THAT politics is the art of the possible we have all heard. That there exists such a thing as ‘the politics of art’ is also true. From expos such as Dubai 2020 to the arms bazaar quite disingenuously called ‘IDEAS’, to a literature conference here and a language symposium there, to biennales from Karachi to Venice — the themes, exhibits and crowd-pullers are all unmistakably political.
Hacks far outnumber the authors at lit fests, and ‘installations’ jostle for space with classical paintings and sculptures at art extravaganzas. Climate change, empowerment of the marginalised and giving a voice to the voiceless have become rallying calls at global art events.
Technology, social media, Covid-19 and the resultant economic downturn have both enabled and necessitated the path to ‘soft power’. Amid the tax-free behemoths of the Gulf, Pakistan had a chance to make its presence felt — and girl, did it grab it with both hands! The public-private partnership that went into the making of the Pakistan Pavilion at the Dubai Expo helped turn it into the main draw at this mega event. That we won the best exterior, and the second-best interior design competition shows that if the government restricts its role to facilitation and allows creative space to its true ambassadors — the artists — the ‘soft-power’ machine gets turbo-charged.
The ongoing Venice biennale, the most celebrated event on the artsy circuit, is themed ‘The Milk of Dreams’ this year. According to the international media, the contrast between the ‘deserted’ Russian pavilion and the Nordic exhibit swarming with visitors could not have been starker. The former weighed down by the invasion of Ukraine was, despite its size and heft, no competition for the nimble-footed Nordics, who smartly shone a light, instead of sweeping under the rug, a problem brewing in their front yards — ie the Sami issue. The artistic manifestation of disaffection felt by the marginalised Sami people was in full display in the Nordic pavilion.
The real artists better be allowed to express themselves.
The so-called gypsy population across Europe known as Roma are said to have their origins in the indigenous tribes of the subcontinent. It is fascinating to read the exposition of the Sami at the Venice Biennale, because our very own Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai refers to them throughout his writings. The Sami are mentioned as much as the Jogi. The latter term is usually taken to mean snake charmers in its narrower connotation, but across South Asian cultures, its broader meaning has always carried a sense of mystique attached to a people constantly on the move. Both expressions convey a sense of guarded attraction towards a community that is attractive, yet not known enough to be readily accepted into a settled community. Even today, one finds the khana badosh or ‘gypsy’ communities in Sindh frequently referred to as ‘Sami’. One of Bhitai’s couplet goes: “Sami kami prein lae, kusi theaa kabab: jehro disan doh khey, tehro tin sawab”(The Sami, the labourers [of love] simmer in the beloved’s desire: those seeking others’ faults, will only find that).
Amazing that a country whose birth witnessed history’s largest and, unfortunately, bloodiest migration, and whose very economic survival is tethered to the remittances of migrant labourers from all over the world, would pay scant attention to the travails of migrant communities, the Jogi, and the Sami. There is a silver lining though. We are known for waking up to things once they are taken up by the West. After all, it took Peter Gabriel and the Last Temptation of Christ to introduce us to our very own genius from the backstreets of Faisalabad, qawwali maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It took the Biennale de Paris award for Sadequain to get recognition back home. He was commissioned to do murals at hydropower dam sites. Alas! since then, the dams’ business has been handed over to another type of artists — con artists.
Back to the soft power and politics of art: while politicians can pursue their pet projects of spiritual universities, and professional diplomats can play ‘cable operators’ all they want, the real artists better be allowed to express themselves at home and freely participate in every lit fest, biennale, expo, conference, mela, fair and congregation in the world. We, in this part of the world, are practitioners of traditions like Jaggan Nath Mela — hence the term ‘juggernaut’ — Maha Kumbh, and a mammoth pilgrimage like Haj. That spirit of inclusivity needs to be infused into policymaking as well.
If there is one aspect of spiritualism we most need, it is the spirit of participation and inclusion. That spirit alone can guarantee that we realise our true potential. After all, our region is the melting pot of civilisations, and we are heirs to that eternally restless soul so wonderfully described by Khwaja Farid as ‘jogi jadogar’, or magicians on the move.
The writer is a poet. His latest publication is a collection of satire essays titled Rindana.
Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2022