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The City Speaks

20 March 2015

Shaan Taseer’s debut solo exhibition is a ceremonial homecoming for the artist.

ShaanT1The artist, Shaan Taseer

It has taken the gifted Shaan Taseer almost two decades to focus on the natural habitat of his soul – art. This has finally happened. Earlier, this month, 35 artworks by Shaan – all watercolours – were exhibited at the Chawkandi Art Gallery in Karachi and the show was quite a success. All the paintings were sold, but more importantly this was the moment of arrival for an artist who has resisted the path for some time.

I have known the artist for many years and had seen some of his sketches and watercolours long before. Shaan’s innate talent was chiselled at school and such was his dexterity with lines that I even suggested he pursue his passion as a career. In those days, all of us were busy studying what was ‘relevant’ and the choice of plunging into the world of the ‘starving artist’ archetype was a risk that Shaan did not take. But he continued sketching. While living abroad, he absorbed inspiration from myriad sources. The way North African cities were built and the way the migration of humans and ideas was part of the limitless globe all seem to have influenced the evolution of his style.


The need to review our India policy

13 March 2015

The Indian foreign secretary’s visit to Islamabad last week generated much interest but the outcome was the usual bureaucratic statements amounting to nothing. The stalemate, however, was broken and the US — a keen supporter of the ‘dialogue’ — welcomed the meeting between the top diplomats of India and Pakistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also met with the foreign secretary from New Delhi. The talks, as we know, were about further talks. It is a pity that since August 2014, diplomatic channels of communication were stalled. The Indian prime minister’s decision to call off the earlier round in 2014 was unwise and even some Indian commentators had criticised it. Perhaps, domestic dictates, especially of the elections in Indian-occupied Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), necessitated a hardline by Narendra Modi. Now that the elections are over and the BJP has forged a coalition government with a soft-separatist party, the domestic calculus may have changed. Despite the Hindu nationalist credentials of Mr Modi, striving for normalisation is a course that he is likely to adopt. Even more so, as India’s economic transformation appears to be his priority, and without a stable region, that goal is hard to realise.

The recent talks, according to the respective statements, reiterated a familiar mantra: Mumbai, Samjhauta Express, trading of allegations of involvement of domestic militancy faced by both countries. The worrying increase in violence along the Line of Control and the Working Boundary were also discussed. Once again, the soft confidence-building measures, such as people-to-people contact, religious tourism and sports were brought up as the panacea to a bitter, twisted legacy of this bilateral relationship.


One size may not fit all

8 March 2015

Excerpts from my statement:
Raza Rumi, Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, says the government has much to do when it comes to reforming madressahs.

“There are three issues of main importance: first the registration and regulation. They have to adhere to a regulatory framework. Second, the curricula that needs to be updated and modernised. No point in teaching Fatawa-i-Alamgiri or such other outdated texts. More importantly, sectarian hate that goes into teaching has to be curbed and discontinued. Third pertains to foreign students and teachers that become part of madressah networks without the necessary permission of the State,” says Rumi. He says that for madressah reform two imperatives need to be considered: first, the “extremist mindset flows out of the theological interpretations which are man-made and sectarian and they need regulation and debate. Second, terrorist activity is limited to only a few. And in the past the Pakistani state has used them as recruitment grounds for jihad abroad. These places and handlers are well-known and can be nabbed.”

However, scores of teachers and students at various madressahs have expressed frustration at what they view as being singled out and targeted for their beliefs.

Read full article here

‘About suffering they were never wrong’

8 March 2015

Miniaturist Saira Waseem is the latest exponent in a long list of Pakistani artists resisting the country’s political, cultural and social erosion.

Saira waseem4Passion Cycle, 2005

Pakistani art going global is a remarkable story, for it typifies the ineffable contradictions of the country. In part it is a testament to the country’s creative expression, an explosion of sorts; and partly a mode of resistance to the anti-art ideology that is permeating the social fabric. It’s not just painting or the booming art galleries, there is a revival underway of the moribund television drama, the resuscitation of cinema and continuous experimentation with music.

Salima Hashmi, a leading arts academician and practitioner noted in a recent essay that the “proverbial worst of times are certainly the best of times for contemporary Pakistani art.” Our foremost historian, Ayesha Jalal in her latest book “The Struggle for Pakistan” views the creative expression as a resistance to Pakistan’s forced Islamisation. Jalal writes:

saira waseem5

Ethereal I, 2014

“The globalization of Pakistani music has been accompanied by a remarkable leap in the transnational reach of the creative arts…a younger generation of painters are making creative uses of new ideas and technologies to both access and influence a diverse and dynamic transnational artistic scene. The dazzling array of new directions in the contemporary art, literature, and music of Pakistan displays an ongoing tussle between an officially constructed ideology of nationalism and relatively autonomous social and cultural processes in the construction of a “national culture.”

Jalal as a contemporary historian reminds us that the domestic battle of ideas and ideologies is not over and is assuming newer shapes. At the same time, the issue of a crumbling Pakistani state haunts the future trajectory. Is the arts and literature renaissance of sorts an antidote to a state unable to fulfill its basic functions such as securing the lives of its citizens? There are some immediate examples from the subcontinent that come to mind: The reigns of Wajid Ali Shah and Bahadur Shah Zafar in nineteenth century India were also remarkable for their artistic endeavours before the final takeover of the British. Not entirely relevant, these are important phases of our recent history to be remembered.



5 March 2015

sino pak

Chinese influence in South and Central Asia is set to expand through the much-hyped China-Pakistan Economic Corridor just as the United States draws down its presence in the region. The proposed corridor, which plans to connect Kashgar in Western China to Gwadar Port in Pakistan’s Balochistan province through a network of rail, road and energy infrastructure, has become the subject of intense domestic wrangling in Pakistan. Leaders from Kyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan, two under-developed provinces, are accusing the federal government, which draws support primarily from Pakistan’s most populated province, Punjab, of modifying the original route away from the two less developed provinces. The government, which recently approved the route, maintains that it only intends to use existing rail and road networks in Sindh and Punjab until new rail and road infrastructure is built in the less-developed regions. Although it appears that the ongoing dispute is a result of technical considerations raised by China, and for Pakistani authorities these are informed by an underlying need to secure Chinese investment for the planned economic corridor, which would also stabilize Pakistan’s fragile economy. Underdevelopment and ongoing insurgencies in KP and Balochistan increase the cost of constructing new infrastructure, while Chinese and Pakistani governments want to operationalize the corridor as soon as possible. Economic and geopolitical concerns in both countries inform their collective haste. This project will consolidate the growing Chinese power in the region, thereby posing a formidable challenge to Western influence. (more…)

The terrorism challenge

27 February 2015

The Pakistani government must take swift, effective action to implement its will and assert its authority.


Pakistan’s terrorism challenge has burgeoned into a full-blown national crisis. Terrorism emanates from extremist ideologies that use religion to glorify violence. In addition, when there is constant marginalization of particular sections of society, people are denied basic necessities of life and any aspirations for a better life are in vain, many are driven towards violence. In Pakistan, surveys have shown that while the masterminds of extremist outfits are often well-educated, their recruiting ground is among the under-privileged.

In Pakistan the extremist narratives emanate from three main sources – the mosque-madrassah complex, school curricula, and the media. The country’s policymakers and law enforcement agencies need to take appropriate steps targeting these sources in both the short and long term, if the menace of terrorism is to be effectively curtailed.

Terrorism emanates from extremist ideologies that use religion to glorify violence

Short Term Measures:

Credible information is needed about all mosques and madrassahs operating at the district, provincial and national level. At the district level, the District Coordination Officers (DCOs) should be tasked to map and monitor all mosques and madrassahs operating within his jurisdiction. All madrassahs should be required to be formally registered with the local authorities. Information collected from each district should then be compiled into provincial and national data banks containing verified information on those running these mosques/madrassahs, their activities, their donors etc. Any madrassahs with foreign funding sources and teachers should be kept under extra scrutiny. In addition, police officers need to compile their data from each district and create national data centers which can help law-enforcement agencies to identify and monitor suspicious activity in any part of the country.

Any funding from any sources, both loc (more…)

Through the looking glass

21 February 2015

After a decade of epistolary exchanges, I finally met Shahzia Sikander, Pakistan’s most celebrated global icon of the arts, ironically unsung at home.

SikanderShahzia Sikander Selects, 2009, Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, New York

“Not to be boxed in, to be able to transcend boundaries: for an artist, it’s essential.”

It is a pity that I got to discover Shahzia Sikander’s work only when I left Pakistan. After her initial successes in the 1990s, with her migration to the United States, she slowly disappeared from the local art scene and the narratives within her country of birth, almost rendered invisible, like the mythical characters one reads in the folklore. In a different country, she would be celebrated for being a global icon, intensely original and gifted. Not in her country of birth where talent is subjugated to the cliques that define ‘excellence’ and where history has to be doctored to make the present legible and comfortable.

sikander2The Scroll, 1989-91

Sikander graduated from the National College of Arts in 1991. Her innovative work struck everyone since she had done something remarkable with the miniature form. Reinterpreting the format of a traditional Indo-Persian miniature, she crafted a personal relationship and in a way liberated it from the clutches of ‘tradition’. Prior to her work, the late Zahoor ul-Akhlaq inducted postmodern ideas during the 1970s and 1980s and suggested how miniature remained a relevant form for ‘contemporary’ artists. In his own work he borrowed elements of the miniature form and merged them with the abstract style he practiced. Sikander went beyond and using miniature as the foundation for her work created something new. Her teacher Ustad Bashir Ahmed encouraged her and thus began the great revival. Later, Imran Qureshi, Aisha Khalid, Ambreen Butt, Saira Wasim and many others took this movement forward and they are all globally celebrated artists in their own right.

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