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The eternal debate | Art & Culture

One of the first steps the Taliban took after their walkover into Kabul was the banning of music. When the news was splashed over the media, they had not even taken political power or set up a government. These were the first decisions they took while manning the streets of the capital, maintaining law and order to fill in the vacuum created by the disappearance of all semblance of the government machinery.

Over the past 20 years, a sizeable music industry had developed in the urban centres of the country with media houses and outlets proliferating to give the impression that the country had changed and was on the road to a life pattern that was more in synch with what the contemporary world calls civilised behaviour.

Muslim societies have been hit by streaks of puritanical enforcement from time and time. Most of the Muslim world is divided over the place of music as an expression of essential human existence and music performance with qualifications attached to it. The qualified manifestation of music has been the norm in most Muslim societies.

The practice of music has continued in most Muslim majority societies. Whenever a puritanical order is enforced, it goes underground, but never ceases. It appears or resurfaces once the enforcement rules are relaxed on purpose or lapses are found in the enforcement.

It seems from the media reports that many of the musicians wanted to get out of Afghanistan as the Americans hastened their ignoble evacuation. Despite the earlier pledges, they did not take the musicians who wanted to leave with them, rather left them behind to fend for themselves.

When the Taliban formed their first government in the ’90s and banned music, many of the top Afghan musicians moved to Peshawar. Later, some of them migrated to the West and made a name for themselves there. As the Americans moved into Afghanistan, the musical activity resumed. In 2002, the Mutahidda Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) took over the reins of the provincial government in the NWFP and started discouraging the practice of music. Many of the Afghan, and even local, musicians then shifted to Kabul as the environment was more conducive there.

It seems that one should expect more migrations and fleeing of artistes in Pakhtun than ever before.

One can argue that Afghanistan and Pakistan are two sovereign states and have their own independent policies including policies on culture. It is hoped that the Taliban will frame their policies and fix their priorities according to the conditions on the ground and the compulsions of following an ideology. But the fear has always been lurking that the policies and acts across the Durand Line directly affect the conditions here as Afghans hardly recognise the Durand Line as an international boundary. The free access on a daily basis and the strong tribal and familial links between the populations on both sides have, even in the best of times, thwarted efforts to make the international border a meaningful demarcation.

It should not be forgotten that the Musharaf government was all for creating or projecting a soft image for the country. It can be said that a plenty of money and support was lent to the various cultural organisations and bodies even in the private sector to engage in cultural acts. So there was plenty of music, dance, theatre, film and cultural events in that period except in the erstwhile North West Frontier Province, now Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, with the MMA in control. All this was not only discouraged but actively stopped and banned by the parties that held a point of view similar to those that engage in a very conservative reading of the tenets.

It is a sad sight to see so many Afghan and Iranian artistes in the West. They are engaging in their creative pursuits and doing reasonably well, some more than the others, while they yearn to return to their country and be with their people and families on a regular basis. They cannot either because they fear persecution or because the avenues for their practice are closed and they would not be able to play, perform and create. These days they travel and work more where their work is sought and rewarded and then move to their country to be with their families. This is a pattern that has become a norm in parts of the world.

In these circumstances, the arts can become a handmaiden of religion. Its legitimacy and usefulness is viewed purely in this context. The fear seems to be palpable because of the relationship which is either conjoined or umbilical between the forces in Afghanistan and their progenitors here. The cultural environment and the definitions are changing all the time but the poignant question is what kind of society do we want Pakistan to be? A closed puritanical society where all forms of expression and manner of celebration is driven underground, where no distinction is made between art, entertainment and vulgarity? Such a restricted environment discourages an open debate on what is being staged and results in a loss of quality. Pakistan must be one of the few countries of the world that do not have schools and academies for the training of dance, theatre, film and music. An accepting environment will allow more attention to be paid to the process of creativity in the arts rather than sit on judgment on the moral ramifications of the end product.

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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