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Past present: Changing patrons

April 21, 2013

According to a story in Indian mythology, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth had a quarrel with Sarasvati, the goddess of knowledge. Sarasvati cursed Lakshmi to be loved and possessed by those who were stupid and illiterate but Sarasvati suffered the repercussions of her own curse.

The wealthy and resourceful employed scholars, writers and poets to write praise for them, highlight their achievements and conceal their crimes and idiosyncrasies. On the other hand, scholars and writers had no choice but to seek and enjoy their patronage in order to survive.

It was customary for rulers to gather the most famous poets, artists and historians around themselves and become well-known as a great patron of art and culture. Mahmud Ghaznavi (971-1030 AD) went to the extent of kidnapping scholars and forcing them to serve in his court. Most of them obeyed his command except for Ibn Sina (d.1037) who refused to oblige him. The Mughal emperor Akbar (1556-1605), invited reputed poets, scholars and musicians to his court and generously awarded them.

Throughout Europe, middle-class writers were supported by noble patronage. Goethe (1832) served different German rulers. Thomas Hobbson (d.1631) enjoyed the patronage of an English aristocrat. Adam Smith (d.1790) accepted the patronage of an aristocrat who employed him as a tutor for his son.

Poets, historians and scholars in the subcontinent suffered financially after the decline of the Mughal empire as royal patronage was no longer extended to them. They wandered from one place to another with relatively prosperous states like Awadh, Hyderabad and Murshidabad being their only hope for survival. Mir Taqi Mir (d.1810) wrote in his autobiography about his plight. Zauq (d.1854) in one of his couplets described the generosity of the court of Hyderabad, Deccan, yet he was unwilling to bid farewell to Delhi, his beloved city.

Under the patronage of rulers and aristocrats, poets and writers exhausted their talents on flattery and praise of their patrons, losing their creative independence. In a way, due to royal patronage, literature and art suffered and the society failed to produce independent thinkers and philosophers who could criticise rulers and condemn them for bad governance. Scholars and writers developed the art of circumventing the construction of sentences, using similes and indirect references, making it difficult for researchers to extract the truth from their accounts.

With the arrival of the printing press, European intellectuals were liberated from the clutches of court patronage. The number of readers increased as education spread and information reached masses in the shape of books. Writers survived on royalties of their books and became independent and free to criticise or guide the society.

It was a radical change, as instead of rulers, now the society patronised them and democracy allowed freedom of expression.

Since the Pakistani state has become ideological, it is difficult for Pakistani intellectuals to play an active role in society. Any criticism is considered anti-state. Historians are obliged to interpret history within a certain framework; poets are obliged to write national songs while journalists are busy flattering politicians and the ruling classes.

As readership in Pakistan is limited, writers cannot survive on the basis of selling their books. If they work for state institutions, they have to follow the state policy. If they wish to write for newspapers, they have to support views of the owners, while private television channels allow no space for free discussion. Under these circumstances, intellectuals can sell their knowledge for a price. As a result, there is no creativity, nor the production of new ideas and thoughts to challenge the society and to change its old and outdated tenets.

Without a creative and intellectual movement, the society cannot be reformed. Intellectuals must be liberated from all patronage so as to freely express their views for the betterment of society.