As more Pakistanis are being recognised abroad, there seems to be a disconnect between the values that are seen as determinants in the assessment of cultural expression
n the last few months, many Pakistani music numbers, shows, exhibitions, films and personalities have been in the news for getting prominence at the international forums. The films, music numbers and personalities have been lauded for their contribution to world art and culture. A few years back, a couple of Pakistani entries were praised in the Oscars as well and many people in Pakistan for the first time got to know who the filmmaker was. Certain painters or visual artists have been recognised and appreciated beyond measure as if they have the following of a performing artist. Certain articles have been carried in the mainstream print, and some packages on the electric media, spotlighting the impact that the various programmes are having, if not on the international art scene, then at least at the regional level.
The number of Pakistanis in this category is growing by the year. It was not so long ago that in envy one read and saw the growing numbers of Indian artists being praised for their genuine contribution to cultural expression. It was always thought that the Indians, because they were not apologetic about their culture, were more upfront in promoting it than us, and so we lagged behind for a number of reasons, some quite obvious, others attributed to indifference and lethargy.
But now, as more Pakistanis are being recognised abroad, there seems to be a disconnect between the values that are seen as determinants in the assessment of cultural expression. In other words, the cultural outcome that we think is significant here in our society is not appreciated out there and what is appreciated out there does not really resonate with the outpouring here.
Usually, since Pakistani society gets negative coverage in the West: all that is unsavouary about us gets more attention that what is positive like our film or song only reaffirm the stock impression that is already around. It is merely a validation of the perception.
Though it is a known reality that a certain section of the Pakistani society, including the literati and the glitterati, is more focused on what the expectations of the forums in the West are and, not as a deliberate stance but honestly consider it to be the sole merit and pitch for the content and form that may curry favour.
The mainstream Indians films were not really liked by the audiences abroad unless it was among the small diaspora, while the offbeat films that did not resonate at home were praised beyond explanation in the West. Through the West, people became aware of Satyajit Ray and Saeed Jafri. Local audiences only knew Mehboob, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand while mooning over Madhubala and Meena Kumari in humming the numbers of Lata Mangeshkar; but all these were dismissed as being too mushy and sentimental by the prevailing canon in the West.
There has been a great propensity to see you through the eyes of the West and go along the flow in that respect. It should not be lost to us that all the forums and the festivals are solidly based in the West – either the United States or Europe and are considered to be the arbiters of taste and good – they set the criteria for what ought to be valued and what not. The local standards at the international level become fuzzy and do not reflect the upsurge unleashed. In the past, the Soviet Bloc did host an alternative but the collapse of the system doubly condemned the standards that had been evolved.
Many people in Pakistan, or most that see the entire scope of the current international scene in the context of conspiracies, are being forced to consider the importance that Pakistan is garnering at the cusp of a new campaign of some sort being launched to unravel our country or debase Islam.
Though it is a known reality that a certain section of the Pakistani society, including the literati and the glitterati, is more focused on what the expectations of the forums in the West are and, not as a deliberate stance but honestly consider it to be the sole merit and pitch for the content and form that may curry favour. They should not be blamed because the standards that are set have to be met; otherwise, it all goes into a black hole where everything is symbolised by its vaulting destructive energy.
Any person winning a scholarship to a Western institution and getting admitted there is seen as victory in itself and then the graduation hailed as a great achievement. That person, whether in arts or other fields, does come back with a baggage that only a few have the ability or the courage to question.
The growing number of mentions should not be seen merely as recognition that we also matter; it should also be viewed critically. Many of our great poets and musicians go unnoticed because their expression is very specific to the culture, and thus builds a barrier that is difficult to penetrate by the uninitiated. In its particularity, it is the most essential expression but to the outsiders, the mere stylisation creates a screen that requires greater empathy in understanding diversity that exists on the other side.
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore