Art for our sake
LAST month, I managed to shake off my all-consuming lethargy for long enough to go see a concert at the FTC in Karachi. I did it because the proceeds were going to a good cause, and having promoted the cause itself by word of mouth, I would feel like a hypocrite if I didn’t show up.
The performance was by a young man named Usman Riaz. A student at Berklee College of Music in the US, this 23-year-old Pakistani put on quite a show.
For about an hour and a half, he delighted the audience by, among other things, playing the guitar.
While a nation may be born in blood, at its beating heart lies art.
When I say he played the guitar I mean this literally; not only did he strum the strings, as one would expect, but he also tapped it like a tabla and drummed it like a dhol, all the while playing out an accompanying beat with his feet and (dexterity allowing) snapping his fingers. He played his whole body, not just a single instrument.
This was equally mesmerising and terrifying, inducing both a rapture that only a world-class performance can bring on and also creating a great deal of existential angst of the “and what have I done with my life?” variety.
When the show ended, I had the feeling that this man may, one day, be someone we could all be proud of much like we are proud of Nusrat Fateh Khan and Abida Parveen. Along with that came the thought that this was fun, I really must do this more often.
This was immediately followed by: why don’t I do this more often?
You may find the answers familiar: There’s not enough time, there’s too much work, the ticket is too expensive, who can be bothered to get ready and go out? Where does one go anyway?
These excuses are all pretty lame. Regardless of where in Pakistan you live, there are plenty of such activities — loosely lumped under the ‘cultural’ label — which one can partake of. There are arts councils, theatres and festivals and a little searching (even if it’s just online) will easily point you in the right direction. It won’t cost you much either, maybe the same amount as a night at a restaurant and the memory will last longer than the meal ever will. All it takes is to make the effort to slow down and look around.
You see a lot when you do that. For example, how many Karachi residents notice the odd and colourful graffiti that sometimes pops up? The chalk outline of a body made out of a Faiz couplet? It was right there in Khadda market and other places, maybe obscured by a garbage dump over which your eyes quite naturally glided, missing the diamond hidden among the dross.
There are gems hidden in all our cities and towns, sometimes in the unlikeliest places.
Be warned though that not all of it will be good; some of the performances you see, or art exhibits you visit will be gut-wrenchingly awful, exercises in pretension and poor taste. And that’s fine. As a wise man said, “You can’t win them all.” Returning to the restaurant metaphor, the distaste will not last as long as a bout of food poisoning after a bad meal might.
Here’s a little disclaimer though: listening someone sing or deliver lines on stage will not defeat the Taliban any more than attending a literature festival will curtail sectarianism.
Mass murderers won’t be put behind bars because you looked at (or painted) some fantastic artwork on a wall.
What all this will do, however, is provide some much needed balm for your soul. To ears torn by a cacophony of breaking news and blaring horns there may be a momentary respite. And perhaps along with the guitar strings some chords in your heart, long dried out from disuse, will also be strummed.
Because ultimately, while a nation may be born in blood and defended through bayonets, at its beating heart lies art.
Think back on our shared history, our collective consciousness, and you will find that much of it revolves around common couplets, songs that we have all been defined by, to the tunes of which we all have tapped our feet. For instance, regardless of differences of class or caste, all those belonging to a certain generation will smile at a 50-50 reference, or grow wistful when remembering how the streets were empty when Tanhaiyaan would air.
That shared history is being written as we speak, all around us, and we need to be a part of it simply by being there and witnessing it.
Don’t do it just because you feel you’re striking a blow for freedom, don’t do it just because the government won’t or can’t. Do it because it’s fun, and because you owe it to yourself.