Dr Samuel Johnson,
the great lexicographer, was widely praised on the completion of the first
comprehensive dictionary of the English language. Reportedly, in the course
of the congratulations, a delegation of respectable middle-aged ladies of
the London nobility called upon Dr Johnson and said, “Dr Johnson, we
congratulate you for not putting any obscene words in your dictionary.” Dr
Johnson replied, “And ladies, I congratulate you for being able to look
This anecdote tells us all
that is to know about the censorial instinct. There are people who are
determined to find or at least attempt to find obscenity and something to be
offended by in everything and in most cases they succeed.
The most interesting
question in the petitions against the rampant “obscenity” and vulgarity
on Pakistani media by the former head of a religious party and a retired
judge is who their cable operator is; the information might be useful to the
public at large. In most cases, appeals to the censor say more about the
individual making that appeal than the content being assailed.
Notwithstanding the silliness of the petition/s, the background questions
are fundamental, namely what is obscenity and who is empowered to define it.
One has to, for the
moment, ignore the low quality and sensationalist nature of our television
programmes and defend the general principle, which here is the freedom of
expression and creativity.
We unfortunately are no
strangers to this philistine debate. Saadat Hasan Manto is an unavoidable
reference when talking about obscenity and the desire to censor it. The
number of times that, perhaps the greatest, short story writer of Urdu
language was hauled to court because mediocre bureaucrats and those
searching for vulgarity in everything found his work to be “obscene”
would have been amusing had it not been so depressing. Manto was in elite
company though, as he always should be, alongside Gustav Flaubert,
Maupassant and James Joyce amongst others.
Those who find the warrant
or temptation for rape in “Khol Do” or necrophilia in “Thanda Ghosht”
are the sort of people who are on an active lookout for these perversions
and there is nothing you can do to stop them. In a hypothetical sad world of
perfect censorship, they would find themselves to be unemployed, alone with
their psychosis. Manto’s statement of defense against the charge of
obscenity said, “If you would like to be enlightened on our society and
the times we live in, then read my work. However, if you are unable to stand
to read my work, it means that it is our times and society today that you
I know the state of our
television is not such as to mandate such a muscular and eloquent defense,
yet the principle stands.
“Lihaf” represents an even sterner test on the question. It is an
exquisite short story about the complex relationship between two women as
viewed by an innocent child. To find obscenity in it is impossible for
anyone who does not have a yearning for the obscene (It is worth wondering
how many of the faithful who find it an outrage to their tender
sensibilities know the story of the great “Dancing Dervish” of Lahore,
Shah Husain, and the Hindu boy, Madhu Lal, still buried together as one
shrine, as a symbol of resistance). The gold standard on the western front
is a story involving a twelve year old girl; Nabokov’s, “Lolita”. To
be revolted by “Lolita” is a forgivable reaction and perhaps even
intended, however to judge it solely on the touchstone of some notion of
morality comes close to total ignorance.
I am sure there are other
shameful examples, yet the point hopefully is made.
To judge art and
literature on the sermonizing low (or is it high?) standard of morality of a
non-artist is ridiculous and backward. Here we have to admit, even if
grudgingly, that television media of Pakistan, whatever its quality, is art.
It is impossible to
overestimate the damage done by Ziaul Haq. The single most damaging blow to
our society was making the State the arbiter of art. Another major
consequence of that regime of repression was inculcating the censorship of
the worst kind in our hearts and minds; self-censorship. The writer and the
film-maker do not need to be told what to do now; they obediently comply
with a vague standard of social morality and are very keen not to offend.
The desire to please is nowhere more obvious than in our television media.
The burden of making the judgment in advance of what might ‘offend’
someone destroys or, at the very least, severely limits creativity and
breeds intellectual dishonesty.
The oft-repeated argument
against censorship is a convincing one — that if an all-powerful censor
existed, who had to go through all the vulgarity and filth in society and
make a decision of what is fit to be passed, then the censor will eventually
become the most corrupt and debauched because of the exposure to all the
This should also remind us
of the ‘heroic’ task undertaken by a fifteen year old boy in compiling a
list of a few hundred thousand pornographic sites so that the PTA can block
them. Let us hope the young warrior is in good mental and physical health
after this presumably exhausting service to the nation.
To define obscenity for us
all is quite a large claim for anyone to make. Even if the task of deciding
what is vulgar for all of us is possible, we will never know who exactly to
delegate this task to. In any event, it is too important a task to be left
to rightwing old men.
The mindset of the censor
is incapable of multiple interpretations. Returning to the trope of short
story writers, Ghulam Abbas’s “Hotel Mohenjodaro” has frightening
prescience. It begins with a mullah proclaiming that landing on the moon was
a violation of divine law, results in a theocracy coming to power and
banning all technology, art forms and non-religious knowledge and ends in
total ruin. Once the society is told what is acceptable in one sphere, it
inevitably extends to everything else. We already have one version of
history, one version of religion and now we are on track for one version of
This is the cost of not
defending Manto and Chuhgtai; well, it is about time we fought back. We have
already tried censorship in its most extreme form and know for a fact that
it is destructive. The Court/State is now asking for the right to do the
thinking on our behalf. Hence, implying that we do not possess the
fortitude, moral and rational to live adequately and make choices for
ourselves. We should find this condescending attitude obscene enough.
Like so many
others associated with the performing arts, Avtar Kishan Hangal, who died
last week, started his career from the platform of the Indian People’s
Theatre Association (IPTA). And like so many others, he was known for his
appearances and contribution to the cinema, which totally dwarfed his
contribution to the theatre in the initial years of his life.
He may not have been the
leading light of IPTA for there are many other names that were more
well-known with solid contributions to their credit. But he was one of the
team members who was able to stay sincere to the cause. Such work laid the
foundation of the performing arts in India that has drawn its sources from
If there was the wider
mythological backdrop (Indian/Iranian) to be propped against, there was also
realism (critical/socialist) based on contemporary art.
It is said that he was
associated with the theatre/performing arts from 1936 to 1947 — and mostly
did plays with a message of social and political revolutionary awareness.
He was born in Sialkot,
and later shifted to Peshawar, but that phase appears to have not been
properly documented. The information remains sketchy. It appears he was more
actively involved in revolutionary politics of the time in the North West
Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) in the early years of the (IPTA)
inflamed by the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh.
He also worked as a
tailor, which could have been the way of making a living which many of the
left meaning political workers chose to do, or an act of identifying with
the working professions, or it could have been a ruse to mask his identity
in the face of political crackdown.
For he was arrested in
Karachi around 1947 and after two years released and deported to India.
Even there his work has
not been recorded. Though from various sources it becomes clear he was
engaged in theatre. This was also the primary reason why the committed left
leaning artistes opted to make cinema their second platform. It was a mass
medium and its outreach was immense. Like no other medium except the radio,
the cinema could reach the people in the early decades of the 20th century.
But its added advantage of combining aural with the visual made it a more
effective medium than the radio.
Those who wanted to reach
out to the people gradually were won over despite its inherent ills of
glamour, exaggeration and commercialism, fast converting it into an
industry. These artistes thought that they could either neutralise the
immense commercial potential of the cinema, turn it to their advantage or
could run their cine experiment parallel to the big conglomerates that were
emerging on the cultural landscape of Bombay, Calcutta, Madras and Lahore.
The India People’s
Theatre Association made a small beginning by producing its own films as
against the song, dance and glamour of the mainstream cinema. As always,
this central contradiction stayed with the medium and it just did not go
away. The artistes in the process were more lured by the financial returns,
the mass appeal, a by-product of the medium, losing their grip on the purity
of their message.
Over the years this
dichotomy has pushed artistes of all hues and colours on the backfoot for
mass appeal does imply compromise of sorts. It is like changing the track
and beginning to dance to someone else’s tune, muddling and then
forgetting the initial steps and finally ending up justifying the drift
But those must have been
difficult days for the struggling artistes cum workers of the parties who
were trying to make the audiences aware of the people’s plight and
inspiring them to carry their theatre experience to their homes, workplaces,
cities and villages as instruments of change. Though the heady doze of
idealism must have propped them up, frugality, lack of adequate facilities
to perform and uncertainty about the outcome must have been the principle
Even after independence,
it was not easy to perform, in many ways more difficult as the screws were
tightened on the left leaning parties in both India and Pakistan. Many of
the workers and artistes had to put in a sneak performance or operate from
underground. Stringent censorship rules, clampdowns and break ups of
rallies/performances, arrests characterised their landscape of operations.
Many youngsters went with the flow but with advancing years and families to
support the curtain of pragmatism started to fall on them, which made them
choose between a life outside society or in it. Many chose to keep one step
in and the other out.
Hangal made his debut in
cinema in late 1966 with ‘Teesri Kasam’ when he was over 50 and it must
have been on the insistence of director Basu Bhattacharya. From then on, he
became a regular cast in films. There he did create an empathy with the
meek, the down-trodden and the exploited, and was able to put his own stamp
Usually in older roles,
particularly in Indian cinema, the scope is rather limited, and with the
characters typecast, there are not many opportunities to express and display
talent. But the roles he did were mostly of a benign man who had been
wronged but rarely representing dark villainous forces. Only in
‘Shaukeen’ did he play the role of an older man, mischievous and
naughty, remaining likeable. This was a break from the usual roles of a
grieving or an angry father with little to do than express his lament
against the exploitative forces of society.
His services to the
performing arts were duly acknowledged and he was awarded the Padma Bhushan
for his contribution to the Indian cinema.
fables, folklore and mythologies are a way of reminding us of the connection
of mankind with other species. This association is more deep than visible
and relates to our psychological self. Thus our responses and expressions
are often equated with that of a beast or a bird. Or at times, some
qualities are appreciated as superhuman which may also mean animal-like.
Right from prehistoric
period to the more recent Mesopotamian statutes and Egyptian figurines, from
Christian iconography to signs of falcons and felines on modern states’
national flags, man has been fascinated with his link to the animal world.
This is evident in literature, music, dance, theatre and visual arts as well
as in the field of sports.
Wardha Shabbir in her new
work is exploring that bond between species which becomes a metaphor for
man’s inner turmoil and hence transformation, like Gregor Samsa waking
into a gigantic insect in The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. In her work,
which one may describe as miniatures, immaculately-painted characters move
between the thin threshold of human and animal realms. Like meeting an
unknown entity, who looks familiar but cannot be fathomed fully, figures in
Shabbir’s paintings have that mysterious element which makes them appear
distant yet not so different from what we experience daily.
of peacock, rooster, wildcat and grasshopper are portrayed inside oval
frames as if presenting pictures from some royal folio. Often, this blend
brings a sense of morbidity and unease which the viewer somehow identifies
The combination of man and
animal does not necessarily have a negative connotation because, on another
level, Shabbir is seeking to trace the lost relationship between human
beings and nature. In another work, she re-creates that memory, when man
lived amid an environment that was a part of him and one that he was a
Along with the paintings
framed and put on the wall, the major and impressive section of her solo
show is the installation in gallery space. Here Wardha has converted the
floor of the gallery, originally made of ceramic tiles, into a bed of
natural grass. The grass continues to overlap with one wall of the gallery,
and it also covers the stairs, a table and two chairs. For a visitor, who is
asked to take his shoes off and enter the gallery, stepping on the grass
embedded on the freshly sliced layers of soil is an unusual experience.
Unlike a usual gallery visit, it invokes a feeling of being in an open
environment while standing under a built structure.
The sensation of outdoors
is enhanced through stuffed ravens and crows and preserved butterflies
arranged at various points. These are perched on edges of the chair, on top
of the table, on the floor and stuck on the grass-covered wall. The stuffed
birds and insects are almost related (conversely) to the act of coating
chairs and table with grass because, if in the former, man is possessing
nature through preserving it, in the latter nature is reclaiming man-made
objects with its primordial elements (grass, earth and wood). The overall
impact of the installation is like seeing a set where a strange or sinister
drama is about to unfold; yet if one compares this setting with the imagery
of her works on paper, one locates a close connection between the two.
Actually, some portion of the background of her paintings, if materialised,
are spread out in her installation.
This brings us to the
dilemma — the need or rationale to have both kinds of works in the same
exhibition, and whether one body of work (paintings on paper), instead of
complimenting, is diffusing the impact of the other (installation). Because
even though the two parts are linked in their subject matter, the disparity
of forms and distance of formal approach are so wide and visible that it
seems difficult to concentrate on both sides of her creative output
The installation, with its
ambitious scale and excellent execution, appears more convincing and
powerful than the works, which are still in the tradition of miniature
painting, with the introduction of borders of immaculately-painted wilted
roses, or digitally-printed patterns from historical miniatures and
manuscripts. The fact that she has transformed the gallery, not only in its
materiality but in its essence also, from a neatly-designed display space to
a raw patch of land with death dominating the beauty of nature, is
commendable and brings a change in the response of the audience.
One could speculate on the
urge to modify and thus shock the viewer through this metamorphosis but art
is all about transforming perceptions and shifting points of view which
could concern the physical world, the optical experiences or the realm of
ideas, beliefs and behaviours. Although the artist’s choice in putting
crows with butterflies on top of their heads, or composing a dinner setting
(plates, glass, cutlery and raw meat) looks too literal (like a miniature
tree made with butterflies and tiny heads hanging on the edges of its
branches), the dimension and expanse of her installation somehow overshadow
these small details. Through this work, Wardha Shabbir evokes that faint and
forgotten feeling of the past when man, animal and nature lived in harmony,
a harmony that can only be found in art now!
(The exhibition ‘Many
Metamorphoses’ will remain open from Aug 28 to Sept 8, 2012, at Rohtas 2,
implies ‘everyone wants to go to Hollywood’, I believe she means just
that. It is a dream of many to be in the limelight of an industry what we
may term as ‘centre of gravity’ of world media.
The world’s film capital
welcomes Overload, a Pakistani band, to contribute on the largest screens of
the world where they are to perform in an upcoming English political
thriller ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’. Based on Mohsin Hamid’s novel
the film is directed by Mira Nair and has already become a talking point in
Pakistani and Indian circles.
The star cast includes Riz
Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland, Om Puri and Shabana
With Overload getting this
big break, it might just pump life into the local music industry too.
Farhad Humayun, a drummer
cum singer from Lahore and a graduate from National College of Arts (NCA),
with his silly but optimistic song ‘Dhol Bajay Ga’, has now officially
checked in Hollywood. In these times of intense crises in the country, this
song is Overload’s way of saying, “the show must go on.”
Following are the excerpts
of a chat with Farhad in which he talks about his big break, the song and
By Adeel Makhdumi
The News on Sunday: How
did you end up in this project and how do feel about it?
Farhad Humayun: Well they
[the producers] said they wanted to use a different version of the song
‘Batti Aye Ya Na Aye Dhol Bajay Ga’. They made an offer to buy the
rights to the music, melody and lyrics, and we accepted. I feel great that
Pakistani music is getting attention. We have a distinct kind of emotion
that we put in art and even our speech. The song was bound to get noticed
TNS: Will you be
interested in doing music for the desi cinema?
FH: Overload is a band
that doesn’t make music for the sake of it. The public has started to
understand us as a serious band. Initially, we used to be only instrumental.
Now we have incorporated vocals. It’s a new format we are following
because we are at a different stage in our lives and musical career. Desi
cinema is vocal. Now if there are opportunities there, we will be willing to
TNS: The current pop/rock
music scene in Pakistan has taken a nosedive, do you agree?
FH: Security hazards and
law and order prevent shows. Music is a performing art that needs to be
played to an audience. The government can not take care of the Sri Lankan
cricketer or its own serving ministers; leave aside musicians and artists.
They figure nowhere on the list.
Ninety five per cent of
people in Pakistan think music is haraam and is the work of the evil.
There’s no electricity in the country. It’s unbelievable that we’re
This is a perfectly noble
profession that is affected by such mismanagement just as any industry or
small business. There aren’t any funding opportunities, music and culture
isn’t on the government’s agenda.
There are organisations
like the Alhamra and PNCA, which are infested with the most corrupt people
in the government; they make it difficult for us to perform. Tax on music
programmes is 65 percent. So it’s clear that the Shahbaz Sharif’s
government wants us to stop playing music.
We used to have a World
Performing Arts Festival in Lahore, even that had to close down due to bad
security situation. Everything in the country is collapsing — it’s not
just the music industry
TNS: How has the Coke
Studio experience been?
FH: Awesome! It has
provided musicians and the public something to look forward to each year. It
is a living proof that music is in the soul of our people. Your rulers may
suppress it but they cannot kill it.
I know there are more
platforms like that coming up because there’s a huge demand. Overload has
had a wonderful experience with CS and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself as a
TNS: Tell us about your
FH: I’m always making
new music. I’ve directed a video called ‘Ankahi’ coming out on
September 1. It’s going to be a historical video because it’s the
legendary actor Nadeem’s first ever appearance in a band video. We are
honoured. This is our biggest video to date with a cast of 63 characters.
We’re also working on an album that will be out early next year.