Pakistan’s uncertainty about its cultural credentials has exposed it to great peril
As the world, including Pakistan, comes out of the dark shadow of the pandemic, a revival of cultural activity is on the cards. However, this is not with a spurt that was expected after the lockdown of the past year and a half.
The Dubai Expo has been held, albeit, with a one-year delay. The event was staggering on account of its scale. The Pakistani Pavilion figured prominently. Within Pakistan, the Lux Style Awards, dazzled many, particularly those associated with the showbiz industry, a medley of entertainment and fashion.
As one looks across the horizon, there should be much to be happy and grateful about: one is alive after the uncertainty of the pandemic and then that the journey towards normalcy has resumed, the fear of a backslide remains.
Despite the gradual easing out, there still looms a shadow over the developments that Pakistan is going through or is feared to go through in the imminent future and perhaps also the years to come.
As it is, the world has been experiencing an unprecedented return to a kind of a conservatism that had once seemed to be a thing of the past. As the world lurched out of the past centuries before the Age of Reason and Enlightenment, it seemed to have left behind the millenniums of darkness, obscurantism, acceptance and subservience. However, it seems that the backlash is a warning sign that the past is not too far behind, only a step away.
Pakistan’s uncertainty about its cultural credentials has exposed it to great peril. The gap it seems has been repeatedly filled in by efforts that may be contrary to the agents that call for change and are forward looking. The drive has been to seek answers in the past and to find a solution in the various eras and episodes of contested historical phases. The cultural vacuity is best identified by the popularity of the historical seasons that have been made popular by the Turkish networks with their suave productions and a take on history that is at best more fiction than real. The fact that many people here are totally willing to treat it as history is a big question mark about the solidity of the cultural ground under our feet.
Seeking solace in the past is usually natural because it can be cast according to the concerns of the present and avoid the ever changing future that is not solid and easily definable. But the harking back, particularly an imagined past, is not in synch with the land and its people and can lead to a cull de sac.
The news coming out of Afghanistan is obviously disturbing as the space for the arts is shrinking. The freedoms usually recognised in the contemporary world are seen by the regime in Kabul as excesses. It should come as no surprise as the ultra-conservatives force a conservative reading of the past and the religious tenets. The worrying aspect of the developments is that many in Pakistan find resonance in the decisions being taken overtly or covertly by the regime next door.
There is now an ever growing lobby in the country, perhaps backed by the deep state that sees a conservative reading of religion and the consequent setting up of institutions establishing a robotic order as a solution to the many problems that bedevil this nation.
Here in our worldview, too, rests a utopia built round austerity, a medieval frugality and warriors riding on horses charging in, calling for the restoration by any means of a righteous order. This may be the image that may have been cultivated over centuries but the current reality is very different from its simplistic understanding.
People in our country, indeed the leadership, has been eulogizing the breaking of the chains and liberation from the shackles imposed by recent historical developments rather than seeing it as a process where freedoms and liberations too are seen in more relative terms.
A possible way forward is to create a society that is more open to exercising freedoms especially in thought without fear and inhibition rather than creating a regimented order. The latter is much praised and lauded rather than the creative environment that is more conducive to the throwing up of ideas.
All development or progress is inclusive and not exclusive and much that has happened in other cultures is the way forward in the contemporary world. There is nothing that is exclusively our very own as indeed there is nothing that belongs to any one area, or religion or ideology. Acceptance of greater diversity can result in less misery and hardship for everyone.
The arts are the nursery of the new and the yet to be accepted values. The new freedoms challenge the given limits and definitions. This is what may be galling to those wanting an order, and a regimented one at that, at all cost.
The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore