one lorry in installments. “I have to pay full price of Rs8 million for two trucks. I don’t know if I should buy new vehicles with the compensation money or return it to my lenders,” the hard-pressed Muntazir Afridi said. In a dejected voice, he confided that he now drove a relative’s oil tanker. From an owner, he had turned into a driver on a salary.

While talking on the phone from Karachi, Shakir Afridi, the president of the Khyber Transport Association in Karachi, said: “There was reasonable income in the oil supply business, but increased risks has taken the gloss away from it. We get Rs11.5 per litre to carry fuel to Bagram, Rs11 to Kabul city and Tarinkot in the central Urozgan province, Rs9 to Jalalabad and Rs6.5 to Kandahar, which is the nearest of the five destinations in Afghanistan,” he informed.

Kandahar and Tarinkot are accessible via the Chaman border linking Balochistan with Afghanistan while the other three destinations could be reached through Peshawar and then Torkham in the Khyber Agency.

Shakir Afridi explained that there were a number of toll plazas and countless surprise checks by law enforcing agencies all the way from Karachi to the Afghan border and drivers were forced to pay unreasonable tolls and taxes. “If the driver and his cleaners are quick and efficient, they can get past the checkpoints by paying a few thousand rupees. The unlucky ones end up paying up to Rs10, 000,” he said.

He admitted that many Pakistanis hated those associated with oil tankers for helping the enemies of Islam by supplying them fuel. “Religious scholars, politicians, police and even the general people tell us that we are working for the infidels and our earnings are haram. At petrol stations, roadside hotels, depots and mosques, we are unwelcome and often we aren’t allowed to park our vehicles overnight because they fear attacks by militants,” he narrated.

Shakir Afridi, who belongs to Khyber Agency but is unable to go there due to threats by militant commander Mangal Bagh, said the charges for a night stay at terminals, hotels and petrol stations rise with every big attack on oil tankers. “We used to pay Rs500 per night a year ago but the rates started rising with every attack. In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, charges for a night’s stay shot up to Rs10,000 in October 2010 after the attacks in Khairabad. Now some drivers have reportedly paid Rs18,000 for a night after the last attack on oil tankers in Peshawar,” he claimed.

By the time our conversation ended, the drivers had sipped their ‘teza chai’ (strong tea with milk) and were ready to resume their journey.

If all goes well, Abdul Mateen said, they would drive through the Khyber Pass and reach the border town of Torkham for an overnight stay. “We would cross the Durand Line border early morning and try to reach Bagram north of Kabul in the afternoon. The fear of attacks on our vehicles stays with us until we enter the US airbase at Bagram because the Afghan Taliban also don’t spare us,” he said.

Once in Bagram, Abdul Mateen’s 1,500-kilometre journey from Karachi would end after being on the road for seven days and nights. His reward for the risky trip would be Rs690,000, obviously minus the cost of diesel, food, night-stays and taxes.

Hasnat belongs to the second generation of miniaturists who, after Shahzia, Imran, Talha, Aisha and Nusra, have been trying to make their individual and undeniable mark in the long list of modern miniature artists.

Hasnat has been exploring a sort of conceptual art within the aesthetics of miniature painting. In his last exhibition at Rohtas 2 in Lahore, Mehmood had tried to comment upon the institution of gallery and the ritual of exhibiting works of art, and how the act of showing is related to the act of creating art. In his recent exhibition at Poppy Seed Gallery in Karachi (being held from Feb 27 to March 13, 2011) one can see the artist’s attempts at conceptual art, at the expense of object making so dear to our miniature painters. Traditionally, miniature artists have been known for fabricating their intricate imagery through a much laboured process and hard work but, in modern times, painters have changed this notion. Now one can witness miniature being created in the shortest span of time and miniaturists are having shows more regularly and frequently than painters or even printmakers.

Yet many artists are using their hands, paints and brushes to create quick and painterly surfaces. Perhaps the idea of ‘handmade’ is still dear to the heirs of the glorious heritage of the Mughal and other court paintings of our region. The touch of hand, even if it is to render loosely-handled paint or minimal imagery, is believed to add a sense of authenticity, originality and thus value to the art work: a kind of signature for each painter that has continued in different disguises in the works of modern miniature painters.

Hasnat Mehmood likes to go against the tide and this is nothing new. Ever since his series of photographic prints from Around Miniature, an exhibition curated on the idea of miniature, was held in 2001 at Canvas Gallery, Karachi, he has showed an urge to deviate from the usual and a preference for something unorthodox and untamed. In the recent exhibition, too, he manages to construct a language that is connected to miniature, but in reality does not have much to do with the revived form of this genre. In this exhibition, he has displayed a series of currency notes, altered and twisted, small books with portions of notes on their sides and spines and shelves of tiny books bearing names of different individuals.

In the series of currency notes, layers of identical notes are pasted on top of each other in such a way that both the face on one side and the recognisable scenery on the other are altered, or two notes of varying values are composed as one, thus challenging our habit of treating familiar as part of our system. Likewise, on the covers of several books, a cutout of Quaid-e-Azam’s portrait and patterns from currency notes are glued in different schemes. In this body of work, Mehmood seems to be connecting the idea of ornaments from currency notes to the practice of miniature-making connected to the manuscript.

The other part of the present exhibition consists of a number of bookshelves, with tiny books of different colours arranged in these. Each rack carries the name of one personality from our art world, while the individuals important for them appear in the name of books in their shelves. In this way, Mehmood has made indirect portraits of these personalities. The installations indicate how each individual carries influences and impressions of other people; often different people share the same name in their separate list or shelf of significant personalities or mentors. Mehmood has captured the portrait and not the likes of these individuals, because when we mention a favourite writer, artist, teacher or friend, we in a sense reveal our own self in the light of others. It is interesting to note that some have expressed a long list of names, while other remained contented with a few names.

The fact that books are a way to enrich one’s growth and intellectual or artistic development is significant; while reading, one is exposed to a range of experiences and ideas about a wide world, lying on one’s bed or sofa. The humble activity of book-reading opens up a whole talisman of other worlds, which can not be accessed otherwise. Books in that sense are tickets for travelling in space as well as time. Mehmood uses the format of book while denoting the name of personalities, perhaps making a comparison of how another person is eventually transformed (and remembered) through words and thoughts, which are best expressed and preserved in books. So book serves as an object/item to substitute the actual people, important in a person’s life and career.

Yet, in the current show, both the ‘personality books’ and the works with currency notes stand apart. His variations on currency notes appear less strong than the other part that consists of books with names or familiar personalities. Here, the conceptual content is manifest in a sophisticated form. Only because in this body of work, the artist is not ‘privileged’ to benefit from any given image, like the currency notes. In these installations, there are no prior visuals to determine and shape his subject and theme. So the book installations have more impact, mainly because the artist is more open and creative in devising his own visual vocabulary, which is more effective than the variations on decorative patterns of notes and portraits.

The subtlety in constructing portraits of personalities close to him (beginning from his wife to colleagues to friends to fellow artists) is a sign of his conceptual twist -- rather than just a transformation from being a miniature artist -- and a venture into something exciting and exquisite.

Harmonium is characterised by its ubiquitous presence on the musical scene of the subcontinent. Be it any form of musical performance, it invariably finds its place at the centre and appears to be the dominant musical instrument in the orchestral arrangement.

The musicians, especially the more serious ones, have abhorred the instrument and have blamed it for having changed or corrupted the peculiar intonation of our music. And there have been various moves to ban the instrument from being used in performances of high quality music. But all efforts and moves failed or have partially failed because it is still present at the centre of any musical performance even today.

The move against the harmonium has been based on its foreign origins. Probably in the 15th, 16th or 17th century the Europeans, probably Jesuit Missionaries as part of their mobile orchestra introduced this instrument. They apparently were roving minstrels meant to spread the message of their faith and needed a handy instrument as accompaniment to their vocalisation. This could also be played strapped round the torso while walking.

And so it has stayed -- actually moving up to occupy the central position in the orchestra.

It is difficult to track down with any degree of accuracy the development or the indigenisation of the instrument over these last five centuries but it definitely found a very prominent place in the theatre round the 19th century. Theatre music somehow needed or facilitated the use of the harmonium primarily because it was an accompaniment to singing. Being a key instrument it did not have to be tuned for every performance while only a general check had to be kept for its proper upkeep. Its handiness and convenience were the two primary reasons for its survival at the centre. It was also very useful when it came to making catchy tunes that went well with the mizaj of the theatrical performances.

Its detractors label it as a foreign instrument and bemoan its staccato production of tones. It does not have the facility to provide the continuity of sound, which a string instrument guarantees but breaks sound into staccato notes, contrary to the very spirit of our music based on an embedded theory of shrutis. And it was not used in performances of kheyal till the 20th century. Actually the All India Radio banned this instrument for decades. Its usage was like committing a sacrilege.

Many attempts on making the instrument music-friendly have been made. Even one harmonium based on the subtle and illusive concept of shrutis was modified in association with Ustad Abdul Kareem Khan but it too fizzled out and not much has been heard of it since.

But then by the middle of the 20th century the last dyke that had withheld the onslaught of this instrument too eroded as kheyal singers started to use the instrument in their performances. Ustad Amir Khan, the most finicky of the ustads insisted on keeping the harmonium as an accompanying instrument -- for it facilitated the ambience of his vocal music. He did not approve of the sarangi as the main accompanying instrument as it allegedly vied with his vocalisation by adding more than a second layer of melody, actually a parallel melodic line that he found to be distractive.

The harmonium must have been the standard instrument in the salon of dancing girls, though sarangi too was much prized as most ustads used it to teach their shagirds. But gradually with the popularisation of the ghazal, which originated in the modern era from the salons, the harmonium regained its central position.

Nearly every ghazal singer used the harmonium, and it were only the female vocalists who did not -- as the harmonium stayed in the background supplying the needed notes rather than be played by the vocalist herself.

But the rise was unprecedented because most of the theatre composers were very adroit harmonium players, and as the silent film mutated into talkies, the composers made their tunes on the harmonium as well as placed it in the middle of the recording regimen. With improved recording technologies and greater outreach, film music reached the length and breadth of the country and so indemnified the place of the harmonium in the pantheon of subcontinental music. Everyone from film songs to the ghazals to the classical vocalists now use the harmonium and the few who do not only make others to wonder why.

It is also difficult to say when this ubiquitous instrument invaded and occupied the qawwali orchestration. Initially qawwali did not have the harmonium as its main instrument but gradually it became a part and then synonymous with qawwali more than any other form of music in this part of the world.

In the West, there is hardly any musical performance with the harmonium as it exists here. In our music, the greatest harmonium player is the one who defies the very basis on which it is manufactured. He is supposed to ensure the flow of the melodic line in defiance of the essentially staccato nature of the instrument’s note production.

In recent times, one Bhishmadev Vedi is said to have contemplated improving the instrument by augmenting it with a string box like a harp attached to the top of the instrument. His disciple, Manohar Chimote, implemented this concept and also provided the name “Samvadini” to this instrument. Bhishmadev Vedi is said to be among the first to design compositions specifically for the harmonium, styled along the lines of “tantakari” -- performance of music on stringed instruments. These compositions tend to have a lot of cut-notes and highspeed passages creating in some ways an effect similar to that of a string being plucked.

But finally the harmonium is meeting its nemesis. The keyboard is displacing it. In the performances of the leading vocalists the keyboard too features now either as a replacement of the harmonium or yet another layering of key instrumentation. It clearly reflects the change the music has gone through on the force of facilitation and easy option of playing and learning. Unfortunately one does not have the recordings of pre-harmonium vocalisation in the subcontinent to map the changes it has brought about. This can only be calculated guesswork on the strength of extrapolation.


Butterfly Begum is back

Dear All,

I have just finished reading Moni Mohsin’s new novel ‘Tender Hooks’ whose narrator is the “social butterfly” of the memorable The Friday Times back page column Diary of a Social Butterfly.

Those of you familiar with that particular column will remember that the eponymous Butterfly was a superficial, materialistic Lahori socialite whose life was measured in terms of diamonds, pashminas, social ‘triumphs’, being invited to the right parties and generally being part of the moneyed, label-conscious elite. She sounds dreadful but actually her naiveté and her honesty made her rather an endearing character, and by the end of this novel she somehow manages to endear herself to the reader even more.

We find Butterfly in her usual rich Lahori milieu, worrying about designer bags and shoes and complaining about her servants. She is uncomprehending of the ajeeb behaviour of her Oxen (Oxford educated) husband, the long suffering Janoo, who prefers spending time in his village where he is involved in various uplift projects, to flitting from party to party and wedding to wedding in Lahore. Her rather difficult khala (Aunty Pussy) ropes Butterfly into agreeing to find an ‘illegible’ (eligible) girl for her son Jonkers who has just been through a divorce. Jonkers happens to be a nice guy who is not frightfully interested in the sort of girl his mother wants for him (English medium, rich, beautiful and ‘from a good bagground’) but he goes along for the ride as he is ‘shown’ a few of the recommended candidates.

The book is quite hilarious: Butterfly sounds pretty stupid but her observations are wonderfully candid, and Mohsin uses this naive, deluded narrator as a tool to expose the patterns and frivolous cruelty of a certain type of upper-class life. We see not just women whose lives are singularly unproductive and fairly decadent (“This morning I was woken up at the crack of noon”), but also unsavoury men, spoilt offsprings and a whole social group manically prostrating itself at the shrine of Mammon, where nothing really matters except the worship of wealth.

Butterfly has a hilarious way of recounting events, coloured as they are by her own observations: for example, at a high society wedding (“At least three thousand people were invited. Because between groom’s father ....and bride’s father .... they know everyone in the city”), she goes towards the hostess to give her the mandatory ‘lifafa’ and this is what happens: “Slowly she turned around. Hanging around her neck was a bib coming down to her waste, like babies wear, but made of diamonds. Promise by God.”

Some people have likened the style of this book to P.G Wodehouse’s and it is true that is just as funny and peopled by just as many eccentric characters, except the setting is distinctively desi. The book is published by Random House, India and doing very well in the Indian market, but, surprisingly, it is also being published in Britain this summer.

This is a funny book, a good read and a powerful social satire. My only query is that the book informs us that the Social Butterfly was once at Kinnaird. Surely not? I have never met anybody that dim from Kinnaird College...or perhaps I have just led a very sheltered life.


Best wishes,

Umber Khairi




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