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Journey to change

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).


Whatever happened to Kerry-Lugar?

Pakistan’s dire fiscal situation has resulted in the reduction of development spending by 40 per cent. This does not bode well for the citizens who have been tormented by an energy crisis, persistent food inflation and rampant unemployment. In these circumstances, the development assistance under the Kerry-Lugar Bill (KLB) is much needed. Pakistan’s civilian government braved a media onslaught and the ire of the security establishment for tacitly supporting the US legislation. Other than the rhetoric around the ‘conditions’ drafted in Washington, there was an unstated agreement that the development assistance was welcome.

Months have elapsed and Pakistanis have yet to witness the roll out of the KLB. Global recession and political uncertainty at home underlie the tough days for Pakistanis especially the poor. It was expected that given the urgency of the situation, USAID was going to kickstart the delivery of its interventions. Well, the progress so far has been disappointing.

First, there seems to be no public sign of a consensus within the US bureaucratic machine how the aid under KLB will be delivered. Unconfirmed media reports suggest that the political versus the bureaucratic channels are not on the same page. The ‘political’ administration is ostensibly managing USAID systems and processes. There may be strategic reasons for that but the net result is that things are delayed. Not long ago, Pakistani government’s procedures were thought to be a problem but the trajectory of US bureaucracy only proves that public sector ailments are common. […]

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. […]

Pakistan’s Southern Punjab: Politics of marginalisation

The discourse on South Punjab conceals the grassroots social movements and the clamouring for a linguistic identity in the region

The conundrum of South Punjab remains a major challenge for analysts, policy makers and above all the people of this marginalized region. Socio-economic data testifies to the impoverishment and the deprivation that exists in the region. Add to this the iniquitous land distribution and utter lack of economic opportunities for the local population. Despite the rhetoric of the establishment, the region has been neglected through decades of “modern” development in northern and central Punjab. The bulk of public resources were invested in Lahore, Rawalpindi and other urban centers of the North. Industrialisation, growth of private education facilities and the rise of the middle class are phenomena that have eluded the dusty environs of South Punjab.

The result is clear: the electoral patterns show support for redistributive agendas and which are deemed as pro-peasantry. In recent years, southern Punjab has also witnessed two conflictual yet interrelated trends. First, the rise of Islamism through a network of sectarian madrassas which train militants and mercenaries alike; and scattered yet influential social movements around the issues of linguistic identity and livelihoods. How does one make sense of these contradictions? […]

April 11th, 2010|governance, Pakistan, Politics, terrorism|4 Comments

History’s ghetto – (Geneva Camp, Dhaka)

My recent piece for the The Friday Times – about the bitterness and destitution in a Dhaka camp for Biharis

It was almost by accident that I visited the Mohammadpur Geneva camp in Dhaka – one of the largest settlements housing thousands of stranded Biharis in Bangladesh. On my last visit to Dhaka, my guide Ronny offered the possibility of getting the best bihari kebabs in town. He told me that his house was near the place and I could meet him somewhere close.

This was an extraordinary afternoon when the receding sun was converting the sky into a field of unimaginable colours that artists can only aspire to create through their limited palettes. Dhaka, the noisy, overcrowded megapolis can be enchanting at times, especially during late springtime when the Krishnochura trees (the Flame of the Forest) bloom all over with their fiery flowers. I almost cancelled the trip thinking that a walk in the park might be a better alternative to the usual South Asian gluttony. Quite soon, I arrived at the meeting point having rationalised my proclivity for indulgence.

Little did I know that the meeting point was nowhere but at the doorstep of Dhaka’s underbelly, the easy to ignore Bihari camp. Not until I had reached there had I realised how the wounds of 1971 were festering for hundreds and thousands of men, women and children who have waited for all these years to attain identity and citizenship of Pakistan. As if it were a curse, the Pakistani state soon forgot about their existence as its ethnic politics dominated the policy commitments of Bhutto. And for the Bangladeshis these were the “traitors” who continued to wave Pakistani flags when the vast majority of East Pakistanis revolted against the excesses and the might of Pakistan army following the infamous and mischievous army action of 1971.


In a few minutes I had all but forgotten about the famous Mustaqeem kebabs and parathas and forced Ronny to take me inside the camp. Very soon I realised I did not need any Bangla-speaking guide as the ghetto was Urdu speaking, and portraits of Pakistani leaders and flags could still be spotted despite the passage of three and a half decades. Ronny knew the locals and found his younger friends, child workers and idle youth who took charge of our little tour.

Shamed by guilt and excited by the real experience, I wandered the smelly, open-drained and dark streets of the ghetto. I have frequented other slums but this one was special for it reeked of the contemporary elite politics, bloodshed and cold inhumanity that Pakistanis are shy of confronting. The living conditions would put any half-concerned South Asian to shame. The homes for most of the families comprised tiny little rooms, with all the belongings and large families concentrated in the inner space. No proper toilets and water supply – as if civilization had taken a backseat here. […]

Voices of the oppressed – Dalit literature

by K G Sankarapillai

Dalit means broken, oppressed, untouchable, downtrodden, and exploited. They come from the poor communities which under the Indian caste system used to be known as untouchables. They constitute nearly 16% of the Indian population.

The caste system, with a history of more than 3000 years in India, is a shameful system of social segregation, which works on the principle of purity and impurity. Purity is rich and white or whitish, impurity is poor and dark. Hidden powers of wealth can be easily traced in every feudal Brahmanical concept of the ideal. Material milieu of purity and beauty and prominence and command and comforts is also wealth. Economic division is reflected in the social classifications. But it should not be registered that caste is racial or economic. Dr. Ambedkar says that the caste system came into being long after the different races of India had commingled in blood and culture. To hold that distinctions of caste are really distinctions of race and to treat different castes as though they were so many different races is a gross perversion of the historical facts. Ambedkar asks: What affinity is there between the Untouchable of Bengal and the Untouchable of Madras? The Brahman of Punjab is racially the same stock as the Chamar of the Punjab and the Brahman of Madras is the same race as the Pariah of Madras. The caste system does not demarcate racial division. (Annihilation of caste – in writings and speeches vol.1 .p.49 Dr .B.R. Ambedkar) […]

After election landslide, Nepalese Maoists reassure investors and major powers

By K. Ratnayake and Peter Symonds

An unexpected landslide for the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M) in Constituent Assembly elections on April 10 underscores the depth of the country’s social crisis and the extent of popular hostility, not only to the monarchy, but to the entire spectrum of establishment parties.
Full results in the complex election process may not be known for weeks, but the Maoists have won a clear majority of 240 directly-elected seats. Of the 218 seats finalised so far, the CPN-M has 116 compared to just 34 for its nearest rival, Nepali Congress, and 31 for the Nepal Communist Party-Unified Marxist Leninist (NCP-UML). The ethnic-based Madhesi People’s Rights Forum won 24 seats.
Another 335 seats will be decided by proportional voting, with quotas set to ensure the representation of women, lower castes and ethnic minorities. The overall vote for the Maoists is about 33 percent, ensuring that the CPN-M will be by far the largest party in the 601-seat Constituent Assembly, but unlikely to hold a majority. The remaining 26 seats will be appointed by the interim cabinet, which the CPN-M will dominate.
The decision to establish a Constituent Assembly, which will draw up a new constitution as well as appoint an interim government, is the product of a protracted political crisis. In April 2006, sustained political protests against the absolutist monarchy finally forced King Gyanendra to stand aside and hand over power to a seven-party alliance led by Nepali Congress and the NCP-UML. In November 2006, the Maoists concluded a deal with the government to end their 12-year armed insurgency, enter the cabinet and participate in elections for a constituent assembly. […]

April 20th, 2008|Politics|0 Comments