Shame on Us
By Shireen M. Mazari

Amid all the economic good cheer and apparent wealth which one sees increasingly in the urban areas of the country, there is also something amiss. For me the disconnect became clear when I heard that one of our last surviving classical musical greats was about to leave for California -- having been offered a professorship in musicology. So Ustad Farid Nizami will move in the hope of being better able to provide for his family, and students at Berkeley will be beneficiaries of his wealth of classical music knowledge. Now where in our midst of wealth and allocations for education did we think of providing fertile ground for our classical musical heritage?
While belatedly musicology is being introduced in our universities and colleges, our denial of this aspect of our culture for decades has had its negative impact. Where are the concerts and performances by these classical greats -- not just Ustad Nizami but also Ustad Raees Ahmed? They have been reduced to performing background music at official banquets where, barring President Musharraf, no one even bothers acknowledging their music. In fact, the applause, such as it is, between courses, only occurs because the President begins it! But given the stature of these musicians is it not demeaning to have them as background performers only while the after-dinner events primarily focus on featuring our minimalist fashion designs? It is to our everlasting shame that musical greats like Pathaney Khan died in abject poverty.
There are individuals and some organizations that still encourage classical and other indigenous music, including the Peerzadas and their annual arts festivals, the Pakistan Music Conference and TIMS, to name a few, but by and large our public has lost its capability of appreciating classical music. Why even ghazals are seen as heavy going by audiences at musical shows, so we are fast becoming a nation that is losing its soul. For it is the living arts with their historic traditions, and the humanities, that are the soul of a nation.
But we are in a mode of self-destruct soul-wise. Look at the HEC's doings -- a complete neglect of social sciences and humanities as well as a negation of all things indigenous! So the HEC sees it quite fitting to invest in research for a modern rickshaw but no one has come across the HEC funding music and arts scholarships. And while foreign scholars are being transported here ad nauseum, talented domestic scholars, especially in the social sciences are being ignored! It is as if just developing a good scientific base with no parallel development of the humanities will ensure a rich and developed nation. Shame on us! While we do need technocrats and scientists, we also need our historians, our poets, our musicians, our artists and so on.
Let us not blame the HEC only. Take a look at our schools -- both in the public and private sectors. How many of them take their children to art galleries or teach them some form of music? Yet that is where it all begins. One does not have to cite the example of the West. In Brazil, I saw large groups of elementary school children spending the afternoon at the Museum for Contemporary Brazilian Art. They were allowed to roam around and absorb it all without long dull lectures. But then where do we have art galleries where our children can go? The PNCA has a sort of gallery, but it comprises two stuffy and dark rooms. While we have been building conference centers and high rises of all varieties, could we not build at least one proper art gallery for this nation with a rich cultural tradition that is being wiped out. The threat from our aggressive neighbor to the east may have been made redundant by our nuclearisation (though we should never let down our vigilance even on this count), but the more longstanding threat is from our abdication of our cultural space to India.
But these days we are on a building spree -- it is as if we have decided that our development as a nation is dependent on the concretization of the urban areas. Look at the massacre of our capital which had its unique character embodied in its natural beauty. Instead of providing good public transport and controlling the entry of new cars on the roads, the CDA (Capital Destruction Authority) has chosen to build roads and more roads -- all of which will be inadequate again in a decade or so! As if that was not bad enough, we are building one housing scheme after another and it is no wonder that one such scheme is claiming that it is the new "identity of Pakistan". And no one is affronted by this clear insult to our rich cultural and historical heritage. Shame on us.
What is left of our living cultural heritage is fast becoming a commodity for the rich elite with their expensive events organized in exclusive venues. The public has been deprived of experiencing its cultural heritage for so long, it is now totally addicted to the alternative it had within its grasp -- cheap Indian films and songs. But then we have dealt a bad deal to our nation at large for decades now. Every so often we rewrite our history and re-devise our curricula. In the process we swing from one extreme to the other – there seems to be no middle path. In the Zia dictatorship, we obliterated the Quaid's message of equality for all citizens and his call for tolerance and harmony.
Now we are set to rewrite our history books again. But instead of accepting the hatred that was a reality between Muslims and Hindus and the evils of the caste system, we want to deny all this and yet show the necessity of partition! If the intolerance and hatred that existed between Muslims and Hindus was not a reality what were the communal riots all about; what was the razing of Babri Masjid all about and what was the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat all about? Yes, we must correct all the earlier distortions, but it is no use replacing one distortion with another. We cannot replace religious bigotry and extremism with secular bigotry and extremism. After over fifty years of existence as a nation, let us arrive at a rational account of our history which also must begin with the Indus civilization.
And while we are rewriting our English language curricula, let us acknowledge some of our leading English language poets, especially Taufiq Rafat, who was the first poet of the subcontinent to use indigenous imagery and metaphors. Receiving accolades from abroad, Rafat was never given the national recognition he deserved in his lifetime.
Thanks to the machinations of the bureaucracy that continues to control our cultural space, the Australian government's request to have his play "Foothold" performed at the opening of the drama theatre in the Sydney Opera House was sabotaged with Rafat being denied an NOC and another play, written for the radio, being offered -- an offer which was obviously refused. Perhaps at the end of the day it is the bureaucracy that will eventually kill our soul and all that is so precious from our past and in our present.
(The writer is director general of the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad. Courtesy The News)



Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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