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The battle for culture | Art & Culture

After the new information minister took oath of office, there was another barrage of statements vowing the revival of cultural activity in the country.

This has become a ritual. At the arrival of every new minister or government promises are made for a revival of culture and for invigorating cultural activity with the help of their support. However, the end result, in most cases, is media coverage of just the intent with implementation leaving much to be desired.

One should not forget that this is the second stint for the minister in this portfolio in the space of three years. This government must have set some kind of a record in the shifting the cabinet members and transfers of government officials because such frequent changes are unprecedented. The end result appears to be mere cosmetic changes rather than progress towards a desirable objective.

Once again the emphasis is on the revival of cinema in the country and production of television serials, transmitted or streamed through the channels, poaching on our historical personages. The nation appears to have has been seized by this fascination with historical personages, perhaps fuelled by the huge following or rating of Mera Sultan and then the official patronage of Ertugral.

This has actually become a ritual repeated ad nauseam. Every government or a person assuming office makes a set of promises with overtones of repetition. It appears that the ministers read from a brief that bureaucrats prepare for them. It seems that the brief was drafted many year ago. It is brushed up every time to be presented to the new minister or official. It is cast as new and the intention is renewed and then propagated like never before.

One should ask what was the outcome of the promises that the minister made in his first stint and did he ever take a look at the heap of broken images. It may have deterred him from speaking with the same ardour as if it were the first time. It may be conceded, though, that the flight of the trajectory was cut short by the changing of the portfolio of the minister in a rather inexplicable manner and the good intentions collapsed on the anvil of implementation. However, the relevant query to raise is whether the government is following a policy guideline which is consistent and not dependent upon the individuals that happen to hold office.

On wonders how many films were made or were in the process of being made or were released in the last year given the fact of the corona ravage.

This fascination with the historical personalities can be seen as an escape from the reality of current degradation. It is best captured by the adage, ‘pidram sultan bood’. By harking back to the glory of a fictionalized past, much material is provided to cover the flanks or the bankruptcy of the current scenario. It is wallowing in a comfort zone to feel good that things were not always that bad. The purpose of instilling confidence and inspiration to revitalise ourselves for the challenges ahead seems failing. After so much energy is spent in telling ourselves how successful and good we were, little is left for introspection, analysis and doubt.

Of the two names that were mentioned by the minister: Tipu Sultan and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, it appears that the intellectual battle that the latter initiated in earnest is not over and we are all in it. The acceptance of a Western intellectual approach and its system of education was the great step that Sir Syed Ahmed took. For that, he had to face a huge backlash from the religious sections, who did not warm up to whatever was being done by the colonists. The setting up of the Aligarh College and subsequent university would not have been possible without the active support and encouragement of the colonial rulers of the time.

The way Sir Syed Ahmed Khan then went about resetting our history and religious discourse in the light of his exposure to the Western sources of knowledge made him the favourite target of the conservative sections of the population. His political vision of calling the Muslims a qoam in the subcontinent, too, was derived from the concepts of nationalism developed in the West.

Since then, the battle has raged between the influence of the West and our own repositories of knowledge and the two streams have flowed side by side without merging. The Western thought and consciousness had dominated not because of acceptance but because its technological expression resulted in some kind of inevitability one could not escape from.

It would be fascinating to see if a serial is made on Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and all these debates and attitudes are thrown open rather than glossed over to create a glamourized, fictionalised account of the past that serves the political concerns of the present. Many think of art as post-truth, but that is a distortion of the historical process. In an age where the openness required for such debate is diminishing due to the entrenchment of positions based on pre-stated ideas, self-righteousness often results in a casualty of the objective assessment or truth.

Similarly, the role of Tipu Sultan and our freedom struggle, too, needs to be reassessed. Let us see whether our minister has the courage to catch the bull by its horns.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

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