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Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Shanaakht Fiasco

{I started writing this post before the [heart]Breaking News of the cancellation of the festival hit me. Despite my criticism of some of it's flaws, I think that nurturing it would, over time, have had it evolve into something more sensible and sensitive. The closing down bodes badly for art and many other activities ... but the organizers were left with no options, given the to-ing & fro-ing of the PPP and governmental commitments.}

The incident at CAP's Shanakht Festival yesterday should convince people that all 17 crore hearts do not beat as one all the time. Oh, of course they do, sometimes. But NOT when an identity is being forced, instead of being allowed to develop.

The event - despite my personal objections to some aspects of it - is an effort that needs to be encouraged and guided. The very important and noble task that CAP (The Citizen's Archive of Pakistan - or The Citizens Archive of Pakisan) has undertaken, of gathering oral, textual, and image-based histories of Pakistan,is commendable. Yet, IMHO, the organization should be an archiver, not a view-point creator. Its archives should be resources for some to find their roots, others to understand individual or collective identities, for some to comprehend even the opposing views on numerous topics through the years, and yet others to use excerpts in whatever form of research they are undertaking (and for whatever cause).

In and of itself an archive is not meant to offer a slanted stance, though nuanced interpretations may be derived from it for diverse purposes. For example, a WWII Archive would not be the same as that of the Holocaust Museum, though images from the latter would certainly be part of the former. At least that is how I have viewed CAP's project.

Last year, too, I had questioned the reasoning about the CAP festival focusing on shanaakht and was told that it was "because the young are trying to find their identity". Being not-so-young, I felt that my criticism would be viewed as just another old-person's usual censure of the young, so I backed off … recalling in the process that one of the slogans I shouted in my visible hippie days was 'Never Trust Anyone Over Forty!' (With age, contrary to expectations, I have altered the 'Forty' to 'Thirty-Five' for my occasional talks.)

The festival's opening day - yesterday - had a successful start - 1500 children came for the festival and also participated in art activities organized by T2F. The evening offered some interesting and nostalgic moments for me. Listening, once again, to The Little Master was certainly one that brought tears to my eyes as he recalled the old matches and the tutoring he received from Master Abdul Aziz. He shared the evening with the wonderful commentator, Jamshed Marker, talking about his involvement with our sports and politics. Meeting Lutfullah Khan Sahab, was, as usual a delight. Photographs and images from his vast collection were on display and this energetic young man of 93(!) was there to be part of the festivities. His legendary music collection is now being digitized and, perfectionist that he is, the process will take 3 lifetimes - by his own reckoning - to be completed. Can't wait ;-)

As the evening moved on, the crowd swelled. Numerous strands - exhibitions, chats, speeches - attracted people differently.

The atmosphere was truly festive. Ethan Casey who seems to have a special relationship with our country was there to talk of his last and next book. And he was going to speak at T2F. Yessss! T2F, now. between its own old and new venues, was looking gorgeously cute (if you'll pardon my use of a word that I have all but expunged from my vocabulary since I heard a lady say she thought Zakir Naek was cute) in its little stall and the adjacent speaker's area.

It was during Ethan's talk that we suddenly became aware of a disturbance, followed almost immediately by an aggressive crowd screamin blue murder and ordering us all to close down and get away "before we burn the place down". Soon this led to sounds of firing and some people moving out quickly while others, almost led by Beena Sarwar, trying to 'talk' to the mob to get to the root of the problem.

We soon discovered that the crowd was PPP supporters—  (someone later said it was the PSF but, to me, the two main people were too old to be students. One, in fact, was a journalist I have encountered before) — who were expressing their anger at an obnoxious and meaningless piece of drivel passing off as art. Mind you, all art is subjective and it's drivel-ness (to me) may be challenged by a number of people, just as my disgust at Adnan Sami Khan's music usually is. On the other hand, even if my greatest favorite exponent of Classical Music, Pt Bhimsen Joshi, decided to sing a piece full of obscenities at the APMC, I'd certainly not support it.

The image in question, now sadly all over the internet (and I beseech those bloggers whom I count among my friends to remove it), was extremely offensive to me and objectionable at several levels. I am NOT a Benazir supporter, however immensely pained I was at her death. I am not a member of the PPP, nor have I ever voted for them (or for anyone else from among the menu of crooks, extortionists, rapists, kidnappers, fundos, and murderers offered to us by various parties). 

I will not reproduce the image here to give it further currency, but it is now common knowledge that it portrayed BB sitting in the evil and mal'oon Zia's lap. My reaction was that this was ridiculously meaningless.
We have seen 'photoons' - photo cartoons - of her being married to Nawaz and Altaf on the net before. I did not take offense to them because they were satirical comments on real alliances. After all, even the textual statements in the press referred to these, at times, as 'marriages of convenience' or 'an unholy political matrimony'. The images only carried the representation further. I admit that I, too, on hearing that JI chief Qazi Husain Ahmad had tried to prevent Mian Nawaz Sharif from forming an alliance with BB, had passed around (among friends) a photoshopped image of the two newlyweds - with Husain Ahmad looking sullen - and captioned it Jab Mian-BB raazi to kyaa karay ga Qazi.
BB & Zia? That cockeyed asshole had murdered her father! She had never ever negotiated any 'deal' with him. So just what DID this image represent? I mean merely the ability to manipulate images doesn't always produce art, does it? And what did the term Stiff Competition  - the title given to the image, signify? I will not repeat the remarks that brought out. 

Several posts/blogs hastily commented on the matter, one 'toning down' the image's offensiveness (and sexual connotation) by stating that it showed an infant Benazir. Not only was this untrue, but even in that case it would have been more suitable to show, as infants, those leaders of today who were nurtured through their political infancy by that bloody dictator. Would that have been acceptable to their followers? I suspect not. I assure you that at least one party would have burnt down the entire area had their leader been shown, even with justifiable sarcasm, in the lap of one of his several mentors. 

Add to this the fact that the Bhuttos bring out emotions far stronger - and the issue is not whether such emotions are wrong or right - among their supporters who have consistently laid down their lives for these symbols and icons. Yesterday one of those leading the mob was in tears as he said he'd spent 11 years in jail protecting the dignity of this woman who was being insulted. You may find such emotional outbursts, and the violent reactions that inevitably follow, condemnable but the problem is that we are a nation among which a large population is easily aroused to such acts. So, a little judiciousness and caution would make sense, too, specially when the creator and the curators of the image are risking the lives and properties of others.

I was mainly offended by it as a feminist. What gives anyone the liberty to do this and display it publicly, inviting the wrath and endangering the safety of others. Would the artist - a woman, herself, I was shocked to learn - be ok if someone put up an image of hers in some insinuating position with any man? (BTW, Insiya also raises similar questions in a piece that presents the views of someone a generation apart. And the comments provide even greater insight into what the younger generation thinks.)

I realize that celebrities are fair game but only if the game is fair! And how far can this go? What if the pose or postures represented become more obscene - never mind whatever that means to different people? Isn't there a self-censorship or restraint that one is supposed to excercise? Do all of those who use a zillion swear words a day use them indiscriminately before their parents/children? Do we walk around naked on the streets because we believe that God created us naked and, therefore, clothes are the work of the devil? Do we shit in public? That IS self-censorship and respect for our surroundings.

Defenders of the terms, 'artistic license' and 'freedom of expression', may insist that there's nothing wrong and the reactions are stupid. I'd like to dare them to display some of the works from an international museum in their own open-to-public galleries. Not that I disagree with them that both freedoms must exist. It's just that there is a time and place for everything. (Pornography is available, including the kind that features hardcore images, in most book and video stores in the liberal West. But it is confined to a separate corner or a high bookshelf, out of the immediate sight of any other than those looking for it.)

None of this is meant to condone the aggressiveness and violence, threatened and carried out (at least to property) by the PPP jiyaalaas. Although they were clearly not acting on official PPP orders, I do suspect that there were other games at play. What was strangely obvious was the absence of the Arts Council biggies making any effort to tone things down. In fact some people among the mob said that they had received calls from the venue officials, asking them to come and see this image - and many felt that the members of the Arts Council were complicit in the planning, since they are having internal political struggles. Another rioter, obviously up in the hierarchy, claimed that they had been told (by whom, was not clear!) that the army had funded the exhibition and 'some Major' had instructed CAP to display the image. Bull!!! We shall, of course, never get to the truth.

Finally, it was the media that - as usual - sensationalized the story. By using phrases such as 'objectionable art' in their headlines they only help the fundamentalists and spineless moderates - both for different reasons - find excuses for not displaying art. DAWN reports PPP Leader Mr Mehdi as saying "controversial art should not be displayed publicly". This kind of statement will promote censorship and, sooner or later, art exhibitions will be asked, to 'clear' their works in advance with 'the authorities'. Following that, we will have nincompoops, with no understanding of art, 'failing' works at whim or 'passing' them against bribes. This is not a fantasy - it has happened before and will happen again.

And, remember, this leads to nothing but fascism in the long run.

Mr Mehdi went on to say, “The sympathisers protested to the Arts Council representatives and the organisers (the Citizens Archive of Pakistan) and asked them to remove the offensive picture. However, they refused. It was a peaceful protest, but there was some tension because of the refusal. People got emotional as the organisers refused to take down the picture.” If that absolute lie is what was conveyed to him, his statement should have begun: The sympathisers 'claimed' to have protested ...

I decided to withdraw from my sessions at T2F - scheduled for the 9th & 11th - in protest at the insensitivity of the organizers in including such an image. Despite being opposed to accepting the artificiality of the identity the festival was bent on creating, I had felt that such festivals and events would familiarize the younger audiences with various aspects of their free-flowing identities. So, I was there as a T2F board member and had planned a tribute to Urdu prose and poetry (under the title of Sheereenié Güftaar) and was, in the second session, to join Asif Farrukhi in a romp through Pakistan's history through Urdu shaaeri

Guess that'll now have to wait until T2F re-opens. (A small selection from what was going to be played will be on this blog by Sunday.)

A sad end to a great opening day … but, "We are like that only!"

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let me caveat this comment by saying that I am a committed supporter of BB (of the person but not the party).
I completely and passionately disagree with your stance on the matter. Should Jesus Christ be portrayed with his arms around the shoulder of an image depicting the devil? No, he shouldn't. Does that mean an artist, with an inclination towards representing this image on canvas, be barred from painting such an image. No, he shouldn't - even though it does not represent anything.
To even suggest that the artist was trying to depict BB in an "insinuating position" is a gross misrepresentation of the painting and is a slippery slope that leads to some in our country justifying the public flogging of a woman seen walking with a man that is not a close relative. A wise man once said that freedom of expression cannot make up for lack of talent. Reject the painting and the artist if you believe she is not worth her salt and leave it at that. More than that and you will create more ripples than you bargained for.

09 April, 2009 21:44

Blogger Zakintosh said...

@anonymous You are certainly welcome to disagree with what you call my 'stance' ... I was merely expressing the fact that I found the image offensive and elaboratied upon the reasons for it. Believe me, very little offends me and am, in fact, a great lover of irreverent humour.

I also do not think that the artist has no business painting such an image. It may actually even hold a deeper meaning in her mind. But I do think that the exhibition of art is always governed by the sensitivity of the environment.

Of course, while my blog and identity is open for you to understand or know me beyond the confines of this single post and criticize me, you have exercised the dubious privilege of hiding behind anonymity which makes a healthy discussion impossible.

09 April, 2009 22:16

Anonymous Saad said...

Understood. Two issues: (1) The expression of self through art should be protected. I can choose to paint or buy any image and hang it in my house without anyone have any issues. Whether or not it is exhibited is a separate consideration up to the organiser, the publisher, the buyer or the exhibitionist. Its availability for public viewing should be cognizant of public views not because that is a public (read: human) right but because it is obviously sensible. However, (2) sensitivity of the environment must be as narrowly defined as possible. I differ with you in that I don't believe in this case the views of the public outweigh the painter's freedom of expression. Only very limited exceptions exist, one example of which you express in your post.

As far as anonymity goes, it's a "dubious" privilege I exercised simply because it can only be replaced by a name which would mean absolutely nothing to you. My intention is not to hide behind anything. Anyway, why do you feel it makes healthy discussion impossible?

10 April, 2009 13:02

Blogger Zakintosh said...


1. That is what I was saying. In no way am I against any artist painting or expressing something s/he feels (or does not feel) anything about. It is the public display that needs to be thought through sensibly.

2. I think you are reading more into my statement than i meant (or, perhaps, misconveyed). I, too, do not "believe in this case the views of the public outweigh the painter's freedom of expression". That's for sure! My issue WAS with the error of curatorial judgement.

As for anonymity, I had done a post on it earlier. I don't even care if your name is not Saad or, if it is, are you a Saad I know or do not know. I'd settle for a pseudonym or - as some of the lazier commentors put in - a meaningless jumble of letters. But when comments keep getting added and several of them are anonymous I have no idea whether some are from the same person or are more people agreeing to a particular view. And my response @anonymous, too, must cause confusion to later readers who have to sift through them to find who I am referring to.

That said, if I cannot put a face to a name, I do feel better (it may be a personal quirk) putting a name/identity to someone I am talking to - as I do now.

10 April, 2009 21:19

Blogger Zakintosh said...

@saad - and others

hop across to sabeen's blog where there's an exciting debate going on about this issue.

10 April, 2009 21:22

Anonymous Shaheryar Ali said...

I think that what needs to be understood is the bond Bhuttos have with the masses. I mean the people, not the mutant confused sub-class which lives in the cities. People see them as saviors who laid down their life for them.
The humiliation people faced at hand of upper classes against which ZAB stood up linked their class consciousness with them.
Artists have a right to express themselves but Artist must know one thing. For whom he is making the Art? if he/she has an answer to it, such things will not take place
I personally dont support censorship but i also dont support such a foolish kind of thing as Art.

12 April, 2009 00:17

Blogger Zakintosh said...

Err ... "A foolish kind of thing as Art"? Is all art foolish? Or any at all? I beg to differ from you on this point but agree on the two opening paras.

Art - including performing art - is a means of expression. Not everyone can or does want to express only in words. And a picture is woryth a thousand one of them - hence the greater impact. Imagine if, instead of the image, a long treatise had been put up proclaiming that the compromises that PPP has made with the establishment (true or not) were like democracy being in the lap of the armed forces or some such thing ... How many would have stopped to read it.

Is this image, in itself, foolish? I disliked it for many reasons - poor taste, incorrect or misleading portrayal of facts, feminis ... but the artist obviously thinks different and has a right to express herself.

Injudicious display - the result of an oversight - is what caused the problem at the festival, specially one celebrating the silly idea (imo) that 17 crore people have one identity. Outside of that, had I seen this work at a one-woman exhibition in a not-so-public space, here, or anywhere abroad, I'd have certainly engaged the artist in a discussion.

Rushdie's non-controversial writings (let's take the delightful Haroun and the Sea of Stories as an example) are far from 'foolish' ... but, given his association and infamy in most minds, it would be highly unlikely that any publisher here would risk putting it out or displaying it in stores.

12 April, 2009 18:40


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