ARTSPEAK: WHO DECIDES CULTURE?

July 14, 2019

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This question is easily answered when it refers to politics or business, whereby the authority to be a decision-maker in politics comes from the ballot, the civil service or, some may say, the deep state, and in business from savants of the commerce world.

It becomes far more complex when it comes to culture — who decides what culture is? The academic? The government? The community? The word culture has been defined and redefined over the ages, invoked to promote nationalism or tourism, restrained by religious beliefs, deconstructed by sociologists and reconstructed by artists.

Geert Hofstede says, “Management can never change a national culture, it can only understand and use it.” He proposes that culture as a collective identity is manifested through symbols, heroes, rituals and values. The most enduring are values which are determined within the first 10 years of our lives.

Historically, the culture of a civilisation was defined by its city — Babylon, Athens or Mohenjo Daro. By the 19th century, Western cities became overcrowded, dirty and crime-ridden in the wake of industrialisation. The ‘City Beautiful Movement’ emerged in the early 20th century. It emphasised the physical appearance of cities rather than its people and their activities, which became mere engines for a capitalist economy. A focus on architecture, planning and green spaces has continued to be the concern of modern city planners as beautiful cities generate income through tourism, museums and cultural programming.

Since the ’90s, there has been a scramble to adopt the ‘World Class Cities’ model. However, Elizabeth Wilson, in her book The Sphinx in the City, writes that exporting this concept to non-Western cities, encouraged by agencies such as the World Bank, creates “inauthentic cities” and is motivated by extending colonial influence.

The African, South American and Asian cities evolved very differently from Western cities, as they retain strong ties to rural communities and traditional methods of production. Both South Asian and Middle Eastern regions already had sophisticated cities prior to colonialism. The colonial city was an administrative centre. Industry was discouraged to ensure markets for the British products.

Exporting the concept of ‘World Class Cities’ to non-Western cities, encouraged by agencies such as the World Bank, creates ‘inauthentic cities.’

By contrast, Mughal cities had flourishing urban arts and handicrafts, jewellery-making and textile workshops, which were essential to what Deepak Bhaga calls the economic equilibrium. In villages, artisans made essential products in return for a share of agricultural produce. The markets of Karachi intuitively follow the Mughal pattern in that bazaars with shops and kaarkhanas are grouped by trade — jewellery shops, cloth, wood and metal markets, hardware and grain — much like the mandi is structured. Royal patronage expected artisans to innovate and constantly upgrade. Today, tailors and embroidery artisans continue that tradition with custom-made products. As in the past, some family trades still continue down generations such as the Banarasi silk weavers of Karachi.

Modern bazaars that have evolved in Karachi maintain the trade community structure — for example, the Godra Sunday Car Bazaar, where owners can sell or swap cars, the Uni Plaza’s IT shops and the mobile market. The systems clearly work, since Karachi generates 60 percent of the country’s taxes and 20 percent of its Gross Domestic Product.

The car races of DHA Phase 8, the cycle and donkey races of Lyari, the boat builders at the harbour, the vibrant markets of Golimar, Pan Mandi, Dhan Mandi, Sarafa Bazaar and Bohri Bazaar are as much the ‘real’ culture of Karachi as its many beautiful buildings. Karachi is home to communities from all over Pakistan and the region including Bengalis, Rohingyas, Central Asians and Chinese. It has Muslims, Parsis, Hindus and Christians, each with their own communities, localities and customs. The heritage of this cultural diversity needs to be protected as much as the built heritage.

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi
Email: durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 14th, 2019