Feb 21, 2009

Singing about the dark times

by Ghazi Salahuddin
There was this evocative clip of a boy in Swat using the shell of a bullet as a whistle in Geo's coverage of the follow-up to the brutal murder of journalist Musa Khankhel. Is this boy a potential suicide bomber? We know that the present conditions in Swat and other areas in the north, irrespective of the outcome of the peace accord that has been made with Maulana Sufi Muhammad, have little room for boys making any kind of music. And we do not know if the proposed Nizam-e-Adl would endorse any artistic activity, be it as innocent as a child playing with a whistle. Far from the killing fields of Swat, it was in a little enclave of cultural refuge in Karachi that Indian artiste Nandita Das invoked Bertolt Brecht to respond to the issue of what cinema and song can do in our troubled times. This was in the Q-and-A session after the screening of the film 'Firaaq' in the KaraFilm Festival, held in the tranquil confines of the Arts Council auditorium. Brecht, the great German playwright, had posed this question in one of his poems: "In the dark times, will there also be singing?"There is, of course, no doubt that we are passing through dark times and the national crisis has deepened with Nawaz Sharif's announcement on Friday night that his party would wholeheartedly support the lawyers' long march as well as the sit-in – dharna – in Islamabad. Beware the Ides of March?Anyhow, to present a little background to my use of Brecht's words as a peg, 'Firaaq', Nandita's directorial debut, deals with the immediate aftermath of riots in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 in which a large number of Muslims were killed and their property sacked in a communal conflagration. Weaving her narrative with the strands of different stories, Nandita has shown how people and relationships can be affected by such upheavals. This splendid film has only been shown in festivals and has yet to be commercially released; and it was really a great privilege for those of us who were able to view it. It is also a disturbing document, underlining how identity and faith can twist and test the behaviour of ordinary people in the face of irrational violence. In 'Firaaq', Nasiruddin Shah has the role of a venerable teacher of classical music, himself a Muslim but living in a Hindu locality, with most of his pupils coming from the neighbourhood. At one point, he regrets that music – 'saath sur' – had hardly any power to contain the madness that is raging around. Indian director Mahesh Bhatt, who came on a flying visit just to register his allegiance to the KaraFilm Festival, picked up this remark and wondered if the likes of Nandita Das can really make a difference with their films and other artistic endeavours. He really put it as a question to Nandita and she was right in suggesting that he himself should be responding to it. Then, she quoted Brecht. The entire quotation is: "In the dark times, will there also be singing? / Yes, there will be singing / About the dark times". Now, we do need to ponder this question about what all these strivings in the domain of arts and culture can achieve in our struggle against the forces of intolerance and religious fanaticism. One thing, however, seems obvious. Primitive urges tend to flourish in surroundings that are devoid of the civilising influence of music and literature and performing arts. Alas, at the same time that we have witnessed the growth of religious extremism in our country, there has been a constant decline, for instance, in the cinema culture. Even KaraFilm Festival could not be held for the past two years and it was almost an act of defiance that they went ahead with it, though in a rather restrained manner. Young people find it hard to believe that in the sixties, when the population of Karachi may have been one quarter of what it is today, there were more than one hundred cinema houses. Similarly, the overall cultural and intellectual environment has suffered, though we now have this revolutionary surge in information technology and access to global sources of entertainment and knowledge. Indeed, what has happened in the country in recent years, with Swat serving as a recent example, confirms the gradual brutalisation of our society. The pity is that our rulers have no clue about how this menace can be controlled. Judging by what they have done to buy peace in Swat, if it can be sustained for long, they seem to have opted for a virtual surrender to the extremists. Meanwhile, the terrorists continue to be on the rampage, as the suicide bombing in DI Khan on Friday would certify. One assessment is that our rulers have been playing both sides. This would mean that in some respects, Talibanisation may have some roots in our national security formulations. Hence, some very crucial decisions are required to define our national sense of direction. Do we need music and arts and cinema and overall cultural emancipation to realise our aspirations as a free nation? On the face of it, even asking this question is pointless. We simply cannot survive without the essential attributes that make us human. We cannot move forward without promoting an environment in which creativity in all spheres can be nurtured. But this is not possible in the presence of intolerance and religious extremism. Hence, thank heavens for the meagre diet of culture that we can sometimes get through such enterprises as the KaraFilm Festival. Hasan Zaidi and his young associates deserve our thanks. But can cinema and song and poetry counter the madness of the fanatics that has encircled us? Let us think about it. At one level, we need to do what we can and it would surely have some impact, somewhere. Also, the idea of singing 'about' the dark times is also very inspiring. That is what Brecht – and Faiz and Pablo Neruda – had done. That is what Nandita Das and a number of other filmmakers are doing now. And it is an ennobling experience for all of us. Let me just conclude with a quotation of WH Auden: "Poetry is not concerned with telling people what to do, but extending our knowledge of good and evil, perhaps making the necessity of action more urgent and its nature more clear, but only leading us to the point where it is possible for us to make a rational and moral choice". What, then, are the choices for our rulers – and do they read poetry?

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