Experimenting with culture

August 07, 2022

Does a new culture emerge automatically with a nation state?

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akistani culture, if it can be considered an entity, has perhaps existed at the official level.The dynamics of the groundswell has, however, defied this top down construct. At the same time, the lobby that cuts down on cultural practices as in line with the puritanical reading of religion sees all this as being an excess and indulgence. It favours a cultural profile that is straight and narrow, built round the prescribed religious rituals.

Since the very beginning, there has been a desire to build the political structure of a unitary state.The culture and all its manifestations are expected to bolster that unitary ideological and institutional arrangement. In a way, this represents a straying away from the path of the struggle for freedom that invested powers in the provinces, enabling those to choose their political destination(s). An uneasy truce between the two has resulted in many compromises and censorial steps being exercised in the name of an imagined ideological structure. An increasingly straitjacket ideological framework was presumed to fill the void created by denying individual and provincial rights.

In the beginning, there was a tussle between the West Pakistani and Bengali culture; the latter was showcased as a poor relation. The two, at times, were pitted against each other and the Bengalis seen falling short of the imagined cultural construct of the newly-born country.

The Bengali culture was usually labelled as being too Hindu and the Bengalis accused of not recognising the threat from conspiracies the Indians were hatching to weanthem away from the imagined culture, best exemplified by the West, mostly Punjabis and Urdu-speaking migrants who flooded the land at partition.

Urdu was pitched against Bengali.However, the Bengalis defied the narrative that Urdu was the (only) language of the South Asian Muslims. A majority of the people in East Bengal were thus alienated. Much later, Bengali was accepted as the second national language of the country. The wound had grown too deep by then to be healed by half remedies. A monument raised for those who died protesting for the language rights eventually became a standard pilgrimage for those visiting from West Pakistan.

In the beginning, there was a tussle between the West Pakistani and Bengali culture. The two at times were pitted against each other with the Bengalis being seen as falling short of the imagined cultural construct of the newly-born country.

The Bengalis loved their folk music but their passion for the classical forms was not secondary to it. Most of the gharanedargawaiyas survived the first two decades by performing extensively in East Pakistan, thus guaranteeing for themselves a secure economic existence that the West Pakistan could not ensure.

Films continued to bemade in Lahore in the colouartion of the cine genre that had evolved from the theatrical tradition with plenty of song and dance.The Bengalis too put in their effort but came a poor second.

The people in West Pakistan did not really appreciate the poets who wrote in Bengali. The mainstream media continued to proclaim that those writing in Urdu were somehow superior tpthose who wrote in Punjabi, Sindhi, Brahavi, Balochi or Pushto. Tagore and Nazrul Islam, loved by Bengalis, did not get much attention in West Pakistan where Iqbal got all the limelight.

Many painters switched quickly from rendering the figures in Indian mythology to painting Mughal or Persian miniatures and the local heroes from the Punjab and Sindh. Chughtai’s days as a painter of Indian mythology came to treated as an example of a truant youth. In his chastened middle age, he linked himself to Mani and Behzad. Similarly, there was an effort to exclude mythological figures from the song texts. Some ragas were banned and in many cases the nomenclature was altered.

It appeared then that the national identity was based on how different the country was from India and the new leadership, even those manning the culture frontiers was more concerned about the differences rather than the similarity within. They bent over backwards to establish a cultural profile that had its distinct outline and that in the process sacrificed much that belonged to the land and was the outcome of a process based on syncretism. The fallout was felt less in the Punjab and among the Urdu speaking communities and more in the provinces that espoused local transitions.

So it was at the end of the second martial law and the first general elections that brought down the edifice of the unitary state structure and its attendant cultural narrative.


The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.



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