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Artists with a mission

August 07, 2011


THE distilled experience of a society is produced by a society’s artists. Through their work can we initiate a debate about the identity of a society, its roots and history and future.

Yet so many in Pakistan feel that the arts are a more or less redundant field, good for some entertainment but ultimately, in the larger scheme of things, dispensable. Even apart from the groups that take a very narrow view and argue about the legitimacy of the arts vis-à-vis religion, there are too many others who dismiss these fields, particularly those that involve performance, as ‘soft’ areas of work, not to be taken seriously.

The truth is, however, that artists — entertainers though they may also be — are the commentators of and on society. In their work are all the abstract and difficult questions addressed. Across the world, artists have debated war and nationalism, issues of citizenship and belonging, integration and radicalisation. The artist’s canvas, the screenwriter’s script, the dramatist’s stage, the pop singer’s song — all have been the means to discuss larger and very real issues. Sometimes, they have helped foster a more nuanced understanding of society and individuals.

In music, we saw Mavis Staples’ involvement in the American civil rights movement, the Beatles lobbying against war. Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Leonard Cohen — all three are, amongst many others, well-known for the political dimension of their work.

U2 sang about Irish nationalism, Pink Floyd about the Falklands war and much else besides, while Madonna sang about teenage pregnancy. Bruce Springsteen sang the song that became a veritable anthem for an entire generation, Born in the USA, which Ronald Reagan (going by the title alone, one assumes) thought was the perfect banner for his early 80s re-election campaign. He ought to have listened more closely to the lyrics.

U2’s Larry Mullen told Time magazine in 2000 that there had never been the possibility that the band would be able to keep politics out of their music. “In Ireland,” he said, “the only two things we talk about are religion and politics.” Bono, asked about U2’s song Seconds, written at the height of the US-Soviet Union arms race when a nuclear war was considered an ever-present danger, said that the song remained relevant. “It’s about the idea that at some point someone, somewhere would get their hands on nuclear material and build a suitcase bomb in an apartment in a western capital. It was 20 years too early but I wouldn’t call it prophetic. I’d just call it obvious.”

I mention these names in particular not just because they are amongst my favourites (for you can take a person out of the 1970s and 1980s but you can’t really get that music out of the person), but because they are near universally recognised in the field of music. They’re global icons of their industry, the industry that too many dismiss as existing for ‘mere entertainment’. And yes, entertainers all these acts undoubtedly are … it’s the ‘mere’ I have issues with. Even the most iconic of the entertainers, Michael Jackson, sang about racism and integration.

And these are just a few of the very well-known of the scores of men and women in music who directed it towards social introspection and change.

Cinema and theatre have had an arguably even greater involvement with politics and social consciousness. Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed comes immediately to mind, based as it was on the work of Paulo Freire and developed techniques that use theatre as a means of knowledge and the transformation of reality.

Bertolt Brecht’s exploration of theatre as a forum for political ideas led him to refine drama into the ‘epic form’, using techniques that remind the spectator that the play is a representation of reality and not reality itself. The aim in highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event lies in communicating that the audience’s reality is equally constructed and thus changeable.

Cinema and theatre have proved to foster change in countries around the world, from China and Vietnam to Germany and South Africa. The most potent example for Pakistan ought to come from Iran, where religion and societal conservatism play an even greater role than in Pakistan, yet whose cinema ranks amongst the finest in the world, despite — or even perhaps because of — the constraints.

Which is not to say that Pakistan’s artists have not done their share of socially meaningful work. The entire parallel theatre movement during the Zia years was pinned on resisting the dictatorship and raising societal consciousness. Groups such as Ajoka Theatre, Punjab Lok Rehas, Saanjh, Naya Theatre and Tehrik-i-Niswan and a significant number of other groups and individuals have continued to soldier on against the forces of obscurantism that threaten to swallow the country whole.

Shahid Nadeem penned The Dead Dog about a society that insists on blinding itself to the root causes of its problems, while Sarmad Sehbai wrote the compelling Dark Room. Shehzad Roy sang about a nation of persons “jo tas say mas nahin hotay” (contextually translated, there nothing much you can do with them to jerk them out of their slumber), Laal gave us the heart-breaking rendition of Habib Jalib’s poem ‘Main nay uss say yeh kaha’.

These are just a few examples out of the many in Pakistan who have employed the arts to hold a mirror up to society’s failings and ask it to rethink its days and ways. (I am not really qualified to talk about fine art but from what I read, it seems that much more such work is under way.) Through the tools and techniques under their command, Pakistan’s artists continue to ask about who we are as a nation; what we believe in and where we want to go (versus, perhaps, where are we headed). Given the fact that Pakistan is embroiled in a vicious battle of identity, these are matters of urgent import.

Why is it, then, that the arts continue to suffer at the hands of a succession of Pakistani governments? Why the deliberate demotion of the arts, the attempts to bowdlerise them, if not wilfully then through neglect?

The greatest civilisations produce the greatest and most relevant art. It could be that the reverse is also true, that when we stamp out artistic expression and further the project of turning people into philistines, we corrode our potential to be a great civilisation or society too.

The writer is a member of staff.