The road to banality

Published May 2, 2010

ON the same day, Thursday, as the Belgian parliament voted to ban the burka, following a recent similar decision by France, members of our country's Senate Standing Committee on Culture recommended a ban on Ajoka Theatre's stage play 'Burkavaganza'. Crazily enough, senators from three leading political parties criticised the theatre company's director, Madeeha Gohar, for her group's ability to challenge societal status quos through socially and religiously challenging stage productions. Which is crazy, because isn't that precisely where the value of the arts lies?

But, never mind. Much of what passes for business as usual in poor old Pakistan would be regarded as a travesty in any saner parts of the world. Still, what is surprising about the recommendation to ban 'Burkavaganza' is that it came from three senators who had never seen the play. Indeed, according to the report carried on Friday by this newspaper, none of the parliamentarians in this particular committee had seen a performance of the play or, it seems, read the script. Senator Gulshan Saeed called it a “fazool” production first, and then - after she had already condemned it publicly and quite unkindly - only then did she think to ask for DVD copies of the drama to be distributed among the parliamentarians. The additional secretary of the ministry of culture, S. M. Tahir, added that his ministry promoted “a healthy culture and would discourage controversial plays” — more on this later.

No wonder Ms Gohar is reported as having listened to it in total disbelief. As she pointed out to the standing committee, the theatre group comprises responsible professionals - allow me to further point out that they are not anarchists, insurgents or rebels. And for nearly 30 years, Ajoka has through its plays challenged its audiences to actually think about some of the most pestilential and recurrent problems faced by the country, from truncated tenures of governments to societal regression and intolerance.

We live in a country where Maulana Radio aka Fazlullah broadcast over the FM airwaves material that can be considered nothing other than incitement to hatred and violence, where people of minority religions and ethnicities are routinely condemned over loudspeakers and on the airwaves, but where a play that reportedly challenges our fixation on overt symbols of religiosity must apparently be recommended to be banned. There is rich irony to be found here.

But to return to Mr Tahir's assertion that his ministry “would discourage controversial plays”. First, it is a fact that freedom of expression includes cultural expression. The latter is little talked about in Pakistan other than in terms of video or CD shops blown up by militants/terrorists/extremists. But an action such as the recommended ban on a play also falls within the purview of denying the freedom of expression, and that it comes from representatives of a government that makes much of its liberal values makes it all the more depressing.

If something is to be banned, the question turns on whether it is illegal under the laws of the land. And heaven knows, there's a whole plethora of laws that can be applied to judge whether anything, cultural product or not, is a violation the blasphemy laws, nudity and indecency laws, incitement to hatred and violence, to name just a few. And even then, the problem remains to recommend a ban on something without examining it first is ludicrous. (It must be noted, however, that senators Nelofar Bakhtiar and Pervaiz Bashir saw the fundamental wrongness of this and did point out to their colleagues that no ban could be recommended until the play had at least been seen.)

Secondly, as Geoffery Alderman wrote in a different context recently, “freedom of expression is meaningless if it covers that which is popular and uncontroversial”. So, are we to understand that we are free to do, say and think as we like — as long as we do, say and think only that which is completely free of controversy. (I'm afraid that yes, that is precisely what the state is telling us.) The whole point of any piece of cultural expression, be it a play or a film, is to challenge the mind, show it new ways of discovering and understanding the world, to question prejudice and bigotry wherever it is found, and no matter how deeply entrenched it may be in the societal mindset. Without these qualities, cultural expression would be banal and worse, meaningless. For a representative of the ministry of culture to say that nothing controversial will be allowed - and this statement was general, not hinging upon the contents of 'Burkavaganza' itself - amounts to saying by implication everything allowable must be reduced to the lowest common denominator possible. That'll really put Pakistan on the world's cultural map!

Furthermore, it is this obsession with homogenising everything and everybody, and reducing all matters to the lowest common denominator, that led us in the first place to where we are. And where we are is a country that is on the very verge of disappearing down a truly frightening vortex of rightwing extremism and obscurantism. In a state of flux about its identity and rent by ethnically and religiously motivated violence, Pakistan needs today more than ever its artists and theatre persons, its poets and novelists and filmmakers, for it is through the work of such people that society debates is characteristics and politics, and forms an understanding of its history and context. The arts are a potent avenue of education and the formation of a national identity. With the experience with the Taliban barely behind us, its long shadow still falling over us, do we need to be reminded that everything possible must be done to prevent further societal shift towards the right?

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