me be your mirror
Hamid Akhtar is most likely to be remembered as a
humanist who championed all human beings’ right to good life
By I.A. Rehman
Hamid Akhtar’s last book, ‘Roodad-i-Anjuman’ (Book Home, 2011), comprising minutes of the meetings of Progressive Writers’ Association in Mumbai during 1946-47, most of them compiled by Hamid Akhtar, is also an account of his initiation into the dynamic writers’ movement and his first love — literature.
Hamid Akhtar (H.A) did many things in his eventful life: he was a whole-time worker of the Communist Party, he was a journalist for almost six decades, he was associated with horse-racing, he was prominent in journalists’ trade union, he was an entrepreneur in several fields, and he also acted in a film and made a couple of movies himself. But he is most likely to be remembered as a humanist who championed in his books and newspaper columns all human beings’ right to good life.
He has described his and fellow progressive writers’ mission in Roodad in these words: “…a few people together dreamed of relieving the world of its suffering and ensuring humankind’s progress and prosperity and chose literature as the means of realizing their objective”.
The book also contains what may be taken as Hamid Akhtar’s last testament. After discussing the controversies between the partisans of Progressive Writers’ Association (PWA) and Halqa Arbab-i-Zauq and arguing that differences between them were more political than literary, Hamid Akhtar makes a fervent plea to save literature from extinction by putting controversial matters aside and “bringing back the old readers or finding new readers”.
The annual issue of Sawera of 1949 (if memory serves me right), an outstanding publication for its time, had introduced Hamid Akhtar as a promising short-story writer. But his literary career was interrupted by the demands of whole-time work for the Communist Party of Pakistan. As a political worker, he distinguished himself from his comrades by his lack of interest in polemics. However, even in this period (1947-54), the writer in him came into prominence twice — first as one of the active organisers of the PWA’s national conference (Bagh-i-Jinnah, 1949) and then as the author of Kal Kothri, one of the most effective books written on the curse of incarceration without cause, that described his nerve-shattering ordeal of solitary confinement for a whole year.
Around 1954, Hamid Akhtar began his long career in journalism — as one of the leader writers in Imroze. He also served as Resident Editor, Imroze, at Multan and editor of Musawat. For short spells he edited a magazine, Jalwa, and also represented the Singapore-based English weekly, Asiaweek. Perhaps his most memorable days in journalism were when he led the editorial board of the trend-setting daily, Azad (1970-71) and during his extended stint as a columnist. In the latter capacity, Hamid Akhtar commanded a huge audience both at home and abroad. The main reason was that he identified himself with the have-not, shared their deprivations and denial of justice and dignity and often proved the possibility of their salvation, if those in authority did their duty and recognised the inherent dignity of human beings.
Before taking up column-writing as his main occupation, Hamid Akhtar returned briefly to writing short stories and published a couple of books on his favourite personalities. At the same time those who wished to formally revive the PWA found in him a General Secretary who enjoyed the confidence of progressive writers, who could guide them and keep them united.
Hamid Akhtar had enjoyed the company of many literary giants — Sajjad Zaheer, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Josh Malihabadi, Mulk Raj Anand, Sahir Ludhianvi, Krishan Chander, Kaifi Azmi, Ibn-i-Insha, Sibte Hasan, Ahmad Nadeem Qasimi, Ahmad Rahi, A. Hamid, Ibrahim Jalees and Abdullah Malik — and always acknowledged his debt to them. His prodigious capacity for collecting anecdotes and recalling them whenever necessary made people seek his company. In his presence nobody had to worry about ways of keeping conversation going and on a lively note. Malice usually did not tarnish his expression but when, on a few occasions, it did so, anybody inviting his ire was simply devastated.
One of Hamid Akhtar’s passions was driving. There was an unwritten rule that after any party of friends ended, at his house or anywhere else, HA would drive all friends to their homes, whatever the hour at night or in the early mornings. He had never taken lessons in driving, he just started driving a jalopy the moment it came into his possession and he was soon recognised not only as a perfect driver but also as an automobile engineer for he had to keep worn-out vehicles on the road.
Yet there could be mishaps. After one midnight party he was driving a friend to Mohni Road and failed to notice a straggler crossing his path in Nila Gumbad area. The man was only slightly hurt but the police took Hamid Akhtar to the Old Anarkali Police Station. The times were good and a propertyless journalist’s bond was sufficient to secure his release on bail. The case dragged on for months. The prosecution accused HA of driving at reckless speed, 60 or so miles an hour. Hamid Akhtar threw the keys of the car before the magistrate and declared that if anyone could drive his car at more than 30 miles an hour he would plead guilty. The case was dismissed.
Hamid Akhtar enjoyed having the last laugh and he knew how to work towards a denouement of his choosing.
The Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop’s (RPTW) persistence with organising the Youth Performing Arts Festival (2011) at the Alhamra Cultural Complex in Lahore was fully backed by participants and audiences.
Typically, on the festival’s menu was theatre, films, music and dance.
The most heartening aspect of the festival was the large number of participants and the very large audiences. The halls were filled to capacity. Around 3000 enthusiasts attended the open air performances of dance and music. Despite all the problems with security and dengue, the satisfaction of seeing the participation proved once again that the youth of this country, very eager to do things and indulge in extracurricular activities, is often held back by the lack of forums and opportunities to creatively convert their raw enthusiasm into something creative.
A large number of private schools have annual plays and musical events as part of extracurricular activities. So, most school participants were from the private educational institutions — thus signifying the need for more such activities in public schools. However, at the college and university level, the audience seemed to be more evenly balanced between private and public institutions.
The institutions or the groups that participated were National College of Arts in full force with three of their societies (Alif Abad, Skits Puppeteers), Punjab University Institute of Communications Studies, University of Management and Technology (UMT) Dramatic Club, Natak Mandli of University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, University of Engineering and Technology (UET) Dramatic Society, Islamia University of Bahawalpur Drama Club University of Punjab College of Art and Design, University of Central Punjab, City School, Salamat School System, Government College University Faisalabad and Froebels International School.
The sticking point in most of the stage performances and films was the effort to be totally realistic. For filmmakers and theatre walas, to remain close to reality has become the mantra — and perhaps this is the only validity they find in the arts, performing arts in particular. This probably makes them feel useful for they invariably pick on some aspect of life, unsavoury to the extreme and then create a very sombre piece around it as if fulfilling a responsibility. They seem to be carrying the brief of a reform movement or subscription to an organisation working towards general public awareness about the issue.
However, the feeling of dead exactness about their approach is probably not always the best way to tackle an issue creatively.
The other trend that one witnessed in majority of plays and films was the element of the farce. Usually it is a spoof on some form, a play, a theme or an incident and turned on its head with a farcical narrative enacted. In most of the plays the element of the farcical was dominant and actually the only aspect of comedy or humour worthy of treatment turned out to be the farce — parodying a situation or a character generally venerated as an archetype.
Some of the plays had been staged earlier by these groups, either as part of the college activity or independent ventures. It is not necessary that groups participate in the festivals with new productions. A few plays also had original scripts.
The need to have original playwrights has never been greater. Despite a great number of plays, very few new plays are written. In the commercial circuit, probably, the high cost of production is the most prohibitive factor in experimentation. Such festivals where the young and daring participate can be a good training ground for original writings for the stage as well. It gives the opportunity to tread safely between didacticism and abstraction.
The dance performances were also well-received on the night dedicated to dancers who have one of the most difficult tasks on their hands. The dancers included Harris Ali, Umair Arif, Haider Ali, Gohar Hayat and the students of Nahid Siddiqui. This group was not entirely into contemporary dancing but their training as kathak and bharatnatyam offered them the necessary grid to base their innovation on and improvise from there. The most important aspect was that the dance exists in this society no matter in whatever form and stage of development.
One is really surprised, and pleasantly though, by the very large number of youngsters who are into music and have either formed bands or are associated with some group. Any opportunity of displaying their talent is never wasted because they come out in their scores to perform. With greater practice and passage of time these groups will mature and create music which goes beyond what is known as cover songs and being a mere fad of the youth.
In the other festivals, which have been held so far, like those by the Pakistan National Council of the Arts or the Lahore Arts Council, Alhamra’s inconsistency has been a major failing. Since festivals have not been held with any degree of regularity they lose their critical edge but this organisation till now has not faltered on this count.
The RPTW has persisted with this festival while some others have been disrupted. It is at the peril of repetition that one states again the very difficult circumstances that have bedevilled the normal activities in the country. The security conditions and the drying up of the sponsorships have been the two major causes though traditionally these have not been the only ones. Always setting out to stage an event, particularly in the field of culture, raises hackles about its relevance to our religious values, moral concerns and then the non-availability of adequate resources.
Just before the opening of an exhibition in Lahore, a panel wall carrying an artwork inside the gallery fell, barely missing an art critic who was contemplating the details of the photo-based work. Normally, it is the artist who responds to an art critic in an aggressive manner and understandably so. It is unimaginable a work of art reacting so harshly to the presence of an art critic.
This is not one incident when a material entity moved in a strong manner having a great impact on the people near it. Certain works of art also stir their audience, astonish and in certain cases agitate them. Some art pieces frustrate the viewer to that extent that they are unable to erase them from their memory. Actually these are the works, which challenge a viewer’s notion of art, deconstruct it and replace it with a new idea of possibilities, as art. This process of transformation is often painstaking — and painful at the same time. Nevertheless those works survive and their makers too in the memory and are always referred to as ‘groundbreaking’ works of art.
Each age has its distinct works that generate strong responses from its viewers. Probably the painter in the caves during the pre-historic period shocked the tribe when he added stick-like human figures in/next to the drawings of animals, which allegedly were made for the purpose of hunting and controlling the spirit of the beasts. Likewise, when an artist in the Middle Ages decided to modify the conventional composition of a religious theme to a more life-like setting for his canvas, his contemporaries were surprised. Or when an artist (Marcel Duchamp) from the early twentieth century sent a ready-made porcelain urinal, upside down and signed, as art, it not only shocked the general public, but deceived art circles too, which rejected it for the Armoury Exhibition in America. This tradition of transforming the concept of art continued till our age, when Chris Ofili put elephant dung in his painting next to the image of Madonna (painted in black). A gesture that invited hostile reactions.
Despite their shock value, these work added something to human knowledge and experience of art. These opened up possibilities — making way for other such uncommon occurrences in the future. So, for many, the potential to shake one’s norms, habits and beliefs became the major — if not indispensable — component of art. A quality described as ‘shock of the new’ by Robert Hughes, the Australian art critic.
However, the shocking encounter was not just experienced in the coming down of a wall panel. It was more through the works displayed at the group exhibition, ‘Score’ (held from Oct12-22, 2011) at the Drawing Room Gallery in Lahore. Four works by four artists, Iqra Tanveer, Imaran Ahmed Khan, Ehsan ul Haq and Sajjad Ahmed, offered a particular visual experience to the viewers. While Iqra displayed her work ‘Paradise of Paradox’, in which a layer of light was made visible (shown recently at Canvas Gallery, Karachi), other works also confirmed the artists’ desire to investigate the unknown through a vocabulary that is different and not so common.
Physical Existence of Belief by Ehsan ul Haq was an example of how an extraordinary object/idea can be created with the help of familiar and mundane materials. A large cube constructed in concrete was placed in the middle of the room. Due to the colour and texture, the sculpture reminded of tactile surfaces of abstract expressionist painting, while the square form alluded to a number of other entities, sacred as well as simple, that surround us. The unfeasibility of bringing that seemingly heavy piece inside the gallery intrigued and astonished everyone, yet it was the metal hook attached on top of the block that completed the work. Inclusion of that detail reduced, psychologically, the weight of the object, since the hook referred to the option of hanging the block from the ceiling. Thus suggesting the (im-)possibility of lifting the square.
The other impossibility made real was in the digital print, Play Field (Cape Town) by Sajjad Ahmed. The kaleidoscopic view of a rugby field was shaped in a circular format. It appeared that the artist has combined all views from all 360 angles and composed them into one clock-like image, but in reality it was the assemblage of multiple visuals from various playing fields – in order to make one /convincing pictorial representation. The intricate details of the print invited the viewers to look and locate diverse elements. So seeing the work was almost like entering a playfield – unconsciously.
Imran Ahmed Khan the fourth participant showed Hypothalamus, an arrangement of different kind of breads from this country and neighbouring nations. If the title related to the clinical urge to eat and drink, the work invoked how an elementary item, almost unnoticed in our daily routine, is loaded with cultural connotations. Variation in terms of size and format indicated the way a society asserts its identity through basic utilitarian things. At the same time, the visual variation between all these breads infused them with a pictorial substance, which one ignores while eating the bread on a table or buying it fresh and hot at a tavern.
The work, as well as other art pieces from the exhibition, communicated a range of ideas to viewers, some controlled by artists (initiated by them), and other without their knowledge. Even though the works had such a strong pictorial presence, in the end the meaning seemed more important during the artists’ talk on the eve of the exhibition. The artists convincingly conveyed their concepts, while leaving a relevant question in the wake of the discussion: About the physical execution of the work and the process of infusing meaning into them. Sometimes an artist is involved in the aesthetic and formal aspects of his work, but once the piece is complete or about to finish, the need to inject meaning into it. The title Hypothalamus may have been an after-thought.
In the works of four artists, each fabricated with a separate technique and in different mediums, one is conscious of how the matter made its presence felt and in a provocative way, despite the earnest attempt to decorate it with a range of ‘meanings’.
Walk into Zahoorul Akhlaq Gallery, take a turn, and Fazeelat Aslam will break your heart. There are three photographs in her series called “A Lahore Lost”, small coloured ones, the sun peculiarly shines in all three but it makes no difference. All three show Fazeelat’s maternal grandparents house. The one “where she used to sneak up at night to see the stars and whisper secrets.” In the photographs, the house, the home has been shattered by an extremely powerful bomb blast that went off nearby.
The heartbreak is not an instantaneous reaction, it doesn’t come while you gaze at the photographs nor when you look away from them, not even when you walk away from the gallery and resume normal life. Fazeelat Aslam should break your heart somewhere in between waking and sleeping, the three photographs flutter across the eye, in sequence, out of sequence. Then between the time your eyes close and the brain stops to realise this, none of those three photographs is a close-up, there is no sense of intimacy, that all three of them are framed as long shots, they are distanced, scared almost, that a place that was once “ the only true sanctuary untouched by troubled times” has been completely changed, the deeper-than-skin feeling lost forever.
Sitwat Riswi’s series “ Scars And Souvenirs” plays out like a narrative essay, a young boy shot in the leg in a procession, surrounded by family and relatives in a hospital room, another bald man, his eyes closed, donating blood, the hospital door with the curtain drawn, the future forever uncertain. But the particular photograph, the strongest one, is perhaps the portrait of the young boy, he seems to be looking at nothing, he’s playing with his fingers, the way some people do when they are thinking, the light stubble on his face, the black t-shirt, the white uneven wall, the stare. There is no one right way of interpreting a photograph because it’s a mute witness, is he listening to somebody talk, is he hearing the bullet again and again, the screams, the running. There is a slight possibility that the scar from the gunshot might disappear but will the sound?
Fahim Akhter’s series “Trial and Error” is another narrative. The old typewriter, policemen, the tired old man, handcuffs, the steely cold look in a policeman’s eye, they are all scenes outside a court, the photographs sequenced as such that they run like a loop, the same scene over and over again.
And while “Lyari Gang Warfare” by Asad Faruqi is harrowing not only because of its huge size but because of the utter anguish it tries to depict, of one man screaming, or crying on the shoulder of another, the most harrowing photographs are by Nariman Ansari. Her series called “The Invisible Soldier Project” is just that, it depicts soldiers injured during the “war on terror.” But it’s not. None of the soldiers in the photographs wear uniforms; there are no helmets to protect them, no guns to mark distances. There are two in particular which brood with such intensity that it’s extremely hard to fathom what they are actually saying. A handsome young man lying in bed, an mp3 player, get well soon cards. Another one, an older man, late thirties, he’s sitting straight or trying to. His legs are crossed; he’s wearing a night suit. Both of them look straight into the camera, both expressions seem off-kilter, both captions read unrepairable damage, “brain injury, paralysis.” The fact that there is no military paraphernalia is what makes them unbearable. That young man could be my older brother. That older man could have been your father.
All of these photographs are extremely significant; as a matter of fact the whole exhibition tries to depict something that has been haunting us for a long time. However there is a problem.
In an essay called “Looking at War” Susan Sontag wrote “photographs of victims of war are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.” The statement might sound harsh at first read, but Sontag is hinting at something that makes a lot of sense in the proper context.
In the framework of these photographs, Fazeelat Aslam’s grandparents’ house was destroyed because it was near the FIA building that was hit with a suicide bomb in Lahore. Sitwat Riswi’s young boy was shot during an attack on a small Shia procession in Karachi. Fahim Akhter shot in series in Rawalpindi, it’s unclear if it’s an anti-terror court. Nariman Ansari photographs soldiers. The problem is that there might be an absolute consensus standing in a gallery and looking at the effect of violence and feeling that what is happening or has happened is ugly, horrible and should not happen; for one thing the effort is concentrate, the imagery unflinching and aiming where it should hurt. However, but the problems, the issues being depicted, might be interconnected but they are not the same and therefore do not have one solution, therefore the illusion of a consensus.
It’s been an eventful fortnight here in England: not only did the British Defence Minister resign after the media (‘The Guardian’ mainly) exposed his dubious behaviour in allowing his best friend access to high level defence contacts and senior international figures all over the globe, but also the wave of anti-capitalism which was manifested in the Wall Street protests, spread to London.
Although Conservative MPs are now trying to spin the line that actually Dr Liam Fox’s resignation shows how very noble and transparent the Tories are, it in fact shows the opposite. Fox tried his best to shrug off the revelations about his taking his best friend along to high level meetings but The Guardian’s investigations got the better of him eventually. His friend Adam Werrity was revealed to have been handing out official looking business cards describing himself as ‘Advisor’ to the Minister, it was also revealed that he had met the minister in various international locations where he flew to in First Class and where he stayed in luxury hotels. Quite who Mr Werrity was working for and who paid for his trips was not clear. Quite why he was in the meetings was also not clear... But what was clear was that Werrity had once worked for a ‘charity’ set up by the Fox, one ‘Atlantic Bridge’. This was supposedly a ‘thinktank’ to promote the special relationship between the UK and the US by linking up individuals, but the reality is that it was a way for right wingers on both sides of the Atlantic to get connected, these were ‘top Tories and Tea Party activists’ with similar views on Capitalism’s supreme importance in the modern world.
‘The Atlantic Bridge’ was dissolved at the beginning of the month after a damning investigation by Britain’s Charities Commission. The Commission found that the organisation had advanced no charitable activities at all. An employee (and then a director) of Atlantic from 1997 onwards was Fox’s ‘best man’ Adam Werrity. And who were the donors to Atlantic Bridge? Oh, only people like the former Goldman Sachs banker and billionaire Michael Hintze who runs a hedge fund and also donates thousands of pounds to the Conservative Party... or people like Michael Lewis of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre, another big Conservative donor. As The Guardian observed, “It is hard to escape the conclusion that in the space of five years the Atlantic Bridge went from a small, Tory-leaning charity, dispensing freedom medals in the name of Thatcher, to an influential networking club linking most of the (UK) cabinet to powerful business interests, neocons and Tea Party enthusiasts”.
What is so disturbing about this whole matter is that it shows how very compromised so many leading Tories are: one example is the British prime minister David Cameron’s press secretary Gabby Bertin who once worked for Atlantic Bridge: during that time (2003) was paid £25,000 by the drug manufacturer Pfizer.
This web of vested interests is tangled and deeply incriminating. Big money is funding various individuals and organisations to influence policy and hence to perpetuate the system that allows them to be rich and powerful. To quote George Monbiot “Today, sponsorship by millionaires and corporations explains why free-market thinktanks outnumber and outspend the thinktanks arguing for public services and the distribution of wealth.”
They are in fact perpetuating the fat cat capitalist culture that the Wall Street and London protestors are criticising. The culture that let irresponsible, greedy bankers ruin institutions and deplete pension funds and the culture that still preaches a certain sense of entitlement to elitist financial managers who gamble with other people’s money and pocket the wins but the losses on — to us! As the gutsy American filmmaker Michael Moore said this was a culture in which ‘enough’ was a dirty word, and which now has to be changed.
The depressing thing about this whole affair is how clearly it reveals of the Conservative party’s links to big business, yet the very fact that the story came out at all is positive. It signals investigative journalism is alive and well. That is the good news. The bad news is that the rich rightwing fat cats are still buying thinktanks the world over.