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The culture cure

April 25, 2016


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

IT may be the start of a long, hot summer but in terms of activities that bring hope, Pakistan hasn’t done too badly this year. Just this weekend past, despite the rapidly rising mercury, people thronged to the Creative Karachi Festival. Islamabad just hosted another edition of the literature festival, and Hyderabad organised a rock concert of significant size. Speaking of music, Grease, The Musical played to packed audiences in Karachi.

Meanwhile, in different cities in recent months, the KopyKats production Siachen broke several sorts of new ground, not the least of them being the extreme challenge of presenting consecutive performances on the same night. The National Academy of Performing Arts held its international theatre festival. Gwadar hosted a literature festival that was attended by hundreds (though unfortunately this did not receive the coverage it deserved in the national press). There are new films coming out, local musicians are booked solid … in short, encouraging events are happening.

And yet, there are too many people asking how these drops of hope in the ocean of despair that is Pakistan could possibly make any tangible difference in the long term?

How Pakistan could frame an answer to this question can be discussed endlessly. But of the many groups and individuals working in these sorts of fields in hostile terrains, perhaps the ones who must most frequently have reason to ask themselves this question might be the members of the Zohra orchestra. This is an ensemble of 35 women at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, which plays both Afghan and Western musical instruments.

The group is led and conducted by the young Negin Ikhpolwak, who learned to play the piano in secret. While she was fortunate enough to be supported by her father when she revealed her interest in music, she was threatened and harassed by other men of her family and tribe to the extent that she now lives in an orphanage in Kabul.

The change culture brings can put society on a new trajectory.

The playing of music is no longer banned in Afghanistan as it was when the Afghan Taliban held sway there, but many still consider it to be indecent and immoral, especially for women. All her fellow musicians have similar tales to tell, and yet soldier on in the face of daunting odds.

The stories of the National Institute of Music, and the musicologist who runs it, are in themselves rather miraculous given the circumstances that prevail over the eastern border. The academy was set up in 2010, part of the bid to reclaim public and societal space and free up Afghanistan from the stranglehold of the Taliban.

The person leading the project was Ahmad Naser Sarmast, a musicology professor who returned from Australia and created a symphony orchestra which was soon playing at some of the world’s most prestigious centres, including the Royal Festival Hall in London and the Kennedy Centre in Washington. At his institute, he reserved slots for orphans, street children, and — a point of controversy for Afghanistan — girls.

In December 2014, he was in the front row watching his orchestra perform with a drama troupe at the French cultural centre in Kabul when a suicide bomber struck. He very nearly lost his hearing, but he’s still there, still working.

Stories such as those recounted here appear disparate on the face of it, but they are underpinned by the common experience of culture practitioners who work in hostile climes. The reason they do it is because they are aware of the fact that cultural change translates to societal change — and not in any nebulous, ephemeral sort of way but in quantifiable, solid ways.

Often, the change culture can bring about is so significant that it ends in society itself being re-imagined, set on a different trajectory altogether. If that sounds fanciful, consider two culture icons (amongst many of their colleagues) that achieved precisely this, and are for this reason being mourned across the globe and across cultures.

Both Prince and David Bowie entered their industry when it looked nothing like what it does today, and both played remarkable roles in not just music (the boundless depths of their talents are obvious and well documented) but in changing societies: most significantly, gender constructs and identities, but also the roles that men and women are forced to fit into, and how they can be transcended.

That sort of iconoclasm is out of reach, sadly, of most of those who live and work in the spheres of culture, whether in Pakistan or elsewhere. But it would be a mistake to discount their efforts, for what they are achieving — bit by bit, incrementally — adds up to a lot. Consider how much poorer Lahore is, for example, from having lost the RPTW festivals. Part of the solution to Pakistan’s travails lies in exploring and mapping out identities and experiences; and the only way to that is books and poetry, theatre and music, song and dance and film.

The writer is a member of staff.

Published in Dawn, April 25th, 2016