COLUMN: PORTRAIT OF A NATION

September 15, 2019

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She was born in the same year as Allama Muhammad Iqbal, but outlived him by three decades. A true polymath, a woman of means from an influential Bombay [Mumbai] family and the first Indian Muslim woman writer who rose to international prominence, Atiya Fyzee-Rahamin (1877-1967) befriended and patronised the likes of Allama Shibli Nomani, Maulana Muhammad Ali Jauhar and Iqbal. Some of their personal correspondences have been published and enrich our literary history. Her contribution to the scholarly and social empowerment of Muslim women is both pioneering and significant.

In 1912, she married Samuel Fyzee-Rahamin, an artist of Jewish origins from Pune, who remained head-over-heels in love with Atiya till the very end and took part of her name to make his own. Atiya’s intellectual and cultural career blossomed further after their marriage. The couple took to writing and publishing internationally while Samuel also continued to paint. They published three books on our music and journal articles on various themes, delivered lectures and staged plays. After Partition, they moved to Pakistan, where Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah allotted them Aiwan-i-Raffat — a place in downtown Karachi to live and establish an art gallery.

The gallery that was envisioned by the founder of the nation remains unfinished, but was restored as a gallery in the 1970s by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government. But the treatment meted out to the illustrious couple for some years before their deaths remains a blemish on our collective conscience. A government bureaucrat annoyed by the old couple had them evicted from the premises they had established and ran for promoting art and culture. The Fyzee-Rahamins spent the rest of their lives in misery and hardship.

Unlike what happened recently in the Pakistan Academy of Letters (PAL) in Islamabad — where a bureaucrat had the images of Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz removed from display, ostensibly because he didn’t like their politics or lifestyles — Atiya Fyzee-Rahamin and her husband Samuel were not portraits when they were removed from Aiwan-i-Raffat. Our patterns of thinking have further ‘evolved’ over the years, courtesy the success of ‘project social radicalisation’ run by the state for decades unending. A part of me is as angry at the ignorance and audacity of the bureaucrat as others — many of whom swiftly protested and got the portraits back on the walls. But the other part of me does not want to concentrate my anger against an individual who — as he is still serving — must not be superannuated. He is simply a product of the same lopsided cultural narrative and official school curriculum to which most of us from ‘Generation Zia’ belong.

There are two questions to be asked. One, what is our culture and civilisation that defines our national identity, in which only Iqbal can be displayed on PAL’s walls? Two, will the perpetual conflict between art and power ever be resolved? The first question is specific to Pakistan; the second is more universal in nature, with some additional dimensions in our particular condition.

To answer the first, the powers-that-be, with a broad strand of conservatism and bigotry in their midst, are in a state of perpetual denial, besides being incapable of resolving the contradictions in their past and present. They not only wish to renounce anything to do with our Dravidian, Vedic and Buddhist past, but are also averse to the idea of embracing the latter indigenous Muslim cultures of our land — cultures that produced personalities from Baba Farid to Najm Hosain Syed and from Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai to Shaikh Ayaz.

The powers-that-be also look away when asked that, if the Two-Nation Theory is valid in the case of Hindus and Muslims living across South Asia, how come Indian and Bangladeshi Muslims became different nations from us after 1947 and 1971 respectively? The simplest way to respond to complexities is with ignorance rather than tackling them with more knowledge. All nations and nation-states have to grapple with complexities. Nothing is linear or binary in history. We are not unique in that respect. However, we are unique in not attempting to learn and understand anything.

Ghalib was a bohemian Muslim counter-culturist and Faiz is an icon of the people’s history of resistance, so it is easier to see why their portraits were removed. But I can bet my bottom dollar on the fact that Iqbal stays on the wall of PAL not for being a great poet, but for being seen as someone who conceptualised the idea of Pakistan. If the powers-that-be actually were able to comprehend the multiple artistic dimensions and provocative ideological views found in his work in both Urdu and Persian, Iqbal, too, would not survive on any wall of a public building in the state of Pakistan.

To answer the second question, art and power remain at odds. This is a conflict between myopia and imagination, captivity and liberty, conformity and nonconformity. Vladimir Nabokov writes about how Alexander Pushkin’s poetry irritated the Tsar and his courtiers. They said about Pushkin: “... instead of being a good servant of the state in the rank and file of the administration and extolling conventional virtues in his vocational writings (if write he must), [Pushkin] composed extremely arrogant and extremely independent and extremely wicked verse in which a dangerous freedom of thought was evident in the novelty of his versification ...”

The same is the case with our poets and writers who cause discomfort to the sensibilities of power and subtly shake up the status quo, from Ghalib and Saadat Hassan Manto to Faiz and Fahmida Riaz. Over centuries, other nations have learned their lesson in this respect, significantly if not entirely. In many countries of Europe, North America and the Asia-Pacific — including Japan — the elites and decision-makers increasingly understand that it is not the kowtowing clerks, soldiers and traders, but the independent artists, thinkers and teachers who shape the dynamic future for their generations and ensure the sound mental health of their societies. Our own wasteland remains far from such meadows.

The writer is a poet and essayist based in Islamabad. His latest book is a collection of verse, No Fortunes to Tell

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 15th, 2019