By Sarwat Ali
First published in The News on Sunday, August 29, 2010
Culture has many dimensions to it, the most important being rituals and traditions and behavioural patterns as expressed in day-to-day living. And then it finds a rarified expression in the fine arts where music, literature, painting, dance, drama and film drill deep into these very vast reservoirs. A sum total of the ideals, the aspirations and the beliefs of the people when given a local habitation and a name employ the flavours and colours of the land and its traditions as conduit to its essential expression.
A culture epitomising a set of beliefs originating in one land and spreading to other lands takes a necessary course. But the fine arts are basically an idealised construction and a take-off on the given reality. This persistent gap between the given reality and an idealised one has more often than not worried those who have insisted on being in the best possible world running the best possible set of belief, ideas and work systems.
In Pakistan, the conflict about beliefs and the ideals also gets resonated more in the external form of local habitation and a name. But actually the conflict resides in what kind of society we want to create and live in — whether it should be open and inclusive or closed and exclusive.
In Pakistan, the building of an exclusionist society launched the drive quite early on with the desire to purge culture of its non-Muslim sources. A censorial replacement of the names of the deities and personages as well as the renaming of the ragas was initiated. At best it did not make any difference because the effort was only based on cosmetic and visible signs and did not penetrate to the true spirit of intonation and structure of music. Similarly, from time to time, efforts have been made to censor literature and purge the imagery either said to be from alien sources or overshooting moralistic limits. In painting and visual arts too the debate has not only been whether some of it is good while the other is not but whether it should be there at all in the first place. And about drama and film, the entire field is riddled with ambiguity. These drives have been going on with damaging consequences.
It is generally assumed that the arts in the Indian subcontinent before the Mulims era were in the service of the religion. This view has been fortified by the Indian scholars and critics dwelling on the organic links between the two, but it is not certain what was the role assigned to the arts within the Indian subcontinent by the ruling elite which held a different faith from the ones whom they had subjected. The common response would have been to assign a diametrically opposite role to the arts which the local society had generally favoured. This approach was also facilitated by the open-ended reality that there appeared to be no definitive lines drawn regarding the arts by the so called High Church of the religious establishment. As literature, music, dance and drama did not find ready supporters, the legitimacy was usually drawn in a very long-winded argument that had many weak and probably unnecessary historical references and sources. This bending over backwards search for legitimacy has been a liberating experience.
The arts in all its forms have had an adversarial relationship with the society avowedly based on narrow religious lines. The religious symbols were subverted in poetry — especially in ghazal which has been the major form of expression in Persian and Urdu poetry of the subcontinent. The sanams, the buts, the qais, the majnoon, the kohkun, the rind and the badakhawrs assigned heroic roles while the waiz, mehtasib and naseh have been cast in villainous categories.
There hardly seemed to be any distinction between the various heroes or certain historical references in music. The compositions were commonly sung by singers belonging to all religious denominations. The raags were named after deities, places, personages, seasons and instances of historical import.
While there have been some who stressed that the expression in the arts should only be limited to architecture and calligraphic design in its pure abstraction, one related to the mosque and the other to the word, the rest are worthy of excision. In the subcontinent, a happy compromise was arrived at. Rather than getting bogged down in the reductionist debate on what was Muslim and what was not, what was sacred and what was secular, a tenuous link was developed between these two extremes. There was ashiq e majazi and there was ashiq e haqiqi, with no difference significant enough to form the basis of exclusion. The two were related within a dialectical setup and, as in all arts, the journey should take you from the particular to the general.