Published in The Friday Times

Chronicles of our recent past

10 July 2015

FS Aijazuddin’s new book is an erudite and introspective account of a turbulent decade


The past decade in Pakistan has been cataclysmic. Political upheavals and assassinations, the menace of terrorism that cost us more than 80,000 lives and over $100 billion; and a time warped foreign policy kept pushing the country into a vortex. All of this reproduced the curse of endemic political instability that has been a hallmark of Pakistan’s trajectory. Much has been written on this decade especially by foreign commentators given our global relevance as an American ally in the War on Terror. Within Pakistan, a handful of commentators and analysts have articulated more grounded, organic narratives; and FS Aijazuddin is one of the chosen few. His new book The Morning After is a collection of articles, essays and speeches he delivered in various capacities during the years 2006 and 2014. As the author tells us, the book is a fourth in the series of such compilations. The last one – When Bush Comes to Shove and other writings – was published in 2006.

Such compilations can be tricky for a reader as often the contents respond to time-bound events and explore topics that run the risk of losing relevance overtime. Given the structural constraints of Pakistani state and society, the issues covered in The Morning After appear relevant even in 2015. Take the case of a column entitled ‘Making Cartoons of Ourselves’ on the global outrage against Danish Cartoons. It is hauntingly familiar and newsy. In 2012, there were countrywide protests against a film made on Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and last year 14 staffers of a French magazine – Charlie Hebdo – were killed by fanatics in Paris. Aijazuddin’s conclusion is spot-on: “We are not the caricatures stencilled by the western press, nor the cartoons extremists make of themselves and of us by their aberrant behaviour.” (more…)

More Than “Just” a Footnote

3 April 2015

A year after gunmen attacked his car, killing his young driver, I mourn the loss of Mustafa


mustafa2Mustafa – associate, companion, employee, friend

It has been a year since I lost a close associate, an employee, a friend. After I miraculously escaped a carefully planned dénouement, there was much to celebrate: the chance to live, the experience of having defied death. But this living has come with a death at its very centre. Young Mustafa, who had still to experience life, was deprived of that. What can it be called? An accident? An assassination? Crossfire? Or the sheer randomness of death?

In 2008, on returning to Pakistan after a stint with the Asian Development Bank, I hired Mustafa. Another candidate, who could not work full-time, referred him to me. I was a little hesitant to hire someone so young but during the various tests, he proved to be a responsible driver and immediately endeared himself to my family, including my young children, who later became his friends.

An image that has become too common in an increasingly violent Pakistan

An image that has become too common in an increasingly violent Pakistan

He shared my enthusiasm for old buildings, random signs, rickshaw posters and pop art

Mustafa, a resident of Kasur, was the eldest child of a landless, working-class family. They had to stock wheat after every harvest, lived in a house that sustained damage after every monsoon, and faced the brutal marginalization of being who they were in the essentially classist rural society of Punjab. Mustafa’s venturing out to the city, therefore, added a bit of pride in addition to financial support for the family. He was choosing not to be a manual labourer, but opting instead for better-paid “high”-skill-based employment. I found out about all these nuances as we spoke about his village and the dynamics therein. (more…)

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.


‘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.


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.

Promoting pluralist folk heritage is vital for Pakistan’s future

13 February 2015

I talked to Dr Fouzia Saeed, the newly appointed Executive Director of Lok Virsa

fauzia saeedDr Fouzia Saeed with Zarina, a folk singer from Cholistan

Dr Fouzia Saeed, a scholar and civil society activist, was recently appointed as the head of Lok Virsa – the premier government institution to conserve and promote cultural heritage. After years of inaction and treating folklore as a commodity to be sold at melas and cafes, it is somewhat encouraging that a professional is in charge of an important institution. Fouzia is a renowned folklorist. Her well-researched book ‘Forgotten Faces: The daring women of Punjabi theatre’ traces the lives of women actors active in folk theatre during the 1960 and 70s. Another publication on the lacquered work of Dera Ismail Khan is a useful reference on an old craft that continues to be practiced.

Earlier, Fouzia led the movement for promotion of Manganhaar music encouraging younger people to participate and take pride in that activity. On PTV Fouzia interviewed many artists who had quit performing arts. As the founding member of Sanjh Theatre, she has been actively engaged with the folk arts. In 1988, she joined Lok Virsa as a Deputy Director, Research, and produced a record number of publications. In 1989 she set up a private organization – The Folklore Society – that she still chairs. Fouzia’s best known initiative remains Mehergarh – a Human Rights institute – that provides leadership training and helps build an alternative discourse on culture and society. Her PhD in Education and academic training in anthropology led to her award winning book ‘Taboo’ that explores the stigma on performing arts in Pakistan; and is now being used as a textbook in many countries.

We spoke to Fouzia as she was leaving for Islamabad to take charge of the institution.

Going back to Lok Virsa as its head must be a homecoming of sorts?

Yes, Nostalgic! When I joined it in 1988 I had just completed my education from the USA and was so full of enthusiasm. It was a thriving and creative place! There was a tea khokha on one side and we used to have samosas there and come up with  creative ideas for our programs. I really got groomed there. It is great to come back to it. All these past years I used to call it my ‘maika ghar’ (parental abode). I know almost all the people there, I also know its glorious as well as subdued past quite well. With all the affection for Lok Virsa, it is great to be back. Not just for the staff and colleagues but also the folk artists that I have maintained close contacts with.  They are thrilled and I am thrilled!


Next Page »