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Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade: An Informal Cultural History of the 1970s is the outcome of an exhibition of the same name, co-curated by Amin Gulgee and Niilofur Farrukh in March 2016. In this volume on art and culture, co-edited by Gulgee, Farrukh and writer John McCarry, Gulgee quotes Milan Kundera from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long, the nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around will forget even faster ... The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

Gulgee’s essay sets the tone for this informal documentation of the era. He writes, “my personal memories ... derive from stories I heard growing up in Karachi. The people around me spoke endlessly — and continue to do so — of the Elysian days of ‘the Seventies’ where everything was much more vibrant and free(r).”

The stress on memory and recall became the anchor of the exhibition and subsequently this publication; it allowed artists to engage with their recent past, as opposed to constantly seeking or appropriating narratives from foreign socio-political contexts. About Meher Afroz, who moved to Karachi from Lucknow in 1972, Gulgee writes: “Her installation, ‘Memories of the Seventies’, comprised of five open wooden diaries” which she termed “torturous memories of that time ... when the nation’s dreams came crashing down.”

A book expands the purpose of the art exhibition catalogue from a marketing tool and takes it into a discursive space of cultural studies

Referring to Jamil Dehlavi who showed stills in a light box from his 1980 film The Blood of Hussain — which was banned under Gen Ziaul Haq — Gulgee quotes the filmmaker: “‘My work is a visual metaphor ... in which the horse rises out of the earth to seek a new rider and continues the struggle against oppression’.” Perhaps most pungent was Quetta-based artist Akram Dost Baloch’s performative work, “appropriated from a child’s textbook from the Seventies. The audience was encouraged to prick his/her finger, drawing blood and smearing the canvas, and signing their name under it.”

The ‘1970s: The Radioactive Decade’ exhibition was a live space (therefore the term ‘radioactive’), with performance, installation and sound art. Artist Muhammad Ali’s model military tank made with 9000 plastic daisies shared space with overlapping displays, genres, mediums and simultaneous performances — it was a signature Amin Gulgee show. A ‘happening’ with buzz and noise at a frenzied pitch, a provocative act of recall. It reminded me of the strange, dense air filled with crossed conversations, perfume and smoke as I had imagined in Mohsin Hamid’s book, Moth Smoke.

Gulgee writes on each of the 47 artworks displayed in the two halls at his gallery. This interface with culture, therefore, becomes an apt reference of first-hand exchanges on the intricacies and nature of unresolved issues of the time, as it also reveals the nature of experimental and alternate art narratives in Pakistan today. The work and the art — in some cases, the artist was the art! — were all there, good or bad, open for viewers to make their conclusions. Those unfamiliar with the art world may have been surprised by the unconventional approach by artists who were mostly in their 20s and 30s.

Mohsin Hamid writes in a short account titled ‘My Seventies’: “I was born in Lahore in 1971, the year of the war in East Pakistan, some of which I’m told I spent in Khanewal, where my mother’s family came from, since people thought Indian aircraft might bomb Lahore.” Moving to California at the age of three, he recalls “riding in the back seat of my parents’ second-hand Datsun as they drove to San Francisco, listening to the radio when I fly from London to San Francisco, now, decades later, I feel like I’m flying from home to home, and I feel like I’m entering the 1970s again, a little bit, and I miss the back seat of that car.”

In ‘Notes on Approaching the Seventies: History and the City’, H.M. Naqvi recollects his grandfather’s town house in Hyderi (Karachi) which was “airy ... the city was breezier in general.” Informal thoughts, these resonate with the consciousness of our collective experience. This one line sets off the imagery of ’70s Karachi in our minds. Had this publication been more structured, such personal notes may not have emerged. Naqvi also writes, “History is not merely a chronicle of political conjectures. When we neglect culture in the calculus of the past — the stuff we feel, breathe, that circulates in our blood — then our understanding of history is incomplete.”

Salima Hashmi, in ‘The Seventies: Tracing the Dream’, writes with reference to the secession of East Pakistan: “The pain and disbelief that settled into the hearts of the people could only be assuaged by the rekindling of hope which accompanied the populism of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. The lightening of mood was almost palpable when the state-run media was overhauled to reflect a more open, inclusive dispensation. Intellectuals, artists, writers, performers and television and radio professionals hitherto silenced and marginalised, were summoned to provide ideas to build cultural frameworks embodying a progressive democratic agenda.”

Hashmi provides a concise overview of artists who migrated to Bangladesh from West Pakistan. She writes that the 1971 “truncation” meant the “disappearance of Zainul Abedin, Mohammad Kibria, Murtaza Bashir, Saifuddin Ahmed, Qayyum Chaudhry, Qamrul Hassan, Hameed ur Rehman, Devdas Chakraborty, Syed Jehangir.” These artists, she writes, were significant in their influence on West Pakistan and nurtured personal relationships between intellectuals and artists; Zainul Abedin, for instance, was “critically important” for his “role in setting up the Fine Arts Department at the Peshawar University.” Hashmi’s account also explains the ethos of early modernists such as Shakir Ali and Ali Imam, and links it to their pupils in the next generation, stalwarts such as Jamil Naqsh, Bashir Mirza, Shahid Sajjad and others. These connections are critically important to the understanding of artistic directions.

The publication reflects a significant curatorial strategy in its intention to bridge the disparity between conversations in the exclusivity of the art world and the rest of the cultural milieu. It expands the purpose of the art exhibition catalogue from a marketing tool and takes it into a discursive space of cultural studies. The writing is simple, direct and straightforward with chapters titled ‘Visual Art’, ‘Architecture’, ‘Theatre’, ‘Dance’, ‘Nightlife’, ‘Advertising’, ‘Fashion’, ‘Music’, ‘Film’, ‘Journalism’ and ‘Literature’. That makes it much of an overview with a bit of everything, but well contained, especially because of interviews of people who were part of what defined ’70s culture. However, higher resolution images and competitive design quality would have ensured this to be a rich coffee table book — the publishers need to put their money into the quality of design and printing.

There are interviews with PTV’s golden couple Rahat and Sahira Kazmi by journalist Tehmina Ahmed and an essay on playwright Haseena Moin by Rumana Husain. “The cultural institutions received state patronage and Pakistan Television emerged as a major platform for an unprecedented era of openness,” writes Raza Rumi in ‘The Musical Spirit of the Seventies’. In a section each on “the magical Runa Laila” and “Alamgir, the King”, he mentions songs such as ‘Tu Ne Kya Shay Mujhay Pilaa Di Hai’ (picturised on Rani in the 1971 film Tehzeeb) and ‘Dil Dharke Tum Se Yeh Kaisay Kahoon’ (with Rani and Waheed Murad) as being “memorable for they changed the future directions of film music as a whole. The film Anjuman was an all-time blockbuster that established Laila as a formidable playback singer.” Alamgir, who was born in Bangladesh [then East Pakistan], “became a major figure on Karachi’s pop scene. His first song for PTV Albela Rahi was featured in Pakistan’s first pop musical series on national television.” Khusro Mumtaz’s detailed chapter provides well-rounded information and analyses on Pakistani film and music. A continuous thread in most chapters explores the influence of artists from former East Pakistan, as well as their impact and legacy after the creation of Bangladesh. Shahnaz Begum, who ironically sang the famous national songs, ‘Sohni Dharti’ ,‘Jug Jug Jeevay’ and ‘Jeevay Jeevay Pakistan’ moved to Bangladesh, as did the actress Shabnam.

Much of the subtext of this compilation seems to be nostalgic and celebratory. It weaves in Gen Zia’s religiosity and the late ’70s’ wave of Islamicisation in a cursory manner, and not as a subject in any depth. The ethos of dissent has existed on a deeper, more passionate, manner in Urdu literature, as opposed to the fine arts which were always confined to an elite group of buyers, sellers and drawing room conversations. This disconnect is visible from the book’s cross-section of images and descriptions of artworks.

Aquila Ismail’s translations of Urdu poems anchor the ethos of the later ’70s of Gen Zia’s regime. The following from ‘Fahmida Riaz: The Melodious Insurgent’ is a verse from Riaz’s Chaadar Aur Chaar Diwari [The Veil and Four Walls]: “Then with the blood of innocence your white beard became coloured/ In your lordship’s scented chambers life has wept its tears of blood/ When the corpse lies, this centuries’ old bloody drama of the murder of humanity/ Let it come to a stop, Sir! Cover it up now/ The black veil has become your necessity not mine/ I am a fellow traveller of the new man/ He who has won my trusting friendship!”

The reviewer is a Karachi-based art critic and curator, and co-founder of NuktaArt, Pakistan’s first bi-annual publication on art. She has edited the publication Homecoming, Rasheed Araeen

Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade: An Informal
Cultural History of the 1970s
Edited by Niilofur Farrukh, Amin Gulgee and
John McCarry
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199405695
448pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 21st, 2019