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‘About suffering they were never wrong’

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.

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A literary landmark

A review of the Islamabad Literature Festival for TFT

 

 


literature festival in Islamabad sounds a contradiction in terms. A city better known for politicos, babus and palace intrigues also patronizes the state run literary establishment. The bureaucratization of literature has only stunted the growth of a literary culture in the capital. Oxford University Press (OUP) and its partners broke the conventions by organizing the two-day festival showcasing segments of Pakistani literature both in local and English languages. The greatest success of the event was the massive participation of people of Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

 

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The Islamabad Literature Festival (ILF) was inspired by the annual event in Karachi, which has already set a benchmark for such multi-lingual events. Of course, the critique even this time was along the similar lines: that these festivals only cater to the English-speaking world and the ‘liberal class’ as someone confided in me during a break. Having said that there were sessions on Pashto and Punjabi poetry and many discussions on Urdu literature with luminaries such as Intizar Husain, popular writers like Mustansar Husain Tarar and Amjad Islam Amjad. The unassuming and mild-mannered Kamila Shamsie also joined in from the UK.

The most heart-warming aspect of ILF was the interest it generated among the students and young men and women. Halls were packed with university students and young professionals. For the first ever literary event taking place without state patronage this was quite a feat.

The organisers of the festival kept me busy throughout. On day one I hosted a session with the Left activist and LUMS academic Dr. Taimur Rehman on the class structure in Pakistan. I was quite surprised to witness huge attendance at the session. Taimur, an affable and enthusiastic conversationalist made rather insightful remarks on the way Pakistan was changing. He talked about his book and also the central role of caste in understanding how class as a construct exists in South Asia and the areas that comprise Pakistan. During the session he also challenged ‘Naya Pakistan’and explained to some of the youth how corruption as an issue could not be viewed in isolation and was a product of the class system. In a response to a related question Taimur assertd that “politicisation of corruption” was done during the various military regimes,” and thus the corrupt political system and corrupt politicians was a narrative that had gained much traction in the country (to the extent that the politicians were using it against each other). […]