The takeover of the Taliban last year has so to say rolled history back. The future of music and the performing arts seems to be under a dark cloud
he Afghan musicians have been in the news – and it would have been a surprise if they hadn’t been — after the Taliban takeover of Kabul as some were arrested on crossing the border with Pakistan without legal documents.
The poor musicians have been kicked around like balls since the Mujahedeen took over in the late 1990s. But their real ordeal began with the rise of the Taliban in the last decade of the 20th Century. These musicians, as indeed other artistes, were forced to seek other options once denied the right to perform in their own country. Many were forced to leave. The first destination for them was the border area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Over a decade they set up a flourishing music base and reached out to the Afghan audiences through the cassettes and VCRs. As Afghans also sought refuge in the Western countries the interaction between the musician stationed in Peshawar and the capitals of the West also increased. This ensured greater economic prospects for the community.
With 9/11 and the toppling of the Taliban, many started to think of migrating back to their country. For those in two minds, the setting up of the Mutahidda Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) government in the then North Western Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) settle the matter. The government banned or hugely discouraged music and the performing arts activity and the Afghan musicians were forced back into their country leaving the decade-old abode and connectivity in Pakistan.
Governments led by Karzai and Ashraf Ghani tended the exponential growth of Afghan music industry in the almost two decades of their rules. The growing diaspora in the West developed greater cultural and economic links and it appeared that the music activity had almost become more difficult to dismantle than in the past. The Western media in particular flashed this as an achievement and counter to the growing conservatism of the Taliban definitions of puritanical Islamic Afghan culture.
It is so sad that the wrath of a regime falls on the artistes and they are made to fend for themselves. Pakistan has always played host to all kinds of Afghans and the commonality of culture does make the blow of resettlement less painful.
But, the takeover of the Taliban last year has so to say rolled history back. It was often claimed that the Afghans had made so much progress and change that it would be impossible to recreate a society as conceived by the Taliban or as they had set about doing in their first stint. Special guarantees were demanded of them in the many agreements they signed but it appears that all these are not even seen as worth the paper that they have been written on. Perhaps, the way the agreements are read and interpreted varies to such an extent that they seem to run contrary in implementation.
It seems like a dream that the court in Kabul was seen as amenable to music. King Zahir Shah was a lover of music and often held music programmes under his patronage. Vocalists and musicians from the subcontinent, the very best, were invited to perform and they did so with ample reward in return. After his migration to India, Baray Ghulam Ali Khan came to Pakistan only once and that too when in transition travelling to Kabul by land on the invitation of the king. Many of our top vocalists and musicians who performed in Kabul recalled with satisfaction the respect and appreciation.
Musicians always seemed to do better compared to the theatre personnel and visual artistes. Even folk musicians could make a comfortable living. The sufi shrines too patronised music as did the well-to-do in the society. The common stricture seeking religious proscription was often soft peddled.
But the more puritanical face of society has made the practice of the performing arts prohibitive. The musicians in particular have been forced to seek other options. They in the sense are more favourably placed than their elders who came to Pakistan, set up their baithaks and recording facilities in Peshawar and then travelled to the West as pioneers. Now the musicians have more links in the West and are not forced to negotiate choppy waters.
But it is so sad that the wrath of a regime falls on the artistes and they are made to fend for themselves. Pakistan has always played host to all kinds of Afghans and the commonality of culture does make the blow of resettlement less painful. The world expects the resumption of regular cultural activity but in the present circumstances the prospects are bleaker than ever. The artistes do need more safeguards than mere verbal assurances.
The author is a culture critic based in Lahore