Saturday, November 29, 2008

Exclusive - 'Dostana' in Pakistan

Gay Planet in Karachi

The Dawn newspaper refused to print this op-ed on homosexualism in Pakistan.

[By Irfan Husain, columnist for Dawn]

The furore caused by the movie Dostana underlines the hypocrisy rampant in the subcontinent. The film is an exploration of a gay relationship between two men played by Abishek Bacchan and John Abraham, and is in no way overtly exploitative. Apart from one kiss, there are no scenes containing any sex. Nevertheless, a storm broke out when the film was released in Pakistan.

The truth is that we in South Asia are extremely Victorian in our attitudes towards the discussion of sexual mattes of any kind. Given these taboos, it is easy to understand why a debate about homosexuality remains out of bounds in polite company. And yet, this aspect of human sexuality is rampant in our part of the world, much as we would like to sweep it under the carpet.

Foreigners new to the subcontinent are often shocked by the sight of men walking along, holding hands in public. Even in the most liberal western country, such a sight would be rare in broad daylight along a public thoroughfare. And yet, despite this common display of affection among males, a similar demonstration among young men and women is frowned upon. Indeed, it might well cause couples in Pakistan to land up in jail if they don’t have a marriage certificate.

However, despite our prudish pretence, the fact is that we are relatively tolerant of homosexual behaviour. Our literature contains many references to romantic attachment between men. And for years, homosexuality in Pashtun society has been an open secret, although it might well be exaggerated. According to local tradition, many men live by the credo “Women for duty; boys for pleasure.” Indeed, Afghans often dress up pretty boys as girls, and have them dance in public.

According to Afghan tradition, even birds cover their rear with their wings when flying over Kandahar. In our tribal areas, local society was shocked when one amorous man actually married his young (male) lover after a colourful ceremony a couple of years ago. Muslim aristocrats in Delhi and Lucknow in Mughal India were known for their frequent affairs with attractive young men.

In the West, there have been huge strides in public opinion since the infamous trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde for homosexuality over a century ago. Now, being gay is fashionable in New York, London and Paris. While residual dislike lingers in the working classes, homophobia among educated urban professionals is very rare. And as attitudes change and gays move into the mainstream, their rights are part of the public agenda. Thus, the discussion is now about whether gays can marry, adopt children and live life as normal couples. And these relationships are as much between consenting men as between women. Lesbianism, too, is widely accepted as an alternative life choice.

According to biologists, around 2.5% of the male population has a genetic predisposition towards homosexuality. Apparently, some male babies are born with a different gene pattern, and their sexual orientation is therefore preordained by nature. To demand that such people must conform to the heterosexual norm is both cruel and unnatural.

Such social pressures cause huge stresses on these unfortunate individuals: parents want them to get married and have children, while society demands that they keep their natural desires tightly under control. And yet, transvestites are allowed to exist on the fringes of everyday life. Middle class gay men and women occupy a twilight zone in urban Pakistan (and India, too, I suspect).

In truth, while we reluctantly accept the existence of gay men, lesbianism is something we are much more uncomfortable with. And yet, our rigidly segregated society often forces young women to turn to each other. As there are very few opportunities for young people to mingle and meet, teenaged girls can hardly be blamed for experimenting with their own sex. In some cases, this becomes a lifelong preference.

While many people I know express shock and horror at these alternative lifestyle choices, I find it odd that they should choose to express their abhorrence for matters that are really none of their business. What happens between consenting adults in the privacy of bedrooms should not really concern the rest of us. True, the monotheistic faiths contain injunctions against carnal acts between men; but surely it is for the Maker to allocate blame. I, for one, refuse to be my brother’s keeper.

By driving an entire category of men and women underground, we have inflicted untold misery on hundreds of thousands of our citizen. Our penal system and laws reflect a deeply intolerant mindset that demands conformity at every level. And while we condemn any lifestyle that is not in line with the norm (whatever that is), we never stop to think that gays do not harm anybody else. If anything, they tend to be more creative than straight people. A study in the UK found that in industries like fashion and advertising, gays tend to earn more as a group than do ‘normal’ people. Music and the film in the West contain a disproportionate percentage of gays.

The ‘no-discrimination laws’ in the U.S. and the UK mean that more and more gays have begun joining the armed services. Normally, these are the most conservative institutions anywhere, so this change signifies how attitudes have been transformed within a generation. Despite these profound changes in much of the world, we in the subcontinent cling to our intolerant outlook. Indeed, we take positive delight in making life miserable for nonconformists: anybody who looks, talks or dresses differently is mocked or locked up. Perhaps I am overstating the case a bit, but the fact is that we are a deeply intolerant society.

And yet a TV programme like ‘Begum Nawazish’, featuring a man dressed as a woman, can become hugely popular in a deeply conservative country like Pakistan. How to explain such a seeming contradiction? Clearly, we can laugh at a cross-dressing act as a fiction created by show biz, but would probably be very uncomfortable if we were seated next to an overtly gay person at a dinner party.

But until we can accept and celebrate the reality of all kinds of differences within the vast mosaic that makes up humanity, we will continue to struggle with edgy movies like Dostana.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Capital Culture - Making Music in Pakistan

Making Music in Pakistan

Claiming back our heritage.

[Text by Raza Rumi; picture by Dr Ghulam Nabi Kazi]

One November evening the breezy environs of the majestic Lawrence Gardens again swayed to the tunes of Hindustani classical music.

A week long music festival organised by the All Pakistan Music Conference attracted musicians, vocalists and enthusiasts from all parts the country, as well as from the imagined “enemy” India. How could it not be the case when musical traditions emerged out of a cultural synthesis of 700 years or more?

The leading light of APMC was Hayat Ahmad Khan, whose sad demise in 2005 was interpreted as an end to the glorious tradition of subcontinental streams of music in Pakistan. However, 83 years of hard work and philanthropic contributions was not in vain. He left behind a powerful institution and a network of committed individuals and aesthetes who have kept the torch ablaze.

Not a small feat in the troubled waters of a Pakistani cultural landscape constantly under attack by nation-state ideology and extremism that consider music to be too “Indian” or, even worse, un-Islamic.

This is the greatest irony of our existence: the Muslims in India contributed to what is known today as Indian classical music and innovations such as the sitar and the tabla.

The Qawwal bache trained at the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi under the tutelage of Amir Khusrau became the founders of what was to later evolve as the sophisticated Khayal style of music. In dire times of the Sultanate and Mughal periods, these musicians had to take refuge in the princely states, and this is how the various gharanas, or schools of music, originated.

This loose network of musicians organised along the lines of kinship or teacher-pupil bonds, sustained by court patronage and eclectic and secular in appeal, led to some fine moments. Tansen at Akbar’s court, Mohammad Shah Rangeela’s patronage and later the Kingdom of Oudh defined the high-points of this fused and seamless culture beyond religion, communal and sectarian divides.

To keep this tradition alive in post-independence Pakistan was a Herculean task.

Pakistan was a moth-eaten and truncated country in the words of its founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The psychological trauma and barbarity of the Partition had jolted everyone and the traditional patronage of the state was missing. It was under these circumstances that on September 15 1959, music-inspired citizens met at the famous Coffee House of Lahore and launched a voluntary organization called The All Pakistan Music Conference. Eminent personas such as Roshan Ara Begum were among the illustrious list of its founders.

It should be noted that this was also the age when the maestro Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan migrated to India and Roshan Ara Begum was almost about to give up the passion of her life. Thus this civic action and reclaiming of cultural space was impressive, to say the least.

Since 1960, APMC has organised festivals and concerts, with Lahore’s annual music conference assuming the climactic apex of year-long music and its interaction with the public.

For days, all night long musical performances and singing was to become the standard format and the chilly, larger than life nights at the Lawrence Gardens provided a befittingly tender venue for these soirees.

Great masters performed and interacted with the citizenry through the language of music, thus reminding that borders could change and politics become messy, yet the shared traditions of music were not forgotten.

Ustaads like Qadir Bukhsh Pakhawaji, Nazakat Ali Khan, Salamat Ali Khan, Amanat Ali Khan, Fateh Ali Khan, Barkat Ali Khan, Sharif Khan Poonchwalay, Zahida Parveen, Sain Akhter Hussain, Latafat Hussain Khan and Roshan Ara Begum performed for years to keep music flowing into the blood-drained veins of Pakistani society.

After half a century, it was therefore a pleasure to have listened to the melodies, old and new. The older gurus were there but the refreshing part was the new and emerging talents from various schools and locations in Pakistan who testified to the fact that music was anything but dead in the land of the pure.

During the conference several genres of subcontinental music, such a Geet, Ghazal, Kafi, Kajri, Dadra, Thumri, Tarana, Dhurpad and Khayal, were presented. Dozens of students performed classical, semi-classical and instrumental numbers. The majority of those performing were from the National College of Arts, Government College University, Punjab University, Kinnaird College, MAO College, FC College and other private institutions.

It was most heartening to see that the majority of the audience were younger people and many seemed interested and engaged with the performances. This also belies the common myth that the youth are only interested in pop music and that demand for classical or semi-classical music has dwindled. How easily we fall into the traps of unsubstantiated claims.

We returned home quite late, but well before the dawn, and left hundreds of people at the music conference venue. Spellbound by the sitar and musical tunes, I wondered how exciting it was to be a part of historical cycles – that are not just composed of war and violence but of music and undying bonds of humanity.

It would be appropriate to mention the services of the late Syed Wajid Ali. He had been the chairman of the APMC since 1960, with Hayat Khan as the general secretary. Ali’s death was also mourned during the proceedings of the conference but as one of the stage managers appropriately commented: individuals fade away but institutions continue.

This is the magic of Lahore and its deep-rooted cultural mores. No other city can boast of such individuals, movements and trends. Hopefully, the music will live on. The interest of younger generations and their experiments with various forms of music hold great promise.

Let the cynics fume and froth. Melodies shall play on in Lahore.