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Pakistan: A failing society?

My recent op-ed:

A couple of weeks ago a conference at the Lahore School of Economics allowed me to pontificate on how Pakistan is fast turning into a failing society. The context was how fractured federalism and an unstable political system had resulted in the social exclusion of a majority of the population.

The net result has been that we are a society that is divisive with embedded violence all around. Much has been said about Pakistan as a failing or failed state. Such prognoses have been manufactured in the dominant capitals of the West. True, such claims are exaggerated and self-serving for they provide a tailored worldview that Pakistan is a place that needs to be ‘fixed’.

While we are cognisant of such imperatives, let us not be blind to our deeply iniquitous and un-just society that needs major healing, reconciliation and perhaps surgery. Pakistan from 1947 to 1971 could not become a cohesive society, as the cultural-political identity of the Eastern Wing, now Bangladesh, was never accepted. Efforts to create a uniform identity failed and ultimately our majority province severed all ties with us. Ironically, this was a province at the forefront of the Pakistan movement. […]

Divide or perish: creating new provinces in Pakistan

My piece published in TFT
Since 1947, two characteristics of the Pakistani state have continued to haunt its legitimacy and survival. The first relates to the lopsidedness of its federal framework; and the second pertains to the dysfunctional citizen-state compact. Prior to 1971, the efforts to achieve parity between the eastern and western wings remained a constant struggle eventually culminating in the break-up of the country. Nationalist narratives insist on the Indian intervention in 1971 rather than acknowledging that the governance arrangements for the two wings through a powerful Centre in Karachi and later Islamabad were inherently biased and unworkable. In the post-1971 context, the lopsidedness did not end as the Punjab continued to dominate the way country works and how power is distributed between the various federating units. How can a federation work when one province will always be the most populous, resourceful and hold keys to state power through the civil-military bureaucracy?
The second unfortunate legacy of the colonial governance arrangements i.e., an over-developed state operating through central rule and diktat , is now facing the greatest crisis of legitimacy. It is now commonly recognized that state legitimacy is a function of how effective a state is in delivering services, ensuring entitlements (such as security) and negotiating plural identities and competing demands for resources and power. Pakistan’s dominant classes have always been averse to address this endemic issue until the recent political consensus that has been achieved through the passage of the 18th Amendment. While the political elites are clear on the future roadmap it remains to be seen whether the unelected institutions of the state are on board with the new provincial autonomy arrangements. Perhaps the recent violence in response to the renaming of the erstwhile North West Frontier Province to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa was allegedly orchestrated by the Kings’ party known for its servility to the establishment.
The debate on creating new provinces from different corners of the countries is a healthy sign and a direct result of a democratic phase, howsoever uncertain it might be. […]

Another Incarnation

By PANKAJ MISHRA (NYT) reviews an interesting book that I must read.



An Alternative History

By Wendy Doniger

779 pp. The Penguin Press. $35

Visiting India in 1921, E. M. Forster witnessed the eight-day celebration of Lord Krishna’s birthday. This first encounter with devotional ecstasy left the Bloomsbury aesthete baffled. “There is no dignity, no taste, no form,” he complained in a letter home. Recoiling from Hindu India, Forster was relieved to enter the relatively rational world of Islam. Describing the muezzin’s call at the Taj Mahal, he wrote, “I knew at all events where I stood and what I heard; it was a land that was not merely atmosphere but had definite outlines and horizons.” […]

May 10th, 2009|books|1 Comment

The Battle over Hindu History

Author Wendy Doniger, Professor of the History of Religions, University of Chicago’s Divinity School , writes on this blog about her new work. This new work further consolidates the view that much of the now politically packaged Hinduism was actually a product of colonial scholarship in the ninteenth centruy.

The Battle over Hindu History

For years, some Hindus have argued that the 16th century mosque called the Babri Masjid (after the Mughal emperor Babur) was built over a temple commemorating the birthplace of Rama (an avatar of the god Vishnu) in Ayodhya (the city where, according to the ancient poem called the Ramayana, Rama was born), though there is no evidence whatsoever that there has been ever a temple on that spot or that Rama was born there. […]

May 9th, 2009|books, History, India, India-Pakistan History, Politics|2 Comments

Reclaiming melody

Labourers of love: Mushtaq Soofi, Izzat Majeed & Christoph Bracher

Mian Yusaf Salahuddin’s Haveli, where Tarang was launched

Christoph Bracher testing equipment at Sachal Studios

Revival of the orchestra by Sachal Studios is a landmark in Pakistan’s music industry

Izzat Majeed: patron of music

Singers and musicians showcasing their skills at Sachal Studios

Humaira Channa

Izzat Majeed was raised in a household where good music was an object of reverence. His late father, Mian Abdul Majeed was an avid music fan, and from an early age his son was introduced to the finer details of sub-continental classical music. Mian Abdul Majeed was a student of Ustad Akbar Ali Khan and introduced Izzat to the layers and nuances of Indian film music that continue to guide him in his tastes and sensibilities

It was a mellow, moonlit evening of Lahore’s glorious spring when Sachal Studios released their album ‘Tarang’. It could not have been at a more fitting venue. Amid the decaying environs of Old Lahore stands the Haveli of Mian Yusaf Salahuddin, refurbished into a little planet of conservation as a courageous effort to protect and rejuvenate Lahore’s cultural soul. Mian Yusuf is the one denizen who has done this good deed for posterity, along with Syed Babar Ali who has conserved his ancestral Mubarak Begum Haveli in Bhaati Gate. Of course, the state has been abject in its failure to conserve Lahore’s majestic heritage.Sachal Studios is the brainchild of international businessman Izzat Majeed and man of letters Mushtaq Soofi, an exceptionally motivated duo. Sachal has infused the local music scene with innovation and energy. It is promoting a hybrid orchestra – once an integral part of the subcontinent’s film music tradition. Since 2003, Majeed, an activist and radical intellectual in a previous avatar, has devoted his time and money to this passion – to create Pakistani melodies in sync with the imperatives of contemporary musical sensibilities.

Started as a labour of love, Sachal Studios has released ‘Tarang,’ a collection of music that brings together the best musicians from all over Pakistan, and Humaira Channa’s competent voice. Of late, Channa has been a victim of commercial success and the quality compromises that define Pakistan’s derelict film music. Sachal’s production is a relief; a fresh departure from the usual, and the melodic results are impressive.

At the Old Lahore Haveli, Channa with her family and associates were accorded the respect they deserve. In a similar vein, immensely talented artists, such as the tabla maestro Billoo Khan and Pakistan’s leading sitar player, Ustad Nafees Ahmed Khan also attracted the attention of the star-studded guest list and Lahore’s usual chatterati. It was on a dimly lit terrace of the Haveli that I was introduced to Izzat Majeed, who looked pleased with himself and his Sachal partners as notes from the latest album mixed with the spring air.

Inspired by the Abbey Road Studios in London, Majeed and Soofi have been working for the last six years with Christoph Bracher, a scion of a German musicians’ family, to design and set up Sachal Studios. A state of the art music studio in Lahore is a landmark, for it heralds a new trend of post-production finesse that has hitherto been missing from the Pakistani music production process. A major contribution of Majeed is his introduction of the concept of ‘music-producers’. The norms of the industry have tragically reduced the role of a producer to an investor, from that of someone who drives the quality, provides technical inputs and steers the overall aesthetic of a musical experience.

Majeed related to me how he was raised in a household where good music was an object of reverence. His late father, Mian Abdul Majeed was an avid music fan, and from an early age his son was introduced to the finer details of sub-continental classical music. His father was a student of Ustad Akbar Ali Khan and introduced Majeed to the layers and nuances of Indian film music that continue to guide him in his tastes and sensibilities.

As he reminisced about the lost eras, Majeed told me how Jazz captured his imagination in his youth. “Believe it or not, great performers such as Louis Armstrong visited Lahore, and played fabulous music at the United States Information Services office on Queen’s Road,” he recalled. But he laments the fact that the vacuum that the local music scene is trapped in is gigantic. Ustad Mehdi Hasan does not sing any more, Madame Noor Jehan is dead and the great golden voices are getting lost in the onslaught of new trends in the music industry. He conceded that the pop scene is vibrant, but a bulk of those productions are “pure electronic noise”. Majeed is right, because the Pakistani state has demolished, brick by brick, the secular, composite culture of the Indus Valley and replaced it with a crippling “ideology” where no flowers bloom, where no bulbul sings.

This is why Sachal Studios is such an important intervention. It flies in the face of the state’s enforced desertification of culture; it seeks to encourage younger singers like Feriha Pervaiz, Ali Raza and Zaheer Abbas amongst others, to become heirs of the traditions that have historically defined musical consciousness in the popular domain. Izzat Majeed is also a poet in Punjabi and English, and so is Mushtaq Soofi. The two music aficionados have lent their verse to the myriad compositions of Sachal Studios.

Sachal’s efforts to build an orchestra have been rewarding. There is joy and unabashed triumph in Majeed’s tone when he says that in 2003 only 10 violinists were available in Lahore; the number has now increased to 30, providing extraordinary ground to the Sachal orchestra on which it can expand and deepen its range. The glorious sub-continental tradition of employing grand orchestras to enhance melodies, used by legends such as Naushad Ali, Madan Mohan, Khayyam, Shankar Jaikishen and Salil Chaudhry has become extinct except perhaps in the works of the genius, A R Rehman. In Pakistan, Majeed has picked up the tradition of serious film music of yesteryear, and has revitalised it; one hears the endangered violin instead of the plain electronic synthesiser in works produced by Sachal Studios.

But Majeed makes no grand claims. “I am not a crusader; I create music for the pleasure of music itself,” he says. This is an unusual statement in a country where bragging is a national pastime. It is easy to understand why Majeed’s partnership with Mushtaq Soofi has been fruitful. Soofi, a notable Punjabi poet, with vast experience in music production at Pakistan Television (PTV), is as self-effacing as Majeed. I met Soofi at the Sachal Studios premises, where he talked to me about his passion for music, sitting at his desk, chain-smoking, books with subjects ranging from pre-Islamic Persia to sources of the English language lying on his lacquered table. Like Majeed, he has also been immersed in music for the better part of his life. And after a long stint at PTV he has devoted his energies to Sachal. The prospect of pursuing music unencumbered by bureaucratic obstacles has set Soofi free.

Earlier, my visit to Sachal was quite an experience. Amid the ramshackle automobile workshops and Warris Road limits, which are constantly shrinking due to encroachments, stood the refurbished building, not too high yet modern in character. Like its vision, the environs and facilities of the studios were also ground-breaking. The state-of-the-art arrangements and impeccable acoustics have led to high quality results. I recalled […]

The story of an ivory chair – Murshidabad’s gift to Hastings

Dr Amin Jaffer, the expert on Indian arts and furniture, currently working at Christie’s holds forth in a conversation below. The chair above is a fine work of craftsmanship and amalgamation of Eastern and Western aesthetics in the eighteenth century India. The chair was presented to the infamous Warren Hastings by the female Rani (ruler) of Murshidabad. Amazing that it survives…

we’re very lucky to have found a group of correspondence relating to Warren Hastings and the ruler of Murshidabad, the old princely capital of the state of Bengal and she was the regent, she was called Mani Begum, who was originally a dancing girl and she married the Nawab and when the Nawab died and there was a sort of power vacuum, Warren Hastings installed her as the regent and she thanks Hastings and his wife Marion by giving them, over a number of years, pieces of very, very high quality ivory furniture.
And when Hastings comes back to England, it’s his agent in Calcutta who’s transacting the shipping of the furniture and Hastings asks him repeatedly to give letters to the Begum to thank her or to tell her how fantastic the furniture looks in the house in Dalesford – Warren Hastings’ great house which he built in the Cotswolds and that’s how we really know that this piece, one of a pair, belonged to this great important commission.

June 5th, 2008|Arts & Culture, History, India-Pakistan History|1 Comment