Sunday, April 5, 2009

No jigging allowed

In a sign of the times, a Pakistani dance troupe at a spring festival in Larkana was chased off by a group of religious fanatics claiming to be from one of Pakistan's legitimate political parties, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam.  A spokesperson from the party later denied that any of their activists were instructed to disrupt the festivities, though party officials had asked the festival organizers to cancel the dance. 

Dance is an integral part of Pakistani culture, something that's been around for hundreds of years, well before the creation of the Pakistani state.  It's a wonderful spectacle to see, lavished with colour and pageantry and nothing approaching the 'vulgar' which religious obscuritants claim it to be.  Last year I went to my cousin's wedding in Lahore.  I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting much.  I've been to Pakistani weddings in Canada and to put it mildly, they could lull Jim Carey into a catatonic state.  But to the contrary, leaving those precedents in the dust, this one was a lively affair, complete with drumming, singing and yes,  even a dance performance or two.  

I'm not sure what it is that these radicals are trying to do. Actually, I don't think they quite know it themselves.  They are simple reactionaries to the reality of globalization, men who think Bollywood and MTV, which many of them are seeing for the first time through the explosion of cable and satellite communications, are real-world representations of western life. Well, I can assure them that the little girl who performed at my cousin's wedding is no aspiring Britney. 

But groups like the Taliban, and others who take their ideological queues from them, will have none of it.  Literally, none, not even traditional music and dance.  There's a story I'm researching now for a possible radio documentary about the Pashtun music industry in Peshawar.  In short, it's dying.  Peshawar, that quintessential frontier city in Pakistan's northwest, bordering Afghanistan, used to be the Pashtun music capital.  The top recording artists like Naghma, Nazia Iqbal, and Shahensha Bacha were all based in Peshawar.  They recorded their music videos on the lush green slopes of the Swat valley.  The branch industries that emanated from that dynamic centre - DJs and recording studios, video production houses and even instrument craftsmen - are all suffering.  Naghma has retired.  Nazia Iqbal was threatened by a local militant and advised to go to Mecca for pilgrimmage.  Shenshah Bacha was similarly threatened and forced to join a Tabligh - the Islamic missionaries.

I visited a couple of DJ shops in Peshawar about a month ago.  The area I was told to go used to be flush with shops, belting out beats and flashing colouful (if somewhat gaudy) neon signs.  Now the area is a deadzone.  Shopkeepers sit around idle, waiting for the occasional religious or political rally to give them some work.  "Weddings were our main business," one shopkeeper told me.  "But no one is hiring DJs for weddings anymore.  They're too afraid."   Musicians are naturally feeling the pinch.  If singers don't sing and weddings fall silent, their work dries up. 

And if musicians refrain from playing their instruments, then there's not much use for instrument makers.  Peshawar's oldest master tabla-maker told me he's just about done for.  His business will not last much longer.  A suicide attack at a sufi shrine in Islamabad back in 2005 all but silenced the qawwali singers who regularly gathered there to perform their songs of love and devotion to god.  

What happens to a culture when its artistic expression is silenced? It dies.  

Photo Credits:  (from top)  Women perform a Punjabi dance at a wedding in Lahore, Adnan R. Khan; A girl performs a solo dance at the same wedding, Adnan R. Khan; Musicians perform at a Pashtun wedding in Peshawar, Adnan R.Khan.


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