A place to think - Ghazi Salahuddin - Sunday, April 24, 2011

Along Queen’s Walk on Southbank, there are benches to sit and most of them face the Thames. On some of them, there is a little plate with this sentence: “Everybody needs a place to think”. And when you have to think about South Asia, what better place would it be than London – particularly now, when April is there. Remember Browning: “Oh to be in England now that April’s there”?

Thinking is exactly what I ventured to do on this glorious Wednesday afternoon, the weather being pleasant and sunny. We were in the Purcell Room at Queen Elizabeth Hall in the Southbank Centre. It was a roundtable on “the alternative story of Pakistan” – a story difficult to tell at this time.

But there certainly is an alternative story of Pakistan that the world needs to know. Perhaps we, in Pakistan, have also not been able to decipher this story and how it can be imagined towards a happy ending. Where are the places in Pakistan that our people can go to sit and think? How then would they be able to articulate their thoughts?

Let me first set the stage for the recounting of an event. The Southbank Centre is home to a ten-day Alchemy festival on “music, dance, literature and debate from India, the UK and South Asia”. The highlight of the Festival was the Jahan-e-Khusrau. There have been numerous other performances and presentations. The roundtable on Pakistan was featured almost on the periphery of the festival and the British Council in Pakistan sponsored two participants to travel to London to tell a story that would be a variation to the theme that has emerged from flaming headlines about terrorism, the rise of radical Islam and the fear and insecurity that stalks the land.

However, to tell the alternate story of Pakistan, I was myself an alternate speaker, replacing Khaled Ahmed, our learned public intellectual. Why I readily accepted the invitation was that it provided me an exciting stopover in London on my way to an already planned visit to the United States to join the rest of my family. The other guest was Hasan Nisar, a columnist and TV host known for his provocative and candid articulations of commonly held frustrations. Amer Husain distinguished writer from Pakistan who lives in England was the third panellist. The roundtable was moderated by Clair Chambers, an expert in contemporary South Asian literature. In addition, the discussion was authoritatively steered by Jude Kelly, Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre, who sat with us on the dais.

My intention here is not to cover the proceedings of the roundtable but to focus on my main contention that the alternate story of Pakistan is rooted in the yearning and the strife of a large section of its citizens for a liberal and democratic polity, for a Pakistan that is able to reverse its current tide. What I specifically emphasised was that in pursuit of this vision, there has to be an end to animosity and mistrust between India and Pakistan. Hence, the opportunity to make a pitch for Aman Ki Asha, the campaigned launched by the largest media houses of the two countries.

Fortunately, this theme emerged almost naturally from circumstances in which the Alchemy festival, first launched last year, was designed. I looked at its scheduled programme and could not help noticing – and telling it to the invite-only audience – that it seemed to have something common with the military establishment of Pakistan: it was unduly India centric. After all, any celebration of arts and culture of South Asia has to have a significant participation from Pakistan.

As an aside, it does become a complex exercise to demarcate cultural frontiers and ownership of heritage between countries that have shared a long history and where recently drawn geographical boundaries may have resulted in cultural and emotional amputations. So, I insisted, Khusrau belongs to us as much as he is owned by India. Why were there no musicians, performers or speakers from Pakistan in Jahan-e-Khusrau? In this respect it was revealed that this segment of the festival was sponsored and funded by the government of India and it was prescribed that only Indians could be part of it.

Essentially, it was a replay of the Sufi music festival that is produced annually in India as “conceived and designed by filmmaker, painter and cultural icon Muzaffar Ali”. Still, as part of a celebration of South Asian culture, it could acquire more depth and meaning as a joint production. Here was a chance, if bureaucratic wisdom would allow it, to assert the logic for peace and collaboration between India and Pakistan.

Incidentally, at about the same time that Khusrau’s music was being played on a London stage, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was, somewhere else, sharing this thought with the Indian media: “If I can succeed in normalising relations between India and Pakistan as they should prevail between two normal states, I would consider my job well done”.

Are India and Pakistan, in the context of their bilateral relations, normal states? Why should Aman ki Asha seem so elusive for the teeming millions in the two countries who have paid a heavy price for their rulers’ preference to maintain huge armies and amass weapons of mass destruction? I do not know if I was able to convincingly project the idea that it is easier instead and more effective to use culture and arts to establish peace and enrich the lives of the people. A festival like Alchemy could have the potential of becoming some kind of a catalyst, particularly with the induction of the nostalgia ridden diaspora communities of the two nations.

I was delighted by the spontaneous applause that greeted the projection of some video clips of Aman ki Asha material, mainly the theme song and Gulzar’s soulful recitation of how imagination can provide some solace to the pain of a barbed wire division.

An alternate Pakistan, however, should be best imagined and articulated in a domestic setting. I feel a bit intimated by the task of portraying the state of Pakistan’s affairs in front of a foreign audience. I sometimes feel a greater trepidation in speaking of my alternate Pakistan in front of my fellow Pakistanis. And as I sit here by my “place to think” I ponder over an argument made to me – if singers, dancers, musicians and dramatists of Pakistan are unable to freely perform in their own country, why must they be invited to perform in festivals held in free environments? Why must we tell the alternate story of Pakistan to foreigners when we cannot live it at home?

The writer is a staff member.

Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail. com

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=43388&Cat=9

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