Tag Archives: propaganda

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?)

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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.

Poli-tickle theory

If I had a nickel for every time I told someone that I have a degree in political economy and was met by the response, “Oh, maybe you can fix Pakistan’s politics and economy!”… I probably could fix everything. Truth be told, Pakistan’s politics and economy baffle me. The tangled web of bureaucracy, MPA’s, local politics, corruption, Shahbaz Sharif’s edicts, the suo moto’s sitting in the courts, the pear-shaped police, Altaf Hussain’s rambles… my reaction is to place my fingers on my forehead and stare at my palms. And then Shoaib Akhtar and Shahid Afridi keep scratching and chewing cricket balls.

Though I might be dazed by Pakistan’s politics, the good thing is that everyone else is not. Everybody has a theory, and is kind enough to share it, and keeps sharing it.

It is good that I get to hear so much theoretical analysis of Pakistani politics. As luck would have it, I teach politics to wildly clueless third year students, who most of the time cannot tell their political left from right. They regularly ask me to revise my Weber and Waltz… they’ve absolutely got it wrong, all wrong. And truth be told, which of our current news pundits and analysts have ever tried to apply political theory to the events of Pakistan? Their own theories are enough, who cares about Chomsky and Foucault. Foo-who? Never mind.

So there I was, in the faculty lounge, trying to make out the handwriting of one of my students, when I was interrupted by the new Chief-Administrative-Manager-Head (or some combination of these words).

“Who are you?” he inquired very politely, to which I replied I was a teacher. Hoping he would leave it at that and just assume I taught advanced econometric analysis, I went back to my big red crosses (with a side of student gibberish).

“What do you teach?” he inquired extremely politely, to which I sighed… “Politics.”

Achaaaannnn … then you can tell me what the problem is with Pakistan, ehhh?” I had shot myself in the foot again.

“I am really very busy sir, gotta check these quizzes, clock is ticking,” I responded curtly.

Achaaaannnnn … then we should talk about politics when you are free sometime. But if you have a minute, let me tell you what I think we should do.”

I put my pen down, and stared at him blankly. Nothing would stop him from blurting out THE THEORY. Might as well try to get this over with.

“So once a long time ago I was on a train to Karachi from Lahore. And we were talking about politics the way friends do. And believe you me, Believe. You. Me. We came up with the perfect solution.”

And then the build-up began.

“First, you have elections. Then you form a parliament from those who win. And then… you shoot everybody!”

The punch line was like a wet fish thrown in my face. He smiled, very pleased. I thought it was over, but it wasn’t…

“You see, some corrupt politicos who lost the last election will be left. Also the chamchas andchailas and brethren of those we shot will also be enraged and motivated to do something. Democracy after all is the best revenge. So then you have another election and form a parliament with them. And then…” oh dear, it was coming again, “You shoot everybody!”

Not over yet.

“Then… have another election! But let those people live; the first two shootings will have rid the system of corruption.”

He had just trampled all over that thin line between dull humour and insanity tossed with absolute seriousness. I nodded my head, “Excellent, ha ha, excellent… let’s continue this later,” and hid behind my quiz.

There are so many ideas like this floating around. From meta-theories that say that the US is the Dajjal , to the highly common, insensitive and mindless, “You know what God is punishing people in our north for, don’t you?!”

Another howler has been making the rounds very successfully, brought to my attention through a colleague at an Ivy League institution (and here I thought the best education in the world can cure silliness). Gather round and listen closely friends, the US has a secret weapon called HAARP. It has been using this to cause natural disasters. In fact Hugo Chavez has been quoted saying that the US testing of this ‘tectonic weapon’ led to the Haiti earthquake. The US also caused our 2005 earthquake, and now the floods. Time is nigh. A tsunami is coming. Believe you me.

HAARP, theHigh Frequency Active Auroral Research Programme is apparently an ionosphericresearch programme jointly funded by the US military and the University of Alaska. The purpose, allegedly, is to develop better technology for radio communications and surveillance purposes (such as missile detection) based on the testing of the ionosphere 85km above the earth’s surface as it influences radio waves and transmissions. But I’m no physicist.

You’ve heard them all before. 9/11 was a Zionist conspiracy. Faisal Shahzad’s botched plan was a Zionist conspiracy. The US is a Zionist conspiracy. And Altaf Bhai is an alien.

And rest assured, the Indian Cricket Board was behind the spot-fixing scandal. It was all RAW. We were framed. Believe you me.

Saadia Gardezi is not part of any ideological mafia, and is open to your theories. Do write and send your views to TFT.

The Friday Times, October 15-21, 2010, Vol. XXII, No. 35

Propaganda Sunday

Instead of preparing for a class on Monday, I am back to my prior obsession of staring at moldy yellow posters…

Oh yes, China is verily a paradise. I totally buy it (no sarcasm intended). I am dying to visit Beijing and see for myself why it’s becoming the new centre of the world.

Li Zhenhua, 1973- The brigade’s ducks

This is an example of a painting by a peasant from the rural Huxian district. The Huxian peasant painters are propagated in China as examples of the innate genius of the people. But in reality it is alleged that these amateur artists were helped by professionals  sent to the countryside to “learn from the peasants”, which is why this comes under the classification of “propaganda.”

Here’s another one of a family “enjoying” political slogans and speeches on the village PA system. Notice the shrine to Mao.

Huang Entao (still draws posters and comics), 1972

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

More  on propaganda art…

As opposed to more “inspiring” and nationalistic attempts at garnering support for the Soviet cause (like the one on the side about “A Mighty Sports Power”) this poster aims at being simple and therefore effective.

Other posters are usually in Russian but this one in English obviously aims at a more international audience. The Soviet Union wanted to promote a positive image of itself throughout the early 1970s against a backdrop of the Vietnam War and a highly volatile relationship with the USA.

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.