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Institutionalising the arts

December 17, 2012

ANYONE who has lived in Lahore for any appreciable length of time will be familiar with the benevolent and immediate shadow cast over the city by its past.

Though modern life in Lahore doesn’t often require you to head towards the old sections, every Lahori carries with him a reassuring and earthy familiarity with those areas, from the Walled City to the Fort to the Samadhi of Ranjit Singh, and the Badshahi and Wazir Khan mosques in particular.

But life in modern Lahore also carries with it, for different people, several reasons to go to the areas that remind one of the city during colonial times.

The first roundabout on the venerable Mall Road offers a cohesive architectural grace: starting, on this spot, with the imposing Government College, and then with the old-campus buildings of the Punjab University on one side, and the Lahore Museum and the National College of Arts (NCA) on the other, and the beautifully restored façade of Tollinton Market and more a little further on.

The city’s educational institutions, too, constitute a comforting linkage between the now and then. Government College has provided Pakistan with scores of people through the years without whom this country would have been far poorer.

The NCA, opposite, can be held to be a significant reason why fine arts education and standards continued to soar to greater heights in the country during the decades when other aspects of the arts, from theatre to dance, film and music, took crippling body blows from which they are barely beginning to recover.

Many noteworthy Pakistani artists have risen to international standards and fame over the decades; Pakistani art has been recognised in international art circles for years.

By comparison, other forms of the arts from Pakistan have not been able to grow big enough to create a ripple, barring noteworthy exceptions on the individual level. Amongst such examples I’d count persons such as Noorjehan, Zia Mohyeddin, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Nahid Siddiqui and so on.

In other words, where success in music, theatre, dance and cinema has been based on the individual, in terms of fine arts it has been as an institution. And that difference exists, in large measure I think, because of the NCA.

The Mayo School of Industrial Arts, headed by Rudyard Kipling’s father Lockwood, is described in gazettes from the first decades of the 20th century as one of Lahore’s highlights, and was meant to eventually be a technical college. In 1958, it was upgraded by the then West Pakistan government and changes were made in the curriculum structure so that the fine arts could be given proper attention.

The NCA may or may not have flourished as well as it did. But in 1958, charge of what was then the declining Mayo School of Industrial Arts, Lahore, was given over to the NCA’s founding principal, Mark Writter Sponenburgh, who passed away peacefully on Dec 6 at his Seal Rock, Oregon, home at the age of 95.

He charted a course with an eye to the future and with his and his successors’ efforts over the next 50 years, what had been a sleepy school rapidly became an institution that was to set the bar for several others in the country. Central to the entire project was the fact that the NCA enjoyed government support, financially and otherwise.

There’s no getting away from the fact that in certain fields of work in particular, active government support is crucial. Specialised institutions such as for fine arts or music education need funds for facilities and a faculty that can drive the project forward; they cannot be imagined as an immediately profit-making enterprise that will pay its own way.

Particularly for fields such as those I’ve broadly mentioned above, the fee needs to be rational and the potential of the education imparted by comparison much larger — such enterprises need to follow the ‘if you build it, they will come’ logic.

Attract students in the scores or the hundreds, and from the many will come the few that will turn an interest into a profession, and together raise a marginalised field to the status of an institution that shows that it can be done.

One could counter that by saying that such initiatives are asking too much of a state that cannot even create a game plan to keep its population secure in terms of food, or fulfil the constitutional obligation of providing education to every single child. Can’t deny that. Yet things have to be taken on the multi-pronged, multi-level footing. The bottom needs to be fixed, but so does the top and the middle and every layer in between.

Such an intervention has been made again with the National Academy of the Performing Arts in Karachi in 2005, and there too the dividends are beginning to make themselves apparent.

As graduates go out into professional spheres, the idea of making theatre or music one’s profession will only be reinforced as valid. What we need is further institution-building in the same fashion, to train writers and directors, script-writers and actors, dance and music practitioners, light- and set-design specialists.

In many ways, the story that the Pakistan of the here and now has to tell is unique, and around the world, we’re losing the battle vis-à-vis discourse — i.e. the discourse about Pakistan is how others see the country, not what it’s like from the inside. If we could better tell and present our own stories — domestically and internationally — would that not be preferable?

The writer is a member of staff.