Published in The Friday Times

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.

Manto’s women

13 February 2015

Manto stands more or less alone in the position he takes on women, contends Raza Rumi, in an exploration of Manto’s relationship with his female protagonists

 

Manto2Saadat Hasan Manto

Perhaps the most well-known and also controversial Urdu writer of the twentieth century happens to be Saadat Hasan Manto. He left us with a stupendous literary output, which continues to remain relevant decades after his death. Manto, not unlike other ‘greats’ died young and lived through the greatest upheaval in the Indian subcontinent i.e. the Partition. As a sensitive writer, he was influenced and traumatized by political turmoil during 1947 and beyond. His stories reflect his repeated attempts to come to terms with this cataclysmic event especially for millions in North India. For Manto, partition remained a mystery but he did not keep himself in a state of denial about it. He always used the word ‘batwara’, never partition.i Manto felt that it was the ripping apart of one whole and would lead to greater divisions among the people of the subcontinent. This coming to terms with the ‘batwara’, is experienced in his works by unusual characters driven by plain ambitions, mixed emotions and above all sheer humanity.

Like Nazeer AkabarAbadi, Manto’s characters are universal and often it is difficult to condemn or dislike them since their humanity remains overarching. Manto raised the slogan of humanism at a time when the subcontinent presented the picture of a boiling cauldron of religious riots and protests, of acts of misogyny committed in the name of communal honour and ‘nationalism’. For example, in the story Sahai, Manto writes, “Don’t say that one lakh Hindus and one lakh Muslims have died. Say that two lakh human beings have perished.” Manto uses his characters as metaphors to highlight the prevalent abuse of humanity in those times.

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The verse of freedom

7 February 2015

In a powerful exploration of resistance poetry in indigenous languages, I discovered marginalized poets challenging mainstream Pakistani identity in moving verse.

 PoetsFaiz Ahmad Faiz

Much has been said about the literary and artistic revolution of Pakistan. Undoubtedly Pakistani writers, artists and musicians are now recognised globally for their work which engages with the world and brings forth perspectives which alter the unidimensional image of the country. At home, the new wave of literary and creative output is celebrated each year at the Karachi and Lahore literature festivals which have emerged as major venues for conversation and showcasing of what is being produced in the mainstream.

Away from the spotlight of international media and TV channels, Pakistan’s regional poets and writers are waging a far more perilous battle by engaging with their subaltern, marginalised audiences in the local idiom, thereby putting themselves at risk. The days of Faiz and Jalib are not over as we often moan. Instead they have deepened and regionalised. Our region has had a rich, ongoing folk tradition and it continues in myriad forms and expressions now. In India, Bangladesh and Pakistan poets and artists continue to challenge power and injustice. More so in Pakistan where instability, extremism and uncertainty have impacted people in a profound manner for the past few decades.

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Journey to change

30 January 2015

In referencing N M Rashed, clay pots, paper boats, the river Ravi and the lost garment ‘Saddri’, Pakistani artist Sabah Husain creates a seamless whole out of seemingly disparate objects.

sabih hasanBoats made of drawings and paintings on paper. Inkjet prints

Sabah Husain, the accomplished artist of Pakistan, is a trendsetter. Currently affiliated with the School of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Sabah displayed her recent works in Washington DC where the Pakistani Embassy showcased her works for art lovers in town and also reiterated how important cultural diplomacy is for our missions abroad.

As someone who has followed Sabah’s work for some time, I have always been intrigued by her fusion of Pakistan’s rich literary and cultural traditions into her oeuvre of printmaking and paperworks. The exhibition entitled ‘Mapping Waters’ (January 22-27, 2015) presented a range of paintings, prints and photography.

sabih hasan2Sabah Husain at XVA Gallery in Bastakiya Art Fair

Four distinct, yet interwoven, sensibilities were curated at the exhibition: first, Sabah’s enduring conversation with Urdu’s best known modern poet Noon Meem Rashid and his epic poem ‘Hassan Koozagar Ke Naam’; the second layer invoked her interpretations of the once popular but now in virtual disuse ‘saddri’ (men’s waistcoat with Central Asian origins); the paper boat; and Lahore’s dying River Ravi. At the outset these layers may appear to be incompatible but essentially they represent non-linear, complex journeys of an artistic vision.

In his celebrated poem, Rashed identifies himself with Hassan the koozagar (the potter). In material terms most ancient civilizations display pottery as both a daily convenience as well as an expression of the collective creative spirit. At a metaphysical level, clay symbolizes the material for creation shaped by the “creator”. Thus all three are one in the Sufi parlance of Wahdut ul Wajud (Unity of Being) and best represented by the famous line from Jalaluddin Rumi:

“Khud Kooza O, Khud Kooza Gar O, Khud Gil-e-Kooz; Khud Rind O Subu Kush; Khud Bar Sar-e-Aan Kooza Kharidaar; Bar Amad Ba Shikast O Ravaan Shu.”

He the vessel, its creator and also its clay;

He is the reveller drinking from it…

And is the one who buys it and breaks the vessel having drunk from it

The mythical Hassan from Rashed’s poem was a resident of Baghdad and invoked during his long soliloquy, the banks of River Tigris, the boat and the powers of his creativity, poverty and longing. The poem also reminds us of the cycles of personal and civilizational growth and decay. Sabah interprets the poem and its metaphors – the river and the boat – and locates them in contemporary settings. This is where it all comes together: the poet and the artist both identify with Hassan who on the banks of a River muses on Time and its various manifestations. One such manifestation for Hassan’s successor, Sabah Husain, is the forlorn piece of garment Saddri (Sabah in a conversation told me that she owns and wears them too).

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No exit

16 January 2015

The US must not forget the importance of a democratic, pluralist Pakistan

US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses a press conference in Islamabad

US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses a press conference in Islamabad

The recent visit of US Secretary of State John Kerry to Islamabad is a continuation of the improving relations between Pakistan and the US. From the declared frenemies in 2011, things have changed thereby proving that nothing is permanent in international relations except interests.

Kerry during his visit lauded Pakistan’s ongoing fight against terrorism and urged the authorities to take action against militant groups that threaten regional peace and stability. Furthermore, the State Department has declared Mullah Fazalullah, commander of TTP fighting Pakistani military, a global terrorist and froze his US assets, if any. On Tuesday, Afghan authorities reportedly apprehended 5 suspected planners of the Peshawar school attack based on the intelligence shared by Pakistan. This came after the weekend visit of Pakistani intelligence chief to Kabul and his meeting with President Ghani.

What distinguished Kerry’s current visit from earlier visits by US officials was that Pakistan Defence Council and other such xenophobic networks did not carry out public demonstrations against the US. A clear effort was made that such an embarrassment is avoided. Phrases such as ‘drone strikes’ and ‘violations of sovereignty’ were missing in the official communiques. Both countries are back to their old military to military relationship and trust deficit has considerably narrowed.

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Meeting Samiya

5 December 2014

I saw Dukhtar with the film’s protagonist, rekindling memories personal and political

Sumayya

It was utterly delightful when my friend Samiya Mumtaz – now a celebrated actor – informed me that she was visiting the US to attend the South Asian International Film Festival (SAIFF) where her recent film ‘Dukhtar’ was being premiered. SAIFF is a formidable film premiere destination for South Asian filmmakers in the United States. Dukhtar is also Pakistan’s official entry for Oscars and there was absolutely no reason to miss the opportunity to see it. But more importantly, to meet Samiya who since her foray into stardom has become as stars do – plain inaccessible.

We met outside the chaotic Penn Station in New York

We met outside the chaotic Penn Station in New York. The moment you emerge from this station life seems to take on a different hue, given the unreal energy of New York City, arguably one of the great man made wonders of our times. The train was late which basically meant we had a little time before reaching the festival venue, so we found a healthy eaterie that excited Samiya, given her lifestyle choices. Samiya who had wanted to be an organic farmer growing up realized her dream by working on a farm outside Lahore for many years. This led to the launch of Lahore’s first organic foods store – Daali – that has turned into a local brand impacting how food is viewed and consumed in gluttonous Lahore. (more…)

Meeting Salma Bhatti

28 November 2014

I met the wife of slain Minister Shahbaz Bhatti and discovered tales of woe, marginalisation and hope

 

salma bhatti

It has been over three years that Pakistan lost a brave Christian citizen Shahbaz Bhatti for his relentless advocacy of human rights and in particular for wanting to correct discriminatory and anti-people laws that afflicts all Pakistanis – Muslim or non-Muslim. Shahbaz Bhatti’s case has been treated in the same manner as most cases of this kind are. There are high-sounding condemnations; initial activity by the Police, arrest of a few ‘suspects’ and then the dysfunctional, collapsed system of justice takes over.

Shahbaz Bhatti was a serving Minister at the time of his murder. This was the second loss for the PPP – an ostensibly liberal and secular party in power. Earlier it was Punjab’s Governor Salmaan Taseer who was assassinated by his own guard in 2011, and in the same year a federal minister was gunned down in broad daylight. Yet, the response of the government was not what it ought to have been. By caving in to the extremists’ pressure and keeping survival in power as the top priority it lost the chance of changing the direction of the country. True, PPP was beholden by powerful corporate interests of the military and a formidable armed right wing but the impact of it all has been grievous for the country.

salma bhatti2

Taseer’s son is in the custody of militants since 2011. The former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s son was also abducted by militants and remains a hostage. The public opinion in Pakistan is not concerned, as the middle class narrative holds the ‘corrupt’ politicians responsible and militancy is now viewed as a heroic resistance to the evil West. This is why Shahbaz Bhatti’s killers are free and the case most likely will lead to another unjust outcome. (more…)

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