February issue 2009

By | Opinion | Speaker's Corner | Published 15 years ago

I believe that culture and cultural activists, the arts and creative media present many opportunities for the promotion of the understanding of human rights and for forging unity among the people of India and Pakistan. Dance, music, visual and performing arts transcend language barriers and serve as an incredible, almost magical, means of communication and bonding.

This belief was reinforced during our recent trip to India where we had been invited by the National School of Drama, New Delhi, to participate and perform in their 11th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, an international theatre festival. In spite of threats from fundamentalist groups, the National School of Drama continued with its scheduled programme and, even though there was very tight security, so many people turned up that many had to be turned away as they could not all be accommodated in the auditorium. Our performanceJinnay Lahore Nahin Vekhya was received with a long, warm standing ovation. Two days later, we were supposed to perform at Lucknow but because of the protest of a local sectarian outfit, the Sunni Majlis-e-Amal, this performance had to be cancelled.

What was heartening for us was the condemnation of these fundamentalists by other local groups in Lucknow. They said that the artists coming from Pakistan were messengers of peace and communal harmony who had always raised their voices against terrorist outfits in their own country. In a true show of solidarity, these local secular friends promised not to end the people-to-people diplomacy and communication as this would mean widening the gap of hatred and misunderstanding among the common people and strengthening the hands of fundamentalists and terrorists.

The arts and creative media can be used to communicate information and raise awareness about people’s rights in a conflict situation; they give people and communities a voice and they offer a forum for the discussion of sensitive issues. We must recognise that for human rights to be attained, people’s material, intellectual and spiritual needs must be taken into account. Creative activities such as theatre, music, dance, television, drama and film must be deployed as part of the development process to empower people.

We feel that it is important for all of us to understand that there is no politics without art.

Art is not only meant to entertain — unless we integrate it into our politics, our politics will not move forward.

Culture is the bonding force between the peoples of South Asia and it can bring us together to forge a collective identity.

But what is culture and why is it important?

In a broad sense, a culture cannot be developed. It emerges over time. It may change and, at best, evolve. To me, it seems that it is not possible to talk of a society without talking about its culture; the development of a society is not only about economics and finance but also about how developed its culture is. To treat literacy and art in a purely instrumental way, as most development programmes do, is to reinforce values that are part of the problem, not the solution. Do we want only materialistic development? Have we no interest in spiritual, artistic and political development? Culture means not just art, music, dance and drama, but a whole way of life. It includes thought and action and speech, food and clothing, love and friendship, the relationship between the sexes, the position of women and children, beauty and enjoyment, sport and recreation, the pursuit of knowledge and happiness, and the attempt to discover the meaning of life. Culture is how an individual expresses one’s self and the sum total of how all members of a society express themselves.

It is through the arts that people express themselves, attain a sense of collective identity and are able to reflect on their problems. The arts elevate the mind and soul to a higher level and eradicate pettiness and coarseness. Culture brings people together and leads to harmony and cohesion. It counters violence and aggressive attitudes and urges people to reflect and think, thus unleashing the creative energies of people.

In 1988, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi came to Islamabad to meet Benazir Bhutto, the then prime minister of Pakistan. India and Pakistan signed a cultural accord that Pakistani and Indian artists would be given scholarships through an exchange programme between the two countries. I was lucky enough to get an Indian Council of Cultural Relations’ scholarship to study Indian classical dance in Delhi. This gave me an opportunity to meet many Indian artists, performers, writers, etc. I spent some time with Habib Tanvir and his Chattisgarhi troupe. Habib sahib was working on an anti-communal play Jinnay Lahore Nahin Vekhya written by Asghar Wajahat. I spent many days observing his rehearsals and many evenings discussing the aesthetics of theatre with Habib sahib and Monica Habib. In 1991, with the writers permission, Tehrik-e-Niswan slightly adapted the play and was preparing to perform it. The play is set in Lahore immediately after the partition of the subcontinent. The main protagonist is an old Hindu woman who refuses to leave her haveli even though all her family members have left. The play basically promotes religious harmony and tolerance, and is anti-fanaticism.

We, in Pakistan, still have to get a No-Objection Certificate from the local government authorities for all public performances — the script has to be approved by the ministry of information. Jinnay Lahore Nahin Vekhya did not pass the censors. They had two objections:

  1. A good Hindu cannot be the main character.
  2. A maulvi cannot be murdered.

We were not allowed to hold public performances of the play. So the play became subversive. But art is always subversive, because art tells the truth. Eventually, the play was performed on the premises of the Goethe Institut, Karachi, to packed houses for a week. It received much publicity. Both Habib Tanvir and Asghar Wajahat were invited by Tehrik but were refused visas.

Then, in 2007, the year that marked 60 years of partition, we mounted the play again and, once again, got a very warm reception. This time, however, we had no problems with the censors. The play has had many reruns in Pakistan besides doing a grand tour of India in December 2008. We’ve performed in more than 11 cities of the Indian Punjab. And every time we performed, we felt that we were coming closer to the people of India.

It is clear from all this that peace and culture are indivisible. Peace is not a mere “ceasefire” or a “cessation of hostilities.” Nor is it a mere prevention of war brought about by military threat or economic sanction. Peace, as I understand it, is a positive moral disposition and evident in one’s conduct. Gandhi, following Buddha and Christ, calls it love. Love for all, human as well as subhuman creatures. Even plant life and the environment do not fall outside its scope. To destroy the environment and misuse natural resources are acts of violence and offence against humankind and our posterity.

“Peace is partly institutional and mainly individual. Its basic locus is the mind of the individual. If it is not deep and firm there, its institutional form cannot be durable and effective. Unless we, as individual human beings, are peace-loving, i.e. unless we love our fellow human beings, our institutional behaviour cannot promote peace and culture in the desired direction and at desired pace.”
— D.P. Chattopadhyaya

So it is a culture that has to be created, a culture that has to evolve, a culture of peace. I must emphasise that without culture, peace is not possible. We must determine our role as artists so that the performing arts act as a stimulant for the welfare, refinement and growth of the hearts and minds of the people of India and Pakistan, both on the individual and collective level, leading to a better state of coexistence.

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