It is common observation that art is not valued by our society. Many people believe that it happens because of poverty, but there are many countries poorer than Pakistan and they value art and their artists a lot more than we do. If art is not valued, artist is also not valued. That is why most of our artists live their last days in dismal conditions.
Whenever I search for reasons for the lack of respect for art and artists, I cannot ignore the role of the long dictatorial military regimes. Well, others might not know the significance of art and artists, but the military dictators did know it very well. This can be gauged from the bans and restrictions on artists like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Ahmad Faraz and Habib Jalib. On the other hand, fake artists like Ashfaq Ahmad and Qudrat Ullah Shahab were promoted by them.
It is not easy to explain the bans/restrictions on poets/artists. They usually have no ambition to rule the country, they do not hold guns, their fans are not organized groups which can become a threat to the ruling junta; yet the restrictions, bans, arrests, jails…
Artist (painter, poet, dancer or singer) has the capacity to express the true inner feelings of his/her nation – something the dictator does not want to happen. The true inner feelings of a suppressed populace would always be of hatred towards the dictator. In such a scenario, it becomes necessary to restrict artists, keep them imprisoned or they would come out in the open and shout:
Aisay Dastoor ko Main Nahi Manta
(I don’t accept/obey this law)
The artist creates a verse, and it becomes a national slogan. This is something unacceptable for a dictator.
It does not mean that art has no role during democratic rule. A nation is made up of many groups and sub-groups. For example, Pakistan has difference ethnic groups, people following different religions, and people following different sects of Islam, and then there are interest groups, political groups and many more divisions. All these groups make efforts to safeguard their own interests. This may lead to clashes – civil war is the worst example of this clash of interests. Art provides a civilized way of resolving these issues. Artists present these clashes in different art forms, and generate discussions on simmering issues. These discussions lead towards solutions, and help a society avoid serious clashes or civil war. Thus art plays the role of a safety valve.
Another important aspect of art is that it attracts people from various backgrounds and brings them together at one platform. Though people from different sects would not pray together at the same mosque, but they would meet at a musical concert or a theatre auditorium. Art blurs the various divides in the society.
If we look at our recent past, we see that ours was quite a peaceful society as long as artistic and cultural activities were common. During 1960s and 1970s, films, theatre, music and poetry recitation sessions (Mushairay) were part of our everyday lives. On the one hand, classical singers like Mehdi Hasan would mesmerize audiences in Lahore all night; on the other hand, folk singers like Allan Faqir, Essakhelvi and Zarsanga would enthrall people living in rural areas. Our film industry was doing good business and we were producing hundreds of films annually. Cinema halls were busy places and Poetry Recitation Sessions were attended by thousands of people. Those were the times when Pakistan was a peaceful country.
Enter General Zia ul Haq, who, under the guise of Islamisation, put so many restrictions on art and culture. Since Zia’s dictatorial rule, our film industry went down; around 1000 cinemas have been pulled down making room for shopping plazas. Open air concerts have become a thing of the past. Quality theatre is no more. On the other hand, we have become intolerant people. There is no room for disagreement in our society. Bomb blasts, targeted killings, kidnappings, extortion and ransacking have become norm of our everyday life.
We badly need to revive cultural activities in our society. That can help start a dialogue, generate some tolerance and help us make Pakistan a peaceful and peace-loving country. Let us take the first step.