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    Volume 9 Issue 15| April 9, 2010|

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The Art of Defiance

Zohra Yusuf

The fact that Pakistanis have suffered under successive repressive regimes is a well known and unfortunate part of our history. What is lesser acknowledged is the spirit of defiance that has sustained the people through these decades of despair. Pakistan's poets were, perhaps, the first to give a creative response to repression and to turn resistance into an art form. Faiz Ahmed Faiz began the glorious tradition which was followed in later periods by Habib Jalib, Ahmed Faraz, Fehmida Riaz, among other younger voices. They suffered bans on their writings, imprisonment and exile. Yet they continued to inspire with words of defiance. Even today, Faiz's Hum dekhain ge is evoked to lift up our collective spirit.

As with the culture of resistance, the politicisation of culture is also an inadvertent gift of our military rulers. The brutal response by the West Pakistan establishment to the Bengali language movement in 1952 only strengthened the resolve of Bengalis to fight for cultural expression. The establishment stupidly followed by banning the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel Laureate, deeply loved and revered by both West and East Bengalis. Then it was the turn of the bindi ('teep' in Bengali) that was a part of almost every Bengali woman's accessory. Women appearing on the state-owned television were banned from wearing the bindi on their forehead. Needless, to say the little mark became a political statement, a symbol of resistance and made its comeback as soon as the country was liberated. And with independence, Tagore's poem 'Amaar Sonar Bangla' was adopted as the national anthem of Bangladesh.

Defying censorship has its own highs. This is the conclusion I've arrived at after pondering over why I enjoyed writing (and editing) more during the repressive period of censorship in the eighties than I do now when there is (almost) unlimited freedom of the media. There was a thrill I and my colleagues at The Star (Pakistan) experienced when we managed to get a column or a point of view critical of the military regime of General Zia ul Haq passed by the hawkish eyes of the censor 'babus' sitting in the offices of the Press and Information Department. By the early eighties, The Star had acquired a reputation for defiance and we were determined to live up to that reputation to the extent possible. Moreover, the editorial staff and the contributors enjoyed certain camaraderie, united by the shared desire to thumb their noses at the government. Just as some people find physical adventures exhilarating, we journalists revelled in exploring the uncharted territory of challenging dictatorial authority.

In 1982 a group of religious extremists protested the publication of The Last Supper in a Pakistani newspaper.

Artists, writers and journalists have an innate need for self-expression. In repressive societies, they experiment with ways and means to get past the ubiquitous censor to get their points of view across to people. At The Star, confronted with mind-numbing censorship, day after day, we adopted a policy of testing the limits we could cross. When seriously threatened, we retreated. Only to return with new firepower. We also occasionally had to change the identities of our contributors when, at times, we were asked to remove them from our pages. Ahmad Bashir and Irfan Husain were the ones who underwent most transformations. We had to resort to covering up identities, both to protect our writers and the newspaper. And writing between the lines became a form of art itself.

However, it was often the visual part of the newspaper that caught the eye of the Islamabad establishment. The cartoons of Yusuf Lodhi (popularly known as Vai Ell), with their biting satire, caused immense ire. Regrettably, many of his best barbs remained restricted to the soft board in my room. Vai Ell, though, was no stranger to censorship. One of his finest collections, Bhutto My Master, was banned by the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and sadly no original copy of the publication is to be found. However, cartoons were not the only thorns whose painful prick those in power felt. The newspaper often received directives on the publication of photographs as well. After the publication of an unflattering picture of Begum Zia ul Haq, we received instructions that only 'officially released' photographs of the Begum should be printed. Even more provocative for the authorities were blank spaces left by editors in newspaper columns when editorial material was censored. This, too, was a form of visual protest and soon became punishable under yet another martial law regulation.

Apart from the censors, there were other voices of protest from those who are now labelled as 'non-state actors'. In December 1982, following the publication of a selection of paintings from the Vatican's art collection, I was visited by a group of religious-looking young men. Again, as afar as labels go they would be called 'Islamists' today. They protested against the printing of The Last Supper. However, they registered their protest peacefully, listened to my explanation respectfully and agreed to disagree. About five years later, in 1987, the offices of The Frontier Post were attacked and set on fire, by a mob of about 2000, following the publication of a painting of Adam and Eve by the Renaissance artist, Lucas Cranach. It accompanied an article titled 'The Tree of Knowledge'. Official censors were no longer the only ones stifling expression. The battle had been taken up by the self-righteous section of society, a foe more difficult to beat.

In music, the once popular band, Junoon, was banned from the state media during the period when Mian Nawaz Sharif was Prime Minister in 1997, apparently for its overtly political lyrics.

Since the coming into power of the Zia regime, the zealous ones, encouraged by policies that sought to suppress all forms of creative expression, took it upon themselves to act as moral vigilantes. Understandably, having tasted power, they are not inclined to back off. Even during the supposedly 'enlightened moderation' period of General Musharraf, art exhibits continued to come under attack, as was witnessed at the thesis show of the students of the Department of Visual Studies, Karachi University. There were also reports of faculty members of the National College of Arts, Lahore, coming under threats from students affiliated with religious parties. The fact that this hostility towards freedom of expression has become ingrained was demonstrated recently when activists of the Pakistan People's Party violently attacked the Karachi Shanaakht festival, 2009, displaying a painting believed to be offensive to the memory of Benazir Bhutto.

The Star had the distinction of being perhaps the first newspaper to publish Iqbal Hussain's paintings of Heera Mandi on its front pages. This happened when Hussain was refused permission to exhibit at the NCA gallery and held an impromptu exhibition on the sidewalk. Apart from the significance of the artist's work, we believed the act of arbitrary censorship deserved exposure and condemnation. The publication was as much an act of support as a review of Hussain's art. While Iqbal Hussain's work was a comment on a section of society the puritan military regime wished to eliminate, other artists were hitting out at the regime more directly. A R Nagori's A-Z series, exhibited at the Indus Gallery, Karachi, depicted the multi-dimensional aspects of life under a dictatorial military regime. I recall the high turnout at this overtly political art exhibition and the sense of participation visitors experienced in sharing Nagori's statements of defiance. In another form of protest, Nagori went on to paint the anti-nuclear series. Missiles in desolate landscapes dominate these canvases as the artist draws attention to the havoc created by the spread of nuclear weapons.

However, not all artists have mastered the art of defiance. Many have found it easier and more lucrative to conform. The disapproval of human figures and of any work of art that could be considered 'political' during the Islamisation years of General Zia led many artists to turn to calligraphy. Skilled or otherwise, they queued up to present their works to the dictator and his cohorts. This is not to deny the fact that some original and creative calligraphy was also produced but, by and large, they remained symbols of opportunism. In fact, the art of calligraphy consisting as it does of words, could have been used as a powerful medium of protest but those taking to this form were more fawning than defiant.

Pakistanis have demonstrated their defiance in other forms of cultural expression as well. The theatre of protest that became quite popular during Zia's rule touched issues of discrimination against women as well as issues of other democratic rights, etc. Many plays had to be staged in the friendlier environs of foreign cultural centres due to denial of permission by the authorities. In fact, street theatre was born during this period. In music, the once popular band, Junoon, was banned from the state media during the period when Mian Nawaz Sharif was Prime Minister in 1997, apparently for its overtly political lyrics. Earlier, in 1996, the group had earned the ire of the PPP government with its song Ehtesab.

It is to the credit of the people of Pakistan that they have found creative ways of challenging authority and defying censorship, in whatever field of expression they chose for themselves. While newspaper censorship has been well chronicled thanks to the painstaking work of Zamir Niazi other forms of expression that have battled and survived censorship also deserve their history to be recorded.

It is time perhaps for an imaginative curator to take on the task of mounting an exhibition on the theme of censorship and the freedom of expression. Pakistan's dark history of silencing critical comment and creativity can provide rich material for such an exhibit. It should cover all those arts and forms of expression that have struggled to survive through dictatorships and emerged strengthened. Through decades, artists, actors and writers have worked against all odds to keep alive the freedom of expression. In the process, they succeeded in turning defiance and protest into an art form. It is this spirit of defiance that needs to be acknowledged, catalogued and propagated. An exhibition on the theme would be an apt beginning of the recording of this significant aspect of Pakistan's history.

The writer is a former editor of The Star newspaper in Pakistan.


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