Tag Archives: art

The patriot’s pop

1378895_orig.jpgThe pop culture machinery has always been generating alternative viewpoints that the state has been unable to successfully repress, whether it was Junoon’s banned Ehtisab in the 90s or Beghairat Brigade’s Aloo Anday in 2011. Through the presence of mass acceptance and love for Junoon, Ali Azmat today has modeled himself as a spokesperson for a political youth. Similarly Ali Aftab Saeed of Aloo Anday fame has been writing about media and national politics in national newspapers and has quite a readership.

Power and national/community culture create a symbiotic relationship over time where they both reinforce the status quo. Pop culture is the only element of culture that can resist the status quo, especially in traditional conservative societies were views on religion, social relationship and political power are deeply entrenched. Most of our counters to the status quo come from pop culture.

Examples of resistance to the state narrative are abound. They include Laal, the band formed by two academics with a common interest in Marxist theory. Osman Khalid Butt in his YouTube commentaries constantly critiques dominant social norms. And then we have a massive corpus of Pakistani meme’s hosted on Facebook pages like The Sarrialist Movement and Sarcasmistan, providing us with a daily changing commentary on Pakistani life and culture with humour and wit to boot.

Indian culture and it’s influence in Pakistan cannot be understated… what with Veena Malik marketing herself as the nation’s Malika Sherawat (with added masala), and Amitabh Bachan being a household name. Our parents and grandparents grew up on Kishore Kumar’s music and Rajesh Khanaa’s acting. There is a long history of shared stardom with Muhammad Rafi, Nusrat Fateh Ali and Adnan Sami Khan.

This connection is sometimes lamented as the pollution of a Pakistani-Islamic culture with pagan Indian influence. In conservative discussions, the influence of Hinduism and India is ignored when it comes to our customs and traditions, but this concern is irrelevant to pop culture. It just isn’t something that can be nationally or ideologically controlled.

What it is, is a collection of actions and influences that creates something instantly recognisable. Nadeem and Waheed Murad would always have stiff competition from across the border. Much of our urban youth looked to Shahrukh Khan and Kajol for entertainment in the 90’s and Imran Khan and Katrina Kaif today, rather than Pakistani actors like Moammar Rana or Saima who seem to have graced the silver screen since time immemorial. The neighbourly influence is natural.

Cultures have regional and national characteristics, so for the subcontinent that has a shared history of centuries, it is natural that Pakistani would be part of the cultural influence of a much bigger and louder neighbour. A decade ago, Kyun Ke Saas Bhee Kabhi Bahu Thee had a monopoly over the hearts and minds of housewives everywhere. Only recently did shows like Humsafar take this territory back. But not completely. Within culture’s own struggle for identity, whether through an agenda, or for want to identify with something non-Indian and “Islamic”, the broadcasting and watching of Turkish soaps dubbed in Urdu has become a favourite national pastime.

Across the border, Prime Minster Modi has made Smriti Irani, aka Tulsi, the actress of Kyun-Ke-Saas-Bhee-Kabhi-Bahu-Thee fame, his Human Resource Minister— a move that would fit well in an Indian soap. The influence that popularity has on political power cannot be understated. There is no other way to explain why the actor Arnold Schwarzenegger could have such political success as to become the Governor of California. Or the mass appeal Imran Khan has and his success in Pakistani politics. His status as a national cricket icon has reaped him great dividends in his political ambition. What is familiar is easier to trust, and the nostalgia his cricketing days produce in our hearts and minds help us feel better about him as a leader.

There is huge support in political and cultural theory for popular culture as an untapped source for mass empowerment. Traditions from Gramsci (the Italian Marxist philosopher) see pop culture as a space of struggle between subordinated groups and the forces of ‘incorporation’ operating in the interests of dominant groups in society. Post-modern theory even goes so far as to reject the distinction between dominant or ‘high’ culture (fine art, architecture etc.) and pop culture, giving as much importance to the phenomenon of crass Punjabi films as one would to high brow films like Ramchand Pakistani.

The Nation,  July 9 2014.

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 ❤

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?)

Sita’s Story- Sita Sings The Blues

I recently wrote and article on a very interesting film called Sita Sings the Blues. The basic issues I have tackled are culture and culture sharing –Can revered old traditions be reinterpreted? The film is a modern retelling of the Hindu Ramayana and is also a free release. And can a culture become the exclusive right of a specific group? Sita Sings the Blues is a quirky new film retells one of India’s best-loved epics and raises some serious questions.

The discussion in the comments is however highly polarised. Read more here.

After you have read the article, and if your curiosity is sufficiently piqued, you can watch the film here. Or download it. 

Free Burma Now- Propaganda Sunday (but its Wednesday, I know)

You can probably see that the artist is Shepard Fairey of the Obama “HOPE” poster fame. It refers to the struggle against a military regime for the freedom for political change and freedom from imprisonment of many of the would-be elected political leaders including Aung San Suu Kyi (a Nobel Peace laureate). Though multiparty elections were held in 1990, the military regime ignored how Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, won with an overwhelming majority. The military has been in control since 1962.

I suppose this is the ‘good propaganda’ poster… if one can call it that. Fairey’s work is always beautiful and politically and socially charged and has entered into the canon  of pop culture and internet memes.

Get a grip, Rabbit!

Published in the Friday Times, July 9th issue

Good advice for hard times…

The words on the back of rickshaws are magical, in Punjabi they sound ribald, but once translated into Urdu or English, they instantly attain a deeper gravity. For instance, “Ajj aggay waikh, pichaay na waikh” (don’t look back, look ahead today) and when times get hard, “Lag gai te Rozi, na lagi te Roza”, (If I make money, I’ll feast, if not I’ll fast).

The point is not to sugarcoat adversity, but be sane and simple about it. On the desi front, the best advice on offer does not come from my great grandmother, from a legendary poet, or from a charismatic leader of yore, but from the rickshaw driver. He is a cultural phenomenon in his own right and wants to tell you, “Hosh Ker Kherghosh” (Get a grip, Rabbit!).

On the issue of no-nonsense common sense, the British take the cake. The British are excellent at mincing their words (stiff upper lip and all that) with an inability to match the touch-feely, self-help, motivational sloganeering of America. Thus when Brits find themselves in a tight spot, like the occasional World War, they resort to more restrained and formal modes of address as in
Winston Churchill stoutly saying;“I am an optimist. It doesn’t seem much use being anything else.”

In 1939 on the eve of war, the British government’s Ministry of Information produced three posters, with simple reassuring instructions on how to conduct life during war time. They each said blatantly “Your Freedom is in Peril”; reassuringly “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution, Will Bring Us Victory”; and nonchalantly “Keep Calm and Carry On”; all topped with the comforting seal of King George VI’s crown.

The last poster entered popular culture with the BBC calling it the greatest motivational poster of all time. The two and a half million posters with the “Keep Calm and Carry On” message would only have seen the light of day if Germany had invaded Britain. As it was, the need never arose and they were pulped, much to the delight of the Ministry of Information, except that a box went missing and was discovered in 2008 in a house in Northumbria. The discoverers, Mr and Mrs Manley, put the poster up in their bookshop and it became a national treasure. Continue reading Get a grip, Rabbit!

Propaganda Sunday

Long being in love with the artwork of vintage propaganda posters, I wrote and article on them for the Friday Times. But here’s an interesting one from America.

US WW2 Poster
Artist: Glenn Grothe
Year: 1942
The poster was a part of the “Loose lips may sink ships” campaign, reflecting the paranoia of the Americans that German spies could be among them. People were encouraged to not talk to strangers, and keep to themselves in crowds. The person watching in the picture wears a German soldier’s helmet. German spies were put ashore along parts of Florida’s east coast and northern states coastlines to infiltrate US businesses and military. There are numerous papers on the sighting of German U-boats just off US coastlines from Florida to Maine during WW2. US Merchant Marines engaged a number of these subs just off American shores even sinking some.