LeJ — which stands out for its secrecy, lethality and unrelenting pursuit of its core objectives; targeting the western interests in Pakistan and the Shia community and the eventual transformation of the country into a Taliban-style Islamic state — has become the group of choice today for hard-core militants
By Amir Mir
The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) — widely believed to be an al-Qaeda-linked anti-Shia and anti-US Sunni-Deobandi sectarian turned jehadi organisation — has let loose a reign of terror against the country’s Shia minority in the aftermath of the July 14, 2011, release of Malik Mohammad Ishaq, one of the founding members of LeJ. LeJ has claimed responsibility for the September 20, 2011, cold-blooded execution-style killing of 29 Shia pilgrims of Hazara community (in the Mastung area of Balochistan) who were on their way to Iran.
Armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers, the LeJ attackers stopped the bus of Shia pilgrims and forced the passengers to get off. While women and children were spared, they were made to witness execution of their dear ones who were lined up and sprayed with bullets. It was the deadliest attack on Shias in Pakistan since September 4, 2010, when a suicide bomber killed 57 people at a rally in Quetta.
The gory attack was not an isolated incident, but part of a systematic campaign of violence in Balochistan directed towards the Shia community. On July 30, 2011, 18 people were killed in a short span of 24 hours in Quetta in targeted attacks by the LeJ, including seven pilgrims who were waiting for transportation to Iran. On the day of the Eid-ul-Fitr on August 2, 2011, a suicide bomber tried to target an Eidgah of the Shia community in Quetta by exploding his suicide vest, killing 12 people.
The Shia Hazaras are Persian-speaking people who mainly live in central Afghanistan. They are overwhelmingly Shia Muslims and comprise the third largest ethnic group of Afghanistan. Over half a million Shia Hazaras live in Pakistan, especially in Quetta Balochistan.They are the frequent targets of attacks in Afghanistan as well as Pakistan by anti-Shia Sunni-Deobandi sectarian-cum-militants groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi which suspect them of assisting and aiding US intelligence agencies in their hunt for the fugitive leaders of al-Qaeda and Taliban, believed to be hiding in Pakistan. One would recall the massacre of the Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan after the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Mohammad Omar had captured power in Kabul in September 1996 and allowed the LeJ to operate in Pakistan from sanctuaries in Afghan territory.
While claiming responsibility for killing 29 Shia pilgrims in Mastung, a spokesman of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, said: “Our activists will continue to target the Shia community”.Those investigating the current spate of terrorist attacks targeting the Shia Hazaras of Balochistan point out that these incidents have intensified in recent months, especially after the release of Malik Ishaq. Therefore, hardly 24 hours after the Mastung carnage, the Punjab government placed Ishaq under temporary house arrest in Rahim Yar Khan, with District Police Officer (DPO) Sohail Chattha saying: “Malik Mohammad Ishaq’s behaviour endangered sectarian harmony and caused a sudden rise in sectarian heat in the country”. According to latest reports, Ishaq has now been shifted to a Rahim Yar Khan jail “for more than 30 days to preempt sectarian strife, under the Maintenance of Public Order”.
Malik Ishaq, who himself admitted to an Urdu daily in October 1997 that he had been “instrumental in the killing of 102 people,” was arrested for involvement in sectarian murders — almost all of his victims were members of the Shia community. However, he was bailed out by the Supreme Court of Pakistan on July 14, 2011, in the last case of the Sri Lankan cricket team attack in Lahore “due to lack of evidence and the weak case of the prosecution.”
The LeJ was launched in 1996 by a breakaway faction of the Sunni-Deobandi extremists of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), including Malik Mohammad Ishaq, Riaz Basra and Akram Lahori who walked out of the outfit, accusing the SSP leadership of deviating from the ideals of its founder, Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, who was assassinated by his Shia rivals in February 1990. The Lashkar today is believed to have deep links with al-Qaeda and the Taliban and is considered to be the most violent terrorist organisation operating in Pakistan with the help of its lethal suicide squad. As with most of the Sunni Deobandi sectarian and militant groups, almost the entire LeJ leadership is made up of people who have fought in Afghanistan and most of its cadre strength has been drawn from the numerous Sunni madrassas in Pakistan.
The government of Pakistan designated the LeJ a terrorist organisation in August 2001 and the US declared it as a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” in January 2003.
The Lashkar — which stands out for its secrecy, lethality and unrelenting pursuit of its core objectives; targeting the western interests in Pakistan and the Shia community and the eventual transformation of the country into a Taliban-style Islamic state — has become the group of choice today for hard-core militants who are adamant to pursue their jehadi agenda in Pakistan. As with most of the Pakistani militant groups, almost the entire LeJ leadership is made up of people who have fought in Afghanistan with the backing of the Pakistani security establishment. The LeJ consists of loosely coordinated cells spread across Pakistan with self-regulating chiefs for each of them. The operational successes of the group over the years are attributed to its multi-cell structure, with the group divided into small cells of approximately five to eight militants each, with limited contact with each other.
While not much is known about its structure of operations, intelligence reports indicate that, after each attack, the Lashkar cadres disperse and subsequently reassemble at the various bases/hideouts to plan future operations. The LeJ’s presence has been reported from locations as varied as Lahore, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Multan, Islamabad, Jhang, Khanewal, Layyah, Bhakkar, Sargodha, Rahimyar Khan, Orakzai, Sahiwal, Karachi, Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu, Kohat, Sukkur, Bajaur, Parachinar, Kurram, South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Hangu, Hyderabad, Bahawalpur, Nawabshah, Mirpur Khas, Chitral, Gilgit and Quetta.
Although sporadic crackdowns by the security forces since late-2001 have had some success, the LeJ continues to make new recruitments to replace those arrested or killed. And great care is taken in recruiting cadres, while considering both religious conviction and the skill and commitment to carry out attacks.
While Shias remain the primary target of the LeJ, the group has, since 2002, broadened its focus to include other civilian, government and western targets in Pakistan. Despite the involvement of the LeJ and its parent party, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan in sectarian violence since its inception in 1996, the Pakistani state has failed to neutralise both the groups. Being part of a broader jehadi movement with Deobandi ideological affiliation, the LeJ has links with other jehadi groups, including the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkatul Mujahideen and Harkatul Jehadul Islami. The LeJ also maintains close operational links with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. There is, in fact, sufficient evidence to indicate that the LeJ has been transformed into a significant al-Qaeda affiliate, which provides not only back-up support but also takes part in terrorist attacks linked to al-Qaeda. Yet, the group stays admirably focused on its home turf and its stated goal of radicalising Pakistan.
Most terrorism experts agree that the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi operatives are the most highly trained and equally vicious killers the world of terror has to offer. Intelligence sources say the LeJ has finally moved to centre stage and the past claims by Pakistani agencies of its demise after the capture of its Salar-e-Aala Akram Lahori have proved to be wide off the mark, given the fact that the group has already started a fresh recruitment drive to form new cells at the district and provincial levels, especially after the recent release of Malik Mohammad Ishaq.
The credit for widening the audience of qawali should go to the Sabri Bradaraan who introduced this form to very erudite music audience in France, Aziz Mian because of the large repertoire of kalam following a populist taste that touched the chord of popular sensibility and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who subjected it to much experimentation.
Maqbool Sabri was born in Kalyana in Rohtak in the third or the fourth decade of the last century to Inayat Sen Sabri who was a hereditary musician. As is the wont the young Maqbool Ahmed was made to be the apprentice of a number of ustads like Fatehdin Khan, Ramzan Khan and Latafat Hussain of Rampur.
Ghulam Fareed Sabri who was older by about a decade was already teaming up with the famous Kallan Qawwal but when Maqbool was old enough they joined the famous Sabri Bradaraan. Probably they started to perform before partition but after 1947 they migrated to Pakistan and gradually became popular after their first disc was cut in 1958 which included ‘Mera Koi Nahi Hai Tere Siwa’. This qawali number really launched them as the foremost qawwals of the country.
Maqbool was more surila than Ghulam Fareed and was very well-trained in raagdari and laikaari as is evident from the many recordings that they have left behind. Ghulam Fareed had the presence and the ability to sense the mood of the audiences and then unravel his music accordingly. He also created a special rapport with the audience through his superb timing and histrionics. The two worked well in tandem and complemented each other in their performance.
In film qawali after about two decades, that is after ‘Zeenat’ was again included as a music number by Roshan in ‘Barsaat Ki Raat’ starring Madhubala and Bharat Bhushan. The number ‘Ye Ishq Ishq Hai’ became popular and others started to imitate it. Pakistani film, which has usually followed the trends established by the Mumbai film also started including qawali in films. Some of the numbers of Sabri Bradaraan became immensely popular and the audiences multiplied as the large body of film fans too started to appreciate qawali.
It was their popularity that ushered in a new age for the qawali. They were invited to the West and immediately struck a chord with the audience especially in France in the 1960s. They were acclaimed and it was their breakthrough that made it possible for other qawwals to establish their musical credentials abroad.
In the last couple of decades all musical forms have undergone a tremendous change, a few proving to be more resilient have adapted to these changes. It was not so long ago that it was said that a qawwal is a bigra gawaiya. The evaluation was based on the major tradition that was represented by dhrupad and kheyal, and minor tradition which included almost every genre — from light classical to ghazal to the folk songs. Qawali figured somewhere at the bottom of the minor tradition.
Qawali as it is known is a creative product of the South Asian environment. The musical structure in terms of raags and the rhythmic patterns as well as the text are very indigenous and a creative response to the situation as it existed for many centuries in South Asia. The qawwals were musicians with a lineage and sound musical knowledge along with their understanding of the kalam. Like all professional musicians they underwent rigorous training in raagdari and laikari and developed strong voices to sing mostly in the upper register.
The base of the qawali is the text. It means in straight terms the singing of the text, the sacred text, either the verses from the holy Quran or sayings of the Prophet (PBUH) and the text of the poets, Sufi poets who about all subscribed to the broad based theories of “Wahdatul Wajood”. The text is of importance in the qawali and as the form evolved, the beginning of qawali recital was the Arabic verses either from the holy text or the hadith followed by poetry in Persian, while the major and the bigger chunk consisted of the last section based on the text in vernacular languages.
Only Nusrat Fateh Ali being from Jallandhar/Faisalabad had the advantage of singing in Punjabi. Since he was a Punjabi he did not have to make an effort in switching over to the vernacular and once he started to render the kalam of the sufi poets like Bulleh Shah and Khawaja Fareed he had a ready audience dying to listen to the Punjabi kalam after going through the formalities of Arabic, Persian and even Urdu.
Since both Sabri Baradraan and Aziz Mian being non Punjabi speaking did not have this head-start they had to rely on the vernacular of their own area Haryana, Rajisthan area around Dehli, and mixed it with spoken Urdu and created a potpourri that eventually was well received. Without directly appealing to Punjabi audiences Ghulam Fareed and Maqbool Ahmed had a very sizeable chunk of fan club, which can only be attributed to their musical prowess.
The Sabris were so attuned to singing together that after the death of Ghulam Fareed, Maqbool could never sing with the same panache and sustain a performance. It appeared that the help of Ghulam Fareed was crucial in building the tempo of the performance. The group or party slowing started to lose its appeal and popularity, as it was difficult for Maqbool to find someone to fill the vital gap.
He receded into the shadows and did not remain the dominant force that he once was. It was through the obituary notices that one got to know that he was not well and under treatment in South Africa.
Some of the famous numbers other than the traditional ‘Man Kunto Maula’, ‘Ajab e Chashme Maste’, and ‘Nami Danam’ were — ‘Khawaja Ki Diwani’, ‘Tajdare Haram’, ‘Bhardo Jholi’, ‘Saqia Aur Pila’, ‘Jitna Diya Sarkar Ne Mujhe’, ‘Bindya Lagaon Kabhi’, ‘Ajmeer Ko Jjana Hai’, ‘Ya Habib’, ‘Ya Mustafa’, ‘Maikada’, ‘Jhoole Jhoole’, ‘Hazir Hain’ and ‘Aey Mera Humnasheen’.
Upon first glance, the paintings of Salman Toor are difficult to place. A Pakistani artist who was born in Lahore where he spent his early childhood, his work fits well within the city’s cosmopolitan (if not transient) artistic landscape. Having spent his formative years in Lahore, his canvases can also be viewed within South Asia’s long tradition of figurative painting — one in which experimentation has been crucial and representation has seen no limits.
At the same time, there is something reminiscently American about the way in which he has recently captured his subjects. With wit and a healthy dose of popular culture, there is a level of playfulness in the appearance and narratives of his subjects. Conversely, the ways in which he divides his compositions, creating depth with a blunt application of paint and a soft focus, can be found in both Italian Renaissance and European Modernism in general. And yet, the often over-the-top protagonists of his latest works can easily go head to head with those celebrated in contemporary Chinese art.
Rather than presenting simply realist depictions, where the emphasis is on technical skill, Toor offers stylised portraits that capture a specific moment in time and the mood of his subjects. His characters are extracted from his own life, from reality and the subconscious.
Overt art-historical referencing in contemporary art, whether intended as a critique or an appreciative nod to the source, can come off as navel-gazing. And for all its chutzpah and critical acclaim, Salman Toor’s work hasn’t exactly broken out of that mould. His formula is relatively consistent: canonical styles (Italian Renaissance and Baroque, American Regionalism) + provocative subject matter = contemporary critique.
Although the paintings on show at Rohtas 2 in Lahore retain appropriation-minded methodology, they use it to entirely different — and far more powerful — ends. And stylistic tropes borrowed from the likes of David Hockney are used for their deep psychological potency rather than for their footnoting potential.
Despite all their references, the subjects of these paintings read more as real-life people than the archetypal characters of Toor’s earlier works, suffering profound alienation as they grope to connect with one another. The new paintings are still about sex, death and violence, but these themes have gone subterranean — it’s as if Toor had switched from his loud, three-chord approach to an unsettling minor-key dirge. Ironic adoption of old-master techniques may have long served as a conceptually fruitful approach for Toor, but it also clearly taught him something about the sheer potential of paint. The works in this show are truly masterful in their utterly original peculiarity.
This modest overview of seven paintings is a thoughtful reinvestigation of traditional easel painting and an unexpectedly intense reinvigoration of genres and emphases. Portraiture, allegory, still life, anecdotal figurative painting and even architectural studies are investigated anew — not in a mocking or dismissive manner, but rather as self-potent types, the collective weight of which it now seems impossible for a contemporary painter to transcend or otherwise escape.
‘Emotion’ is a key word throughout the commentary on Toor’s work. Emotion, the deep content at the centre of his art, impels his choice of subject matter and its manipulation; never simple, often contradictory or masked, this emotion communicates instantly to viewers, making the image arresting and unforgettable. For the artist, the other important word is ‘excitement’, found in the thrill of discovery and the challenge of making. Expressed openly in scribbled drawings and splashy colours, excitement vibrates subliminally in his finished works, even in such measured pieces as Recipe.
Subject matter generates both emotion and excitement for Toor, although he may note that anecdotal or documentary detail has distracted both his admirers and critics. He would like to be appreciated for the abstract qualities of his work, but the people and common objects he has known since childhood are the wellspring of his imagination, calling forth memory and emotion. If subject didn’t matter to him, he could paint anything, travel anywhere; but he only paints what he knows.
The uncomfortable sense of the familiar rendered strange — of a language once intuitively understood now spoken in curiously oblique tones — seems at the heart of Toor’s enterprise. Toor’s manner of painting, however, does not undercut the assurance of a man comfortable in his skin and surroundings, sturdy and foursquare, attentively leafing through his mail or a book. His handling is superb: largely monochromatic parallel vertical and horizontal strokes of similar heft, often overlapping slightly and occasionally interrupted by smaller areas of shorter, staccato-like diagonal strokes and miniscule sprinkles of more intense colour.
Toor’s style is indebted to others and his subjects are largely throwbacks to blasé society life, but that doesn’t mean they register as bland or unadventurous. There is something disarming about such a position; it is that of an uneasy heir examining an inheritance that may neither be ignored nor fully claimed. His gift is for gossiping in visual whispers with lots of loose ends; he never meets you more than halfway in his stories, so you have to go the extra distance yourself if you want to find the ending. This manipulative technique tempts us to concoct our own innuendo.
In Toor’s world, sex is a legendary, highly idiosyncratic, and languorous — but still charismatically mysterious — affair. Toor’s complex compositions emphasise the detachment of his characters: the eye can trace the angles and curves of their intersecting bodies on the painting’s surface, but their gazes almost all diverge from each other. They seem to share the disappointment of F Scott Fitzgerald’s hollow glamour seekers and the bourgeois ennui mined by Eric Fischl and David Salle.
With blunt sincerity, Toor describes a ritualised life of privileged class peccadilloes. He has the diarist’s touch with sexual particulars. And however humorous and cynical his sex scenes become, the devoted concentration of his gallery audience moving trancelike from picture to picture told me that everyone would grant Toor at least five more chances to end his naughty storytelling before they stormed from the gallery.
Drawings of fruit, goblets and pearls provide the ambience of advantage. The pictures are therefore lent total license to be fringe-fantasies from a dark but posh world of indulgences staged on considerable estates in drawing rooms and parlours where the furnishings are sparse but old-school resplendent, the portraits are of ancestors, the music live, and the liquor abundant. These are clubby affairs accessorised with cards and wine glasses. Women in pictures like Nina Q and Nina X with Pearls have their own élan for fashion. Dressed for ease of use, they wear negligee and thigh-highs. They are nonchalant about their silky hair and lustrous skin. They passively submit to any form of flirtation that qualifies as alternative. Beneath the cool chic, a narcotic aura emanates from the seven tableaux.
Toor is a connoisseur of whimsical if languid upper-crust life. He stands in fairly interesting company, from Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut to the rumoured sexual cheekiness at Yale’s Skull and Bones; perhaps we even toss in Helmut Newton’s photographic cocktails that stir together equestrian equipment and women. Toor’s art is a collection of drowsy fairy tales for adults, which starkly play the foil to his earlier work.
The shamelessness of the subjects, the question of whether they are erotic predators or prey and the sophistication of the faux fin de siècle style redeems the images from tattoo-parlour kitsch. To Toor, it seems, life is a colourful cabaret of lost innocence, naughty desire and wicked, wicked girls. In Toor’s pictures sex is compulsive but not convulsive, and in place of the voyeuristic pleasures of carnality at the edge are occasions to weave various bits of unfinished business together, creating an elegantly impious if torpid picture of an enchanted land inhabited by dozy Dionysians.
show begins on October 3, 2011 at Rohtas 2.)
Art, besides its other feats and features, is an endeavour to make the impossible possible. Like a magician, or a prophet, artists perform miracles. These miracles range in their dimension, duration and effect on the viewers. Some are so lasting that they have continued for the past five thousand years, while others may not survive physically but exist in our memories and have become part of our collective consciousness.
If examined, miracle by its nature is a peculiar phenomenon. It is not a grand action, which requires extensive effort or exuberant material. It adds a new aspect into a familiar entity. For instance, water is not an unusual sight nor is walking something odd, but when a prophet walked on the surface of water it was regarded a miracle. Likewise, a stick and snake are two separate but ordinary items, but when the stick was transformed into snake in the presence of Pharaoh, it was defined as miracle.
Like miracles, art is not about inventing something new; it is an attempt to combine different phenomena. However, only when the blend is perfect and seamless, it has the power to amuse and enthral the audience. But if one can see through the gaps (like bad magicians’ shows), then it is no more than a parody of what is aimed for. Hence the task of an artist is immense, because without any (direct) divine intervention he has to create a believable image which otherwise would have been difficult to accept or imagine. But like the miracle, a work of art loses its impact if repeated because it is the initial presence that has the power to captivate the spectators.
However, there are certain works that defy this rule and maintain their power over centuries. Recently, a well respected artist, writer and educationist described his experience of seeing the famous diorite stone sculpture of Pharaoh Khafre made almost four thousand and five hundred years ago. The artist went to the Cairo Museum and was greatly impressed with the torso figure of Pharaoh, which seemed to have the presence of a breathing individual. The sense of life was so evident in that piece of stone that the next day, despite his planned visit to the museum, he refused to go; only because he was not prepared to face that living Pharaoh in stone who “could have arisen any moment”.
The nameless artist from Egypt who carved that diorite stone managed to evoke a non-tangible entity, the spirit or miracle, which exerted its power after thousands of years to a person from a different civilisation. But perhaps that is the essence of miracle; it keeps enchanting others who are remote in time and place. It is in this context that one can see the recent work of Iqra Tanveer, that is part of two-person exhibition, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ at Canvas Gallery Karachi.
In this work ‘The Paradise of Paradox’, the artist has manipulated a simple and ordinary substance — light — and transformed it into something unusual. We are so used to living in light that we perceive it as an entity that does not have a body. It is ephemeral like air and exists without any physical form. Yet if seen in a rainbow, one is aware of the body of light, split into seven stripes of shades.
Iqra in her work has made that body of light like a solid substance; a form that can be seen and felt as an impenetrable wall. When a person enters into semi-dark room, he finds a thick layer consisting of innumerable tiny particles of dust sustained in a wall like shape/form, lit in the dark space. Once confronted with this object, which is just an illusion of an object; the viewer is tempted to pass through the screen of light yet stops because how can you go through a wall, if you are not Superman!
Tanveer operates on this dilemma or paradox, which makes a passive viewer reluctant to turn into an active explorer of visual phenomenon; knowing fully well that any move from him in that direction won’t destroy or change the artwork. Probably that conflict within a person arises because it is one of those rare times when one has the opportunity to see the light in its measurable form. In fact, to capture light as a wall is a difficult task (like miracles), since here the natural phenomena are not represented — but presented. Iqra’s decision to focus on one element of nature is extended in her other works too, in which clouds and water are created as if both have expanded into an infinite process.
The two-person show at Canvas Gallery includes pieces of Ehsan ul Haq who also works with elements of nature, but his modus operandi is completely different. Instead of re-creating ingredients of nature, he uses nature to create his art. The word ‘use’ is employed here in a literal sense as the artist deliberately includes living animals and birds in his work. In the present exhibition, apart from ‘Rooster’, (his installation of cock with grains in a room that was initially made at ‘Mansion Residency’, Lahore in 2011) as well as ‘God of Reason II’, a print of his installation of the similar name, that consisted of a donkey in his solo exhibition at Zahoor ul Akhlaq Gallery at NCA, Haq composed ‘Ghost’, with finch birds and a barren tree. The work comprises of trunk and branches which over a period of time have lost their leaves and lustre and turned dark, and birds fluttering on branches but contained because of a chicken mesh, stretched like foliage on the upper part of the tree. Hence the birds are free to fly and perch on branches, yet their freedom is restricted and illusionary.
In addition to its poetic appearance, the work serves as a metaphor for our conditions, apart from being a critique on notions such as freedom etc. The imperceptible difference or distance between liberty and confinement is obvious in this work, in which finches are free to fly and sit on branches which logically belong to them yet in reality are bound by a boundary that is hardly noticeable. Arguably, the fate of these finches is not much different from our nation, which has been compelled to remain within the constraints of tradition, heritage, culture and convention. Cages are weaved with such a fine thread that one is hardly aware of their existence, yet these do not let us cross a certain space — more mental than physical.
Both artists, showing at Canvas Gallery, are part of a generation of new artists of Pakistan who have shed the prescribed notions, burdens and bounds and are dealing with other issues in a language that is as contemporary as a text message written in Urdu with Roman letters on every mobile in the present day Pakistan.