Forever resilient

August 14, 2022

Even after a traumatic defeat, Pakistani cultural activities quickly bounced back during the Bhutto era.

Forever resilient


ew countries have bounced back from dismemberment as Pakistan did. Call it apathy or resilience, the trauma of a military defeat, as long as it lasted, facilitated the promulgation of the first ever constitution.

The dismemberment led to probably a more homogeneous country, but the diversity was still seen as debilitating. At a different level, the Pakistan Peoples Party government recognised culture as a legitimate activity. That made way for the setting up of several institutions in the public sector for the promotion of the arts. It overcame the taboo of lehv o la’ab and some space was granted for it to nurture in its autonomous growth, though always accosted by the need to make it purposeful and hence infused with socialistic fervour.

The Pakistan National Council of the Arts was conceived and from its womb was born the Institute of Folk Heritage (Lok Virsa). Similar art councils were formed in the provinces and some budgetary allocations made. Film, too, was given a cover under the National Film Development Corporation and the Academy of Letters was established, as were the language authorities. These included Punjabi, Pushto, Sindhi, Balochi and later Seraiki.

Since everything awami was the slogan of the new government, the folk arts were considered to be the area to concentrate upon and the classical arts were left to wither on the vine as being too elitist. But the upswing was arrested in its trajectory by the imposition of yet another martial law.

What Pakistan lost in East Pakistan, a bailiwick to unload expansion ambitions was rerouted towards Afghanistan. It became the playground for the mini-imperial ambitions, the long shadow started to fall on the Pakistan. A more subsuming role was ascribed to religion yet again but with a very conservative hue. The radicalisation, if any, of the Bhutto era started to be rolled back with ferocity to be replaced with religious radicalism by force.

Though it was under one umbrella, it was difficult to draw strict lines to be followed. Even then centralisation was refracted differently because in the Punjab much cultural activity took place as indeed in Sindh where the Sindhis were pampered to be weaned away from the PPP through doses of Sindhi culture. In the Punjab it provided a vent and a release of pent up political frustration. Television became the mouthpiece of conservatism. A counter current at the local level started to present a more balanced view of the cultural dynamics. Theatre blossomed, purposeful and risqué, and challenged the mores.

The constant chant of Western influence and Indian machinations permeated the public discourse as more and more Indian films were viewed through sources that were not upfront. VCRs became the major mode of entertainment as the films could be viewed in the privacy of the individual spaces away from official censorship.

Similar art councils were formed in the provinces and some budgetary allocations made. Film, too, was given a cover under the National Film Development Corporation and an Academy of Letters was established as were the language authorities. These included languages like Punjabi, Pushto, Sindhi, Balochi and later Seraiki.

The means of communication, both physical and digital, changed the society in no uncertain terms. Cultural figures started travelling abroad more frequently as the diaspora became more prosperous and the digital media opened a totally new world that had been hidden away by the strict censorship in the country. A sneak-peak was possible as never before and the new television channels opened a new world shunning prescribed inhibition.

Music was to be seen as heard and the technological breakthrough started to redefine the formal structures of the arts. The painters, too, found a foothold and their works became products to be purchased and the result was more exposure and prosperity. The writings in English, too, became legit and the poets and novelists earlier sidelined won more attention abroad than the very famous ones writing in local languages.

All regimes after Ziaul Haq’s mushroomed under his shade. Terrorism, once championed, was supplanted by a mantra of the soft image, not an organic home-grown product but a deliberate top down policy.It was alleged that the society was being misunderstood as only the fringe advocated extremism. There has been a succession of culture policies since then, all faltering in implementation.

However, the digital revolution upturned the society. The surface may have remained the same and seemingly unruffled but the cauldron of discontent seethed, cooking from a recipe book a new dish that tasted different. The platform was there for all to use and the gatekeeper, the editor and the authorised bodies all rendered obsolete by the technological shift. The people had finally the advantage of being equally heard. The space was public space for all - clogged with all those empowered to speak and be heard.

The younger people suddenly found freedom handed over to then on a platter by technology in the form of an android phone. And it was from here that they started as their takeoff point, with little care for history and the past. It was freedom to be brandished and with an individual take. The post-truth era was upon us and the post-modern behavioural patterns were flashed with utter disregard.

In this molten centre, the top has tried desperately to retain the solidity of the crust. The exposure far exceeds the experience and the eclectic piling up has replaced the much considered masticated response. It is seen as unnecessary, the mulling over, ruing, and any resistance to knee jerk reaction. It is more instant and on the up –the bedrock being provided by slogans and homilies, the simplistic lines drawn to demarcate right from wrong, light from dark. The social media threw its weight about and created an impression or an image of unquestioned truth and reality.

The local grated against the global and the individuality of culture either valued as treasure or disregarded as passé has fuelled the debate, the vocabulary being swept by the word “narrative” as everyone started making one. Authenticity was what the narrative was.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Forever resilient