of our times
Bob Dylan had a
point when he said “Democracy don’t rule the world — you’d better
get that in your head; this world is ruled by violence.” And didn’t we
see this on Youm-e-Ishq-e-Rasool in Pakistan on September 21, 2012. Gangs,
nay hordes, of men and boys — for there was nary a woman or girl in sight
— seemingly honed in the art of physical rage and destructive violence
running amok, embracing tribalism and being primal. Not exactly the freedom
of expression those sages had in mind when articulating fundamental rights
of us all then.
Woe to those that came
between men and their rage that day; self-righteous anger and misplaced love
of the Prophet (PBUH), who has never been documented as harming anyone even
by implication let alone physical assault or trespass of property or limb,
were employed as weapons to cause wanton destruction of private and state
property and widespread grief to fellow citizens who forewent violence.
Dozens killed and over Rs100 billion in damages, according to official
sources. All for ‘love’? Unbelievable!
I saw what transpired on
the streets, neighbourhoods, bazaars and offices live on television — not
just because I do not believe in using violence to express love whether at
home or in the streets, but because revolutions and devolutions shall be
televised in our age. While it saddened me a great deal, it surprised me
little because I clearly saw it all coming from a first-hand experience a
day earlier (but more on that later).
A life of violence
And therein lies the
defining trait of my generation: expecting violence and/or imparting it.
From Bhutto’s hanging in a military government building to Benazir’s
murder on the streets. From Bugti’s killing inside a cave to Taseer’s
and Bhatti’s assassinations on the road. From 36,000 ordinary Pakistanis
in bazaars, mosques, homes, hotels and schools to 7,000 soldiers fighting
the enemy within all over including at garrisons and bases — all blown to
What kinds of violence
have we Pakistanis of the last 40 years in general and the last 15 in
particular not experienced? From political to sectarian; ethnic to linguist;
military-induced to militant-enforced; and from decapitating hate to violent
‘love’. We’ve seen it all. And I’m not even 45. If I live to be 64
years, the average life span of a Pakistani male, I’ve already spent most
of it evading violence but not being unaffected or scarred by it.
I’ve seen violence
shoved in my face, broadcast in my living room, lurking around my
children’s schools and devouring some of the people I’ve worked with.
I’ve spent the last few years telling my growing children that there is
absence of such violence in many other countries and that hopefully we will
one day be rid of our demons and become normal too.
I can see they make an
effort to believe me but they are mature and more pragmatic than I am. They
know violence isn’t good but they also understand they need to live with
it, probably for many more years. Maybe longer. And that absolutely breaks
Off the airwaves
The battle for those who
believe in the use of violence — and not just private parties but our
state that sanctions it through several controversial laws through
legalisation of discrimination on the basis of faith and gender, among other
things — and those who abhor it but have to deal with it regularly, goes
In a country of 180
million, there are 180 million stories of hurt, profit, grief and benefit.
These stories are not what our media reports. The push-back, the silent
struggle, the firm voices, the dignified defiance of all that is primal and
tribal — virtually all of this is missing from our airwaves.
The human drama that is
real life and glorification of masochistic destruction that is all but
permanent in the reel life on Pakistani TV channels is what I saw in first
person last week, a day ahead of what turned out to be the Day of Infamy.
I was at the Serena Hotel
in Islamabad, co-hosting daylong proceedings of a roundtable seeking to
evolve a consensus amongst key stakeholders on the future of public service
broadcasting in Pakistan. In the comfort of a class act of a hotel in
Islamabad grouped with media, civil society and political luminaries
discussing high ideals — how more idyllic, self-important and noble can
one get? And yet it all fairly quickly turned into a situation that threw up
all the key stark realities that our beleaguered country offers: nothing is
what it seems.
There was the proverbial
enemy at the gates. Around lunch time a march of raging youth having failed
to breach the barriers erected between them and the diplomatic enclave had
turned their spirit of unchecked vengeance on the hotel, which houses
various UN offices and NGOs and also serves as the compromise half-way
meeting place for the intelligentsia interacting with the diplomatic
For anyone who has seen
it, Serena Hotel lives up to its billing of a serene place, its large glass
windows looking out over terraced, manicured green open spaces. As we
spilled out of our meeting, the last part of which battled nervous rumours
of a siege, the green had all but been substituted by the thick, billowing
white of tear gas.
It turned out that angry
mob outside had been relentlessly trying to breach the security of the hotel
for the past three hours demanding that all foreigners be handed over to
them — ostensibly so that the love of the Prophet could be made clear to
them. The hundreds of people — guests and visitors and seminar-types like
us — were trapped since lunch and couldn’t go out. The hotel management
and staff themselves were professionally calm and gently persuading wary
besieged parties to stay away from the glass walls and the gates, and
Battling inner demons
Being of the curious
disposition of a journalist that is my calling, I managed to worm myself
into the frontlines (don’t ask how) near both the main and side exits to
witness realities that are never reported on TV. It was not a pleasant
Both jawans of Islamabad
police and security guards of the hotel were being brought in at regular
intervals on either the verge of losing consciousness or having fainted
after swallowing more teargas, and fistfights with rioters than should be
the fate of anyone. I modified my perceptions about civilian security
agencies right there. They are unwept, unsung heroes that we shamelessly
turn up our noses against. Despite their serious shortcomings and other
sundry unsavory traits, they endure so much degradation and indignities for
you and I — and we don’t even acknowledge it leave alone respect it.
Would we wait even one hour in the biting sun or hold forth even a minute of
teargas for a salary of Rs15,000?
I saw a police officer,
himself bleeding and half-collapsed, bucking up his troops saying, “We are
here to protect the peaceful, not cave in to the mad — fight your
instincts! Shabash! We have no time to even faint — let’s go out and
beef up our companions fighting the lunatics!” And they did, fighting
nausea, battling weariness.
Another time, one jawan
pleaded to his officer: “Sir, they (the rioters) are also Muslims,
chanting ‘Ya Rasool Allah’ slogans; is it not a sin to fight them?”
And his officer — another one this time as the first one had gone out
himself to fight another round — firmly reasoned with him: “Rasool never
did anything like this. You who do your duty to keep peace and prevent
violence are a better Muslim. This is not the time to waver; come, I’ll go
with you.” And both went out leaving me heart-wrenched at the sight of
grown men coming to terms with their inner dilemmas crafted by the heartless
state that mandates discrimination and demands blinkered loyalties from its
Afraid of some feeling
It took another three
hours of this non-stop cycle of police and hotel security guards warding off
the unruly attackers who managed to bring the fight to the parking lot,
destroying cars and breaking check-posts, as I grew nervous — like so many
others — at the likelihood of the hotel being overrun and becoming, among
others, a victim of senseless violence and, eventually, a statistic.
When it became too much
for me and fear took a deeper hold, I went back to the lobby and milled
around with the others, several of them friends.
When it seemed like it
would not end and when cowardice overcame pretentious bravado, a few of us
made a successful attempt (again don’t ask how) to find a way out of the
premises through non-thoroughfares to escape.
An hour later, we got word
that the police had succeeded in wearing the protestors down and dispersed
But as I licked my
emotional wounds at my ever-gracious friend Amir Rana’s dera later that
night with our comrade Khadim Hussain in presence, we tried to diagnose the
cause of such Freudian fury. We came to the conclusion that as a society we
fear violence less than our own feelings.
We suspected that this was
just a rehearsal. That the next day would be really bad. And so it was. But
that’s a story for another day.
“Can you replace
a father by bringing in a new one? Nishat was like that to me...it can never
be replaced,” lamented Nadeem Mandviwala, the owner of one of the five
cinemas that was torched in Karachi, on Friday 21. The day was declared a
national holiday to mark protest against the anti-Islam film ‘Innocence of
the Muslims’. Two others — Shabistan (formerly Firdaus) and Shama, in
Peshawar were also marauded and burnt down.
“Nishat was my identity;
it taught me everything; whatever I am today is because of Nishat,” he
But today he’s not sure
if he would re-build it. “The cost of rebuilding a cinema would be
humongous,” he said adding, he was not even sure if it was wise to invest
on main M.A. Jinnah Road.
“We remained vulnerable.
Till the government allows all processions to go through this road, we will
always remain a target,” said Mandviwala, adding exasperatedly: “You
know how our people react; I fail to understand why our government allows
rallies to pass through this road? It is like giving the mob a licence to
destroy whatever comes their way.” While Nishat was insured, he is not
sure if it would cover vandalism.
Doing back of the envelope
calculations, Mandviwala estimated rebuilding the theatre would amount to an
estimated Rs 15 crores. “It cost ten crores to build the three cinemas at
the Atrium Mall; and the place is a third of Nishat’s!” he said.
What the mob did not
realise that along with destroying the theatres, they took away means of
employment of many. According to Tahir Mahmood, an employee who reached
Nishat when he saw live footage of it being torched, each theatre employs
anywhere from 80 to 90 people who may well be out of work. In addition,
there were others who had set up small food stalls inside the theatre —
even their workplace has been completely annihilated.
For many linked to tinsel
town, like film critic Aijaz Gul and Zulfiqar Ramzi, whose family has been
in the film-making business since before partition, Nishat had an iconic
value. “It was an institution, it moved with time,” said Gul. “I grew
up there,” said Ramzi, who preferred Nishat over Atrium [the new multi-plex
built by the Mandviwalas] finding the latter too “impersonal”.
“At Nishat I was
pampered — everyone knew me – from the gatekeeper, to the sweeper to the
manager. I never had a parking problem and the canteen wala knew I preferred
a coke over a Pepsi!” reminisced Ramzi, who was among the first to visit
the theatre the following morning.
“I specially went to see
the old employees who had been attached to this theatre for over 30, some
even 40 years!”
Built in December 1947, it
was inaugurated by none other than Fatima Jinnah. It was bought by the
Mandviwala family in 1963. Sixty-five years later, its charred remains speak
volumes of a people plunged into social debasement.
A peep inside the
burnt-down hall shows nothing but a room full of iron scrap. Contorted steel
that once formed the frame of some 750 chairs lies piled in an unsightly
manner with the floor littered with glass. They were showing ‘Barfi’, a
Bollywood flick before the theatre was ordered to close down a couple of
days before the national holiday was announced.
Except for an old
five-foot, four-legged wooden stool that miraculously lived, there is
nothing in the place that escaped the wrath of the mob.
“The expression on their
faces was of merriment and joy as they ransacked and vandalised the
place,” said Mahmood.
From the faucets in the
men’s toilets to water pumps and iron steel covers of underground water
tanks; to the fans and the copper wire of the generator; the compressors of
air conditioners and refrigerators and the printers and the computers...all
were stolen. Many wondered what kind of an anti-Islam rally was organised
that did not even spare the small mosque and the Quran inside the theatre
“It was like a picnic;
as if it was some kind of entertainment...they shook the soda bottles before
opening them to shower the area as if celebrating with champagne,” said
Mahmood, who still fails to understand why they were targeted. “I thought
we were on the side of the protestors, we’d closed the theatre!”
The Prince cinema, another
one torched, was sealed following a dispute. “The cinema was not even
showing any movies, since the past six months” said Arif Butt, who works
at the Shahrukh Distributors, at the cinema premises. “There were about 40
to 50 people, some as young as 15 who stole just about everything of value;
they even took the pistol of one of the two guards posted by the Sindh High
Court,” he said.
But why were cinemas
Agha Nasir, former
managing director National Film Development Corporation (NAFDEC), said the
burning down of cinemas was by “design”, and the cinemas were
“purposeful target”. Caustically he remarked: “These who carried out
this arson are usually regular cine-goers or fond of films! Finding the
uneducated masses and fanaticism a lethal mix, he said, unfortunately,
“That is the mindset that is prevalent widely which knows very little
about the values of Islam”.
Even Ramzi and Mandviwala
believe there was no religious angle to it. To Ramzi’s mind it was perhaps
a learnt behaviour. “The mobs in Peshawar had burnt the cinemas earlier
and perhaps the idea caught on here.”
“They came prepared with
petrol bombs and wanted to torch something, our theatre just happened to
take their fancy!” said Mandviwala.
But to Gul it clearly
reflected the “frustration of the people” those without education or
“The Pakistani youth
don’t even have access to basic facilities; and when they compare their
life with the affluent the feeling of doom gets intense,” he added.
Holding the government responsible for it, he warned: “If the government
does not take notice of this, it would happen again, again and again.”
Film trade was at its
lowest till some years ago and had it not been for the lifting of the ban on
exhibiting Indian films, in 2006, giving Pakistani cinemas a new lease, even
the few that remain would have closed down.
Gul told TNS that in 1977,
there were 700 cinemas of which 150 were in Karachi alone. “Today the
number borders around just 150 across Pakistan with Karachi housing no more
than 25 to 30.” Incidentally, the federal capital, Islamabad, is without a
cinema after the burning down of Melody cinema and liquidation of NAFDEC).
In Pakistan in 2011, only
25 films were produced of which five were Urdu, seven Punjabi and around 12
Pushto. This year, only four Punjabi films have been released so far. There
is no record available for films in Pushto language, informed Gul.
The journey of a
man’s life is a kind of transformation. From a stage where we are
dependent upon our mothers for everything, gradually we formulate our
distinct personality and habits. Like every other specie, we are alive,
breathing, eating, mating, sleeping and spending our days on this planet.
But, secretly, we are striving to transform into a lasting entity — a
name, symbol, icon and a legendary status that would outlast our physical
Perhaps this is why people
pick politics, religion, art and a range of other creative pursuits — to
Some of them attain the
status of an icon during their lifetimes; recognised for their work, ideas
and interaction with society. Often the transformation from an ordinary man
to a legendry figure is so dominant that people start believing in only his
image and forget about the man of flesh and bone behind that image. This has
happened with Khalid Iqbal, the eminent painter of Pakistan.
Khalid Iqbal is one of the
most respected figures in our art, known for his precision in perception and
sensitive rendering of nature. As a teacher at the National College of Arts
for many years, he trained a number of students but, more than that, he
influenced a great amount of artists through his work, mainly the
landscapes. His paintings depict atmosphere in such a scheme that one gets
the sensation of being outdoors, at one with nature, while looking at his
work. Admired for their immaculate layers of paint and incredible sense of
space, time and season, these works have been sought after by collectors
both here and abroad. Despite their huge demand, surprisingly his work is
still not as highly priced as his imitators’ and students’ work.
Owing to his success, a
whole school of his followers has emerged. These artists, famous and
advanced in years too, are re-creating the painter in every medium and
dimension. Obviously, they lack the originality, sensitivity and craft of
the master; their works are nothing more than replicas of Iqbal’s canvas,
without its profound and captivating characteristics. The aesthetic quality
of Khalid Iqbal’s work is not because he chooses to paint right in front
of his chosen view in nature; it lies in his keen eye and unmatched brush.
Khalid Iqbal has painted
regularly all his life; even when he was ill, frail and old, he would manage
to come out of his house, often on his motor bike, and install his easel,
paints, brushes and palette in front of his subject matter which invariably
was the rural scene. Although several artists claim to have been inspired
from him, none has reached the level of their mentor (only Kaleem Khan and,
in some canvases, Nazir Ahmed appear to have come close to the essence of
Khalid Iqbal’s paintings).
The art world is familiar
with Khalid Iqbal both as a teacher who had inspired many as well as an
artist of the highest order. But the painter is not producing any more. Age
has not only stopped him from working, it has caused financial constraints
for the artist and his family. With his pride intact, he has never relied on
anyone except his own sources. But it is difficult for anyone to deal with
this kind of situation depending upon his own means.
A few artists, including
his friends and former students, have been visiting Khalid Sahib. By and
large, the art world has ignored probably the most respected person in their
midst. Not too long ago, the College of Art and Design at the University of
Punjab invited him to inaugurate its courtyard, Gosha-e-Mani-o-Behzad, where
he was enthusiastically received. Apart from that rare appearance, generally
the art world seems oblivious to the existence or needs of the artist. There
isn’t enough coverage in the media nor any mention in the art institutions
about how to look after an artist in his old age.
Knowing that the
self-respecting personality of Khalid Iqbal and others like him would not
expect or accept any kind of help, and may reject any such suggestion, it is
still the responsibility of the art world to support such outstanding
members of their community. The official art establishments, such as
Pakistan National Council of the Arts, NCA and the College of Arts and
Design at Punjab University, must come forward and devise some kind of plan
for artists who are going through a difficult time in their old age.
Perhaps, exhibitions of their own works and that of their contemporaries and
colleagues be organised, and the amount received from the sales presented to
the artists as homage to their service to art in this country.
It is a pity that we
recognise our great artists when they are no longer with us; a host of
newspaper articles, obituaries, references and exhibitions are commissioned
to remember them. But it is also important to remember them while they are
still alive. Our art world would not have been what it is if Khalid Iqbal
was not around. He is the last living great painter this country has
produced and we should thank God for that.
second production ‘Chuppan tun Pehlaan’ performed recently at Alhamra,
Lahore was much better than their maiden venture, Agha Hashr’s ‘Rustam
and Sohrab’, staged a few months back at the same venue.
The Punjabi play by
Davindar Daman was based on the character of Bhagat Singh, the young
revolutionary who, while fighting the British colonial rulers with bombs and
firearms, was arrested and executed in Lahore in the 1930s. His valour in
embracing death is the stuff of legends and many have been inspired to
recreate the life of this young revolutionary Sikh in their works.
Though this heroic act has
caught the imagination of many writers, playwrights and filmmakers over the
years but when a play, novel,
short story or film is made on a historical figure it is not supposed to be
a document of history. The demand of artistic validity is far stronger than
the veracity of facts, and it has to be so because, if it were not, the
writer of the filmmaker should be writing a history book or making a
documentary film. The very reason that it strays into the realm of the arts
necessitates that the artistic worth of the endeavour should take precedence
over facts as they may have unfolded, step by step, in the historical
paradigm of time and space.
Just to write and stage a
play on Bhagat Singh can be an audacious act because one hears very little
of the heroic men and women who were not Muslims being mentioned in the
freedom struggle these days. It now all revolves around the sanitised
Jinnahs and Iqbals.
A play on Bhagat Singh,
staged earlier by Ajoka, based on an original script, was seen against the
backdrop of some divine retribution. The magistrate who sentenced Bhagat
Singh to death was murdered around the same spot where Singh was hanged till
death more than forty years ago, but this cycle of retribution too is a spin
of poetic justice that the writers employ to give the finality of an end to
Many not aware of the
distinction between history and a historical character as created in the
arts are made to believe that whatever happens on stage or on screen is a
truthful reproduction of events as they unfold in history. This artistic
deception of a creative work being treated as history only adds greater
credibility and makes it more plausible for the audience.
If this deception was the
real purpose of obfuscating the dividing line between the two disciplines,
it worked well because the audiences were quite carried away by the larger
than life depiction of the character of Bhagat Singh. The audience
generously applauded the scenes in which he appeared very humane and yet
brave and they warmed up every time to all such high points in the
This play by an Indian
playwright was set in the death cell of Lahore Jail where Bhagat Singh spent
his last three days before his execution. In that he was billed as a hero
who wanted an egalitarian system to prevail as he linked equality in
economic, social and religious terms as the final destination of freedom. He
just did not compromise on his vision or his strategy by merely gaining
independence from the British colonialists. The method for his release as
advocated by other leaders was rejected by him because, unlike them, he was
not willing to achieve his goal through a step by step approach but in one
grand master stroke. He declined to file a mercy petition and was impervious
to the entreaties of his mother and even the jail authorities who, as
natives, had a strain of sympathy for their fellow countryman but were bound
by their duty to carry out the orders of his execution.
The main focus of the play
was the relationship between Bhagat Singh and the sweeper Boga. They
conversed and engaged with each other in a very humane manner and the real
vision of Bhagat Singh, though doubted by Boga for it being too good, was
candidly unfolded. Some of the moments in the interaction were very
sensitively handled by the director. The perofrmance of Sarfaraz Ansari was
good because he was able to create a great deal of sympathy for the
character of Boga, the sweeper.
It is difficult to say who
directed the play because the names of Sarfaraz Ansari and Malik Aslam were
mentioned on the brochure and the invitation card respectively but it was
well-directed because most of the props had been done away with. The set was
bare, as a death cell should be. and on one side were seated the musicians
and a set of characters that played various roles. Some other characters
were also introduced in flashback but these were mercifully very short and did not
hinder the flow of the production.
It was a better production
because it was much more focused and did not engage in frills. Neither did
it put the entire action within greater paradigms like divine retribution
and providence in the fall of a sparrow.
The character of Bhagat
Singh was played by Usman Zia while Waseem Haider played Akbar Khan the
character of Maa was played by Aliya Abbasi. Like in their earlier
production there was live music and Krishan Lal and Goga filled in the
necessary effects which were not loud but well controlled while Sarfaraz
Ansari sang a number of songs as a choral backdrop other than performing the
main role of Boga. The lighting was particularly well done and it created
the atmosphere of doom that characterised the play. It was neither overdone
nor was it underdone.
It seems Azad Theatre is
well on course and it will, hopefully,
put up productions consistently. The more the number of groups the
better for theatre as there is always a possibility of quantity bearing upon
the ultimate outcome in terms of quality.