Analysing the Desi Popular

From Prince Biscuits to Dalda to Surf Excel, our minds and childhoods echo with TV jingles, nationalistic pop anthems from the 90s and snippets of jokes from 50-50. Pop culture is always musical. Ask someone about their favourite bit of Pakistani pop culture, and invariably the answer is Nazia Hassan, “Purani jeans aur guitar”, Vital Signs and Junoon. But a deeper look brings back heart wrenching nostalgia, like watching Thundercats on STN at 7 pm as a kid, or trips to Bata before every new school year, or laughing at Moin Ahktar on PTV. Popular culture by no means is something that can be concretely measured or defined. In Pakistan such frivolity is often sidelined, but by nature of being uncontrolled and spontaneous, pop culture crawls through the cracks to become part of the national psyche.

Popular culture is a different creature from the national phenomenon of culture. It only comes into being when it has mass effect and acceptance, but with no direct control of the creator or of any form of authority. The actors of the legendary TV show 50-50 have long disappeared from the airwaves, yet the comedy skits are still part of beloved pop culture. Massive aid by the Internet, like YouTube, have ensured that such chapters in our popular history can survive. Most of quality TV from before the 80’s was produced by PTV, and the state enterprise has either lost this content or has been unable to digitize obsolete mediums of film. This compounds one of the problems of popular culture in Pakistan, that it doesn’t last long.

Quality makes for good popularity, but popular culture is often absolutely frivolous (like the popularity of Annie’s Mahiya, or Mathira’s antics on cable TV). It does not have to be art; it just has to be catchy. It is forever changing and evolving, and mostly comedic, artistic or musical. To give a very simple example, the shalwar kameez is culture; the Pierre Cardin twist to the outfit for PIA air hostesses in the 1970’s is pop culture.

Dr Aur Billa

The problem with popular culture in Pakistan, as mentioned earlier is its extremely short lifespan. Even though pop culture is transient, Britney Spears head shaving shenanigans have lasted longer in our public memory than Dr aur Billa’s hilarious take on pop music. This is probably due to the nature of our media and how it is controlled. Virtually all the fodder for pop culture in the last ten years has come not from art and music but from 24 hour news channels, like Amir Liaqat’s “Ghalib film dekhi hai aap neh?”, and Maya Khan’s “Apnay maan baap ko dhoka mat dain” (about sitting with a member of the opposite sex in a park). In a country obsessed with national security and political drama, it is not hard to see why high culture (like fine art) and low culture (like Pushto films with buxom dancing lasses) have a minimal role in discourse. Even when high art and popular culture are as important to the construction of Pakistani identity as religion, ethnicity or politics.

"Ghalib Film Dekhi Hai Aap Neh???"
“Ghalib Film Dekhi Hai Aap Neh???”

In the 1990s, the heyday of pop music in Pakistan, these 24 hour news channels did not exist. In fact, it can be argued that news channels like Geo and Dunya were the death of entertainment channels like Indus music that, for a few years had captured the attention of teens across urban Pakistan (for one, it propelled Jal’s Aadat into Pakistani music’s Hall of Fame). It is only in the last two to four years that we have seen the beginnings of a renaissance of entertainment channels with Hum Tv.

General Zia’s years were a blur of state censorship and state controlled television to the extent that even female actors sleeping in bed on TV had to have a veil on their heads. The state does have a role in creating what is popular culture, but this is hardly equal to the state controlling it. The most popular example of this from outside Pakistan was propaganda posters during World War 2. The most wonderful art and design was combined with government messages across the world including the US, Great Britain, Soviet Russia, Japan and China. One of the most popular posters was the red British “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster. Today these posters have survived because to the masses, they represent an instantly recognizable version of history, not because of state control of history.

pyari <3
pyari <3

Pakistan has never had a tradition of propaganda posters but one of the bastions of national television (and even a mouthpiece for state propaganda), Shaista Zaid, is an icon today. She is instantly recognizable, and even beloved by her long-standing presence on PTV, with her perfectly pinned dupatta and impeccable English accent. Again, her figure is not created by any authority, it is rather how she has been perceived and received by the masses that fixes her in our memories. Her retirement thus spawned long bouts of reminiscing about the lives and times of General Zia.
It can be argued that Humsafar was the first drama to break the stereotyping of Pakistani TV as being dull and uncreative plot wise. Other popular shows on TV like Jutt and Bond, Shashlik and Teen bata teen, were different in the sense that they targeted a young population with comedy. Interestingly, Jawad Bashir’s hand was behind all three of these comedies. Including the music of Dr aur Billa, well produced music videos like Abrar-ul-Haq’s Preeto, and Ufone GSM’s riotous adverts, Bashir may be the single biggest contributor to Pakistani pop culture since the 90s with honorable mentions to partners-in-crime, Adeel Hashmi, Vasay Chaudhry and Faisal Qureshi. Good comedy was always popular (whether Moin Akhtar cross-dressing in Rozi in the 90s or the inane hilarity of the sitcom Bulbulay today), but quality dramas were few and far between.

The sad thing is that such changes in local culture are not given importance in dominant narratives. With a threadbare film and music industry, break throughs like Jutt and Bond or Humsafar open us to local art but are often not capitalized on because they do not feature into the power structures of society. It is sometimes argued that during Zia’s time, there was a cap put on creativity, that due to government censorship and control, the quality of national TV fell. Yet there are short-lived blips of renaissance here and there, for example shows like Chand Grehn in the 90s. Today the problem is not state control but societal encouragement of such projects and the people behind them.

(In The Nation, a few weeks ago. Leave a comment?)

The course of the Indus and Jehlum, was manmade!

A lesson in forgotten (Pakistani/subcontinental) history….

According to the Rājatarangiṇī (“The River of Kings”), the banks of the Indus were reconstructed by mere mortals of seemingly superb talent!

The Rājatarangiṇī is a metrical historical chronicle of north-western Indian subcontinent, particularly the kings of Kashmir, written in Sanskrit by Kashmiri Brahman Kalhaṇa in 12th century CE (thank you Wikipedia). The work records the heritage of Kashmir and its politics from the epic period of the Mahābhārata to the reign of Sangrama Deva (c.1006 CE), before the Muslim era. The list of kings goes back to the 19th century BCE.

The chronology might be a bit off, but the work is true to whatever was going on in Kashmir somewhere between the 8th and 12th century.

These old works show  that rulers of this era  were some of the most brilliant urban planners, and in fact, the “Golden Age” (of building, planning, writing, and gold, the time of India being the most powerful economic region) of the subcontinent was already over by the time the Muslims landed on its banks.

The good times can only be said to have come back, for just a bit, with Akbar and Shah Jehan and their contributions to art and architecture… but the Subcontinent was over its glory days so much sooner than we think. Anyway, read the lower paragraph in the picture below.

indus-and-jehlum

The picture is from: Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal (Penguin 2012)

Popular Culture and Science Fiction

Image

In 1984 William Gibson wrote the popular science fiction, Neuromancer. The novel predicted the rise of the Internet and the word “cyberspace” thus entered the modern lexicon. Thus popular culture directly impacted the real world and eventually the Internet became a big part of everyday culture. Today it is one of the necessary fronts of social and political change. Here are some musings on science fiction and popular culture theory.

On a side note, popular culture is almost unexplored by modern political theory. Except for Marxist critical theory that calls it the “culture industry,” there are few words written about its benefits. Adorno and Horkheimer, critical Marxists from the 1940s, theorized that mass culture was a political weapon to ensure the continued obedience of the masses to market interests. They predicted the rise of popular mass media, firmly controlled by large corporations and class interests for monetary purposes. There was no purely “public” sphere where people had freedom of choice and opinion. Except of course, in recent time, cyberspace. This explanation of popular culture itself, seems dystopian. Something science fiction is very comfortable about when describing futures. Almost, art imitating life.

Science fiction its self at the outset seems to be a product of the merging of popular culture and scientific innovation.The Atomic Age starts with the year 1903 when Ernest Rutherford, a British chemist and physicist, born in New Zealand, started discussing the possibility of atomic energy. Following this, the first pop culture reaction was in 1914, with the publishing of H.G. Wells‟ science fiction novel entitled The World Set Free in which he describes the finding of unlimited energy locked inside atoms, and presents a story of how atomic bombs are deployed around the world. Such examples, just relating to the bomb are continually repeated. In 1945 the first atomic bombs were created. In 1986 the graphic novel, Watchmen, reimagined the past from the world war to the Vietnam War to Nixon’s America (with one of the protagonists being in total control of atomic and subatomic particles).

*Fan girl tears* Whattay novel.
*Fan girl tears* Whattay novel.

Then the robot is “that place in science fiction texts where technological and human are most directly blended. The robot is the dramatization of the alterity of the machine, the paranoid sense of the inorganic come to life,” as explained by a theorist*. The confrontation/cooperation between man and machine thus becoming an archetype which has been almost exhaustively explored. This brings me back to the brilliance of Neuromancer, merging so many nodes of technology, before its time, creating fodder for future popular culture. Movies reminiscent of this novel include Elysium… future dystopias with class structure, and small almost mercenary vanguard like resistances. Love.

**Roberts, A. (2000) – “Science Fiction – The New Critical Idiom” Routledge Publishing

What do Hitler, OBL and Stalin have in common? And is there a correlation between religion and ethics?

“God bless Mujahid bin Laden”

“God bless Sheikh Mujahid Osama bin Laden, and no consolation for the ignorant (Jahil) parrots of the West”

These were the comments I read under the following (liberal?) image I came across Facebook… so here is some food for thought (or not depending on how indignant people get in the comments).

Nutjobs

The poster/picture was shared by a Jordanian friend and the commenters below were mostly Arab, (though I think Pakistani readers would have similar reactions). Now the general sentiment of the comments was agreement with the captioning of the personalities, all except for Osama bin Laden who people tried to defend. What makes the goal of  killing for religion (OBL), better than killing under Communism (Stalin)?

Here is another comment: “First: Hitler was a disbeliever, originally did not believe in Christ, Second: Osama bin Laden, a man who acted when the world sat idle”

(BTW Hitler’s religious beliefs are actually not conclusively proven unreligious, however Nazism and neo-nazism today is heavily grounded in Christianity)

What does this kind of defense of OBL mean? Do people outraged at Osama’s presence on the above poster support suicide bombing? Do all these people not see killing as a crime whether it is Americans or Jews or Muslims?

Its not only us Pakistanis with masses of extreme wight-wingers, upset with liberalism, secularism, feminism and everything left of centre. Most of the religious world is rife with such destructive sentiments. The way a mass of us has been celebrating Mumtaz Qadri, the murderer of  Salmaan Taseer, the same type of type of support groups popped up on Facebook for the neo-nazi Norwegian killer, Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 92 people in 2011. And it didn’t end here. In an act of provocation the Thor Steinar clothing company, associated with the neo-Nazi scene, has opened a store in eastern Germany called Brevik, a name almost identical to Breivik. Neo-nazi parties and groups exist across Central and Western Europe and are condemnable. There are many many examples of music groups, hate groups, individuals and churches that are know for being anti-Semite, pro-white and Christian. The difference is maybe in the quantity of support for these groups and national laws that does not give them space for great national and international impact.

So when people who share the viewpoint of the image, say that OBL is evil, or a murderer, or just an all round bad apple, its not because he was Muslim or that they are pro-West/USA, its because of his actions. Anyone who has such a disregard for human life is evil. That is why we have law, and criminal codes and prisons and punishment, so that a Mumtaz Qadri does not wake up one day and go on a rampage because he does not agree with what you are saying.

But is there a correlation between religion and ethics? Are religious people more moral than atheists or agnostics?

Studies have found no difference between religious and non-religious individuals on unethical behaviors such as dishonesty and cheating, while a negative relationship was found between use of illegal substances and individual religiousness*. Kidwell et al in 1987 found no relationship between religiosity and ethical judgments of managers. Religion may not be the key to making you a good (or a bad person), and there is no conclusive study to say otherwise.**

The picture also seems to show a (weak) correlation between mustaches and ethics. Get over it.

Notes

*See Hood, R. W., B. Spilka, B. Hunsberger and R. Gorsuch: 1996, The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach (Guildford Press, New York). Also see Khavari, K. A. and T. M. Harmon: 1982, The Relationship between the Degree of Professed Religious Belief and Use of Drugs, International Journal of the Addictions 17, 847–857.

** See Parboteeah, Hoegl and Cullen: 2008, Ethics and Religion: An Empirical Test of a Multidimensional Model, Journal of Business Ethics (2008) 80:387–398.

Pak Tea House, August 2012.

Pakistan meme

I’m doing some research on memes and internet culture in Pakistan, so if you are here and reading this click this and help me by filling out this survey if you are a young Pakistani (and tweet/Facebook it too if you like it). Will post findings here soon.

Survey: http://memecloud.treebark.org/64147

And here’s a hilarious image from the Facebook page Sarcasmistan

World Values: What makes nations happy?

The unprecedented wealth that has accumulated in advanced societies during the past generation means that an increasing share of the population has grown up taking survival for granted. This means that priorities have shifted from economic and physical security to more subjective concerns of well being like self-expression. Thus modernisation and economic progress is not a linear process, once a society moves towards high levels of economic growth, there are only incremental changes in quality of life. However, attitudes towards wellbeing continue to evolve.

wellbeing

Figure 1: Survival and Well Being as related to per capita GNP.

The World Values Survey (WVS) is one such piece of research that tries to find evidence that orientations have shifted. Since the 1990s, results from the World Values Survey have been noticing a shift from Traditional toward Secular-rational values in almost all industrial societies. The Survey is a global research project that explores people’s values and beliefs, how they change over time and what social and political impact they have, carried out by a worldwide network of social scientists since 1981. The WVS is the only source of empirical data on attitudes covering a majority of the world’s population (nearly 90%). Data from the World Values Survey have for example been used to better understand the motivations behind events such as the 2010-2011 Middle East and North Africa proteststhe Rwandan genocide in 1994 and the Yugoslav wars and political upheaval in the 1990s. The survey is conducted every few years and is in the final phases of its 2012 research.

Two dimensions dominate the picture in the WVS analysis: (1) Traditional/ Secular-rational and (2) Survival/Self-expression values. These two dimensions explain more than 70 percent of the cross-national variance in a factor analysis of ten indicators-and each of these dimensions is strongly correlated with scores of other important orientations.

According to the WVS website, the Traditional/Secular-rational values dimension reflects the contrast between societies in which religion is very important and those in which it is not with a wide range of other related orientations. Societies near the traditional pole emphasize the importance of parent-child ties and deference to authority, along with absolute standards and traditional family values, and reject divorce, abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. These societies have high levels of national pride, and a nationalistic outlook. Societies with secular-rational values have the opposite preferences on all of these topics. The second major dimension of cross-cultural variation is linked with the transition from industrial society to post-industrial societies-which brings a polarization between Survival and Self-expression values.

Each country is positioned according to its people’s values and not its geographical location. To a large extent the two coincide, but the map measures cultural proximity, not geographical proximity. Thus, Australia, Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain are cultural neighbors, reflecting their relatively similar values, despite their geographical dispersion. Figure 2 and 3 provide a comparison of world values between 2004 and 2008. The nature of the values on either axis is explained by Figure 4.

Inglehart_Values_Map2.svg

Figure 2: The World Value Survey Cultural Map 2010

Source: Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, “Changing Mass Priorities: The Link Between Modernization and Democracy.” Perspectives on Politics June 2010 (vol 8, No. 2)

Cultures and Values old

Figure 3: The World Value Survey Cultural Map 1999-2004

Source: Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005: page 63.
Scatter chart

Figure 4: Scatter chart of Authority and Survival or Well Being
Source: R. Inglehart, Modernization and Postmodernization (Princeton, 1997).

The shift from survival values to self-expression values includes shifts in child-rearing values, shifts from hard work toward emphasis on imagination and tolerance as important values to teach a child. This is supplanted with a rising sense of subjective well-being that is conducive to an atmosphere of tolerance, trust and political moderation. Finally, societies that rank high on self-expression values also tend to rank high on interpersonal trust.

Happiness: Religion and national pride

The WVS has often been used to measure happiness in states. Data from representative national surveys carried out from 1981 to 2007 shows the extent to which a society allows free choice has a major impact on happiness.

The WVS finds that that national pride had a strong zero-order correlation with attitudes towards well being but it was closely linked with strong emphasis on religion.  When included with religiosity in the regression, national pride did not have an independent impact. Both religion and national pride were stronger in less-developed societies than in developed ones, which helps explain why some low-income societies had relatively high levels of “happiness”. For example, the contrast between the Latin American societies and the ex- communist societies shown in Figure 5 may be due in part to the fact that virtually all of the Latin American societies surveyed at that time were strongly religious and had strong national pride, whereas the ex-communist nations were not religious and did not have national pride: 76% of those surveyed in Latin American countries stated that ‘‘God is very important in my life’’ (placing themselves the top of a 10-point scale), whereas only 27% of those surveyed in the ex-communist countries and 42% of those surveyed in the remaining countries did so. In addition, 77% of those surveyed in Latin American countries said they are ‘‘very proud’’ of their nationality, as compared with 39% of those surveyed in the ex-communist societies and 57% of those surveyed in the remaining countries.

Figure 5: Happiness and GNP

So while we started off by saying that more democratic and prosperous countries have values that encourage self-expression, and people in those countries are not worried about survival, happiness is something that exists even is non-industrialized and conservative states. These countries score high on traditional values as well as having good scores with regards to self expression (Figure 2). Thus it is choice and self expression that makes for happiness, regardless of traditional values. Secular-rational nations are only happy, when they are not worried with survival. Thus countries like Denmark are Sweden are “happy” and post-communist countries are “unhappy”.

WVS Methodology: The World Values Survey uses the sample surveys as its mode of data collection, a systematic and standardized approach to collect information through interviewing representative national samples of individuals. Samples are drawn from the entire population of 18 years and older. The minimum sample is 1000. In most countries, no upper age limit is imposed and some form of stratified random sampling is used to obtain representative national samples. The survey is carried out by professional organizations using face-to-face interviews or phone interviews for remote areas. Each country has a Principal Investigator responsible for conducting the survey in accordance with the fixed rules and procedures.

Pakistan Policy Group, 2012.

Afghanistan: Poppies aplenty

Afghanistan’s farmers earned $1.4 billion from opium in 2011, an increase of 133 percent over the year before. That’s about 9 percent of the country’s GDP. Policy options to constrain poppy cultivation have all fallen short.

Poppy cultivation was at its peak in Afghanistan in 2007, but recent reports suggest that there is to be a bumper crop this year. According to a recent UN report, there is an increase in production in 9 provinces since 2011. The provinces of Kandahar and Hilmand are the biggest producers with increases expected in the north western provinces. The increasing price of opium is to blame for this, as well as conditions of poverty, insecurity, corruption and mis-governance. According to the above mentioned UN Report, “High sales price of opium” was the predominant reason (71%) for growing opium (77% in 2011). About 13% of respondents in villages with opium cultivation cited that poverty was the reason for cultivating opium. This was followed by “high income from little land” (5%) as reason for cultivating opium.

Expected opium cultivation trends in 2012 (by province)

According to The Economist, this has reversed the gains made through the the British government’s “food zone” initiative which was one effort to cut down the opium trade. Under this initiative, farmers were subsidized to grow alternative crops, with the successive dismantling of poppy farms. The zone is implemented in central Helmand where security conditions have improved with an inflow of British, American and other foreign troops. However, this has led to the trade being transferred to neighboring Farah, as well as drug barons striking deals with the Taliban.

Price of dry opium and food grains in 2011 and 2012 (US$/kg)
Opium Winter Risk Assessment Survey, 2012

Thus until an alternative-crop programs does not become generally applicable, gains in one province will just move production to another. There is evidence to suggest that more subsidies and facilities to farmers could make them switch crops. There is a strong, statistically significant association between lack of agricultural assistance and poppy cultivation according to the UN. Villages, which had not received agricultural assistance, were more likely to grow poppy than villages which had received assistance. But with the security conditions, Taliban, and weak state of government this seems unlikely to happen in the medium term.

The US has already spent $4.7 billion on anti-drug programs in Afghanistan, with minimal results, which is why their policy shifted to “food zone” type of programs. A simple yet drastic option is to buy up all the opium with the same amount of money that was previously been used for anti-drug programs. A recent New York Times article suggests that if the United States and its partners bought all of Afghanistan’s opium, a major source of corruption in Afghanistan would disappear along with violence in Taliban controlled areas as well as global heroin and morphine addiction. The opium could be redirected to medical use, like morphine which is in globally in short supply. This type of “buying up” has the potential to make the drug trade legal and provide and honest living for farmers. India, for example, has implemented a licensing system where accredited farmers grow opium and it is processed and exported. Even with leakages into illicit markets, there would still be progress.

While the above options seem unlikely to be implemented soon, foreign donors have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on border security and counter-narcotics projects designed to cut trafficking through Asia. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 30% of Afghan opiates (including 90 tonnes of heroin a year) pass through Central Asia on their way to Russia, most of them through Tajikistan. The Economist believes that the industry is equivalent to 30-50% of Tajikistan’s GDP. NATO which is trying to withdraw from the region does not want to upset the status quo to keep the Tajik government supporting NATO.

Moves by the NATO alliance to disrupt Afghanistan’s drug trade has been slowed by objections from member nations that say their laws do not permit soldiers to carry out such operations and that this distracts from the real purpose of fighting terrorism. It seems that the global black market for opium will continue to do well in coming years.

Saadia Gardezi. Pakistan Policy Group 2012. 

Cartoonist, Writer, and everything thing else. And a penguin.

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