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Pariahs of Pakistani Culture

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By Salman Ahmad
November 1, 1997

Several weeks ago Junoon were in Multan shooting a video for one of the spiritual songs of our new album Azadi. Across the street from us a Jamaat-e-Islami rally was being held. While the Jamaat workers were waiting for Qazi Hussain Ahmad to arrive, some of the younger workers wearing green head scarves with Allahu Akbar written over them came over to watch us perform. At the conclusion of the shoot they came up to us and asked us for our autographs!

I thought to myself that a few years ago this would’ve been unthinkable. A pop musician and a religious party worker casually discussing music. Tolerance, I hoped, was slowly beginning to seep into our society. My optimism was short-lived, however. Just a week later Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s pointed reference to pop music being one of the major causes for vulgarity and obscenity in our society redrew the battle lines between us and them.

It took only one government directive to completely negate ten years of painstaking efforts by our generation of artists to help develop a culture and an industry which specifically caters to the youth. This industry, it might be added,has generated thousands of jobs for young Pakistanis.

Salman Ahmad with guitar

Nawaz Sharif’s orders to PTV and STN have resulted in a complete ban on pop music on television. Efforts are underway to ban public pop concerts as well. Pop musicians who until recently were being projected as modern symbols of national unity have overnight been labeled as the pariahs of Pakistani culture. Is it really the length of our hair, our clothes, our “gestures” and our music that has annoyed the Premier? Or is it the realization of a gradual loss of control over the younger generation that has forced him to press the panic button?

The world as it now stands has become a global village. News, events, trends in fashion and music travel across geographical borders and into people’s homes at the press of a button. One moment you’re watching Michael Jackson do the moon walk, the next it’s Shahrukh Khan beating up the baddies. If you get bored easily you can switch to a sports channel and watch cricket, tennis or golf being beamed to you from all four corners of the globe. Apart from entertainment you have 24-hour news channels to keep you up to date with what’s going on in the world.

As a result those used to controlling the mass media for the projection of their propaganda are finding it extremely hard to convince anyone of their version of the truth. The fact is that the Pakistan we have inherited from our elders is anything but normal. In the last half century we have fought three wars against India. We’ve lost the eastern wing of our country due to the non-recognition of the rights of the Bengali Muslims. Military dictators have freely imposed their own rule of law over a helpless nation.

Civil rights have been repeatedly violated in the name of religion. Ethnic and sectarian intolerance and violence has escalated. Over the last decade four democratically elected governments have been dismissed on charges of corruption and mismanagement. We are currently ranked fifth on the list of most corrupt countries, while millions of our countrymen living in abject poverty are denied their most basic human rights.

Our rulers, in trying to create the illusion of normality through television, make the mistake of believing their lies, much like the ostrich who buries its head in the sand and feels safe from danger. The government actually believes that the Motorway is the answer to all of Pakistan’s problems. The advent of the dish antenna and with it the influx of uncensored information has made a mockery of those forcing us to conform to their version of “reality”. The innocence of youth is being tainted by the fast spreading stain of cynicism. Young people have begun to see through the hypocrisy and double standards promoted by our leaders. Their support and enthusiasm for modern youth culture, of which pop music is an integral part, may be described as a wholesale rejection of everything the government considers to be “normal, rational and sober”.

Salman Ahmed and Ustad Ashiq Ali

East meets West: Pictured here are Salman Ahmed and Ustad Ashiq Ali of Junoon rehearsing before a concert

The major share of the pop industry is made up of artists who have been around for at least the four changes of governments that have occurred in the recent past; they have been in the middle of a continuous tug of war between the two major political parties. Ironically, both parties have used us for their gain when it suited them. Like court jesters we have been forced to be paraded in front of the rulers at every official occasion. As working artists we have never asked for infrastructural assistance from any government, yet can boast of building a rapidly growing music industry which has contributed positively to various social welfare projects.

We could not have achieved this had we not had the support of the people. Our influence among the youth is not due to the length of our hair, our clothes, or our “gestures”. The simple fact is that our music reaches the hearts of our generation. Our songs promote national unity and articulate social issues that concern today’s Pakistani. At times we have been criticized by the media for overdoing the “song with a social message” and being too serious. However, we are well aware of the divisions in our country and through our art we express our concerns and help foster brotherhood.

If this music is being labeled vulgar and obscene then evidently there is a huge gap in perception between our leaders and the youth. We need our leaders to provide us with across-the-board accountability, health, education, employment and the rest of our constitutional rights. We do not need sermons and lectures on how to behave or how to be cultured (we have our parents for that!). Most insulting is when someone tries to reaffirm our faith for us.

The government has been given an overwhelming mandate to bring justice, peace and prosperity to a suffering nation. These are the parameters by which it will be judged by the people of Pakistan, not by how many pop musicians were sent to the barber shop.

If there is a silver lining to the dark clouds of this latest government decision it is the hope that conservatives and liberals will finally put their heads together and their differences aside to answer the most burning questions inflaming the hearts and minds of young Pakistanis: What is Pakistani culture?

Does culture encompass all aspects of our society, or should it be applied selectively? What steps should be taken to preserve our traditional heritage? How can the modern complement the traditional and vice-versa? Unless these and other crucial questions are answered, we will keep going around in circles.


One comment for “Pariahs of Pakistani Culture”

  1. the qawwali music stuff seems to go with pakistan old cultural debate over classical music these newer pakistan music stuff makes it work as a solution to music that goes with the modern nice pakistan qawwali music style people like the music to keep going with india pakistan movie opera music

    Posted by nasrudeen | October 17, 2008, 5:27 pm

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