Identity in a time of trauma

From the moment I entered the exhibit called “Shanaakht” until the time I left, I was riveted. This exhibition began earlier in the year but was terminated in April, given the terrible times we live in. But the human spirit bounces back and so did the exhibition. The Citizens Archive of Pakistan, aided by volunteers, produced a new version of the exhibit. Showing at Karachi’s Imperial Gardens and Clifton Crossways, the exhibition spanned three days in mid-November and showcased Pakistani art and culture. Parvaz was a collection of photographs documenting the life of the Pakistan Air Force from the 1940s and 1950s; Sunehray Sapnay explored the Golden Age of Pakistani cinema in the 1960s, Forgotten Paradise was a collection of photographs of pre-partition Kashmir. All these shows together gave viewers a picture of a forgotten time and a seemingly impossible place. Was this unrecognizable era really a forerunner of modern Pakistan?

There was a fabulous tribute to Syed Hashim Raza, the nation’s first civil servant, along with remarkable portraits by the photographer Amean Jan honouring the resilience and the colours of the people of Karachi. The festival entertained audiences of every class and even had a children’s imagination station. From art lovers, to writers, to history buffs, to children, the festival catered to everyone.

Fehmida Riaz
Children participating in the event
Taimur Rahman of the musical band, Laal
Faryal Gohar

“Shanaakht”, meaning identity, is timely because many of us are asking questions about who we are, what our character is, where do we go from here – endless and painful introspection. This is a point in time where the past seems to consist of episodes of blunders building up to the chaos we face today. Despite the circumstances, it is remarkable and praiseworthy that the festival managed to motivate people to participate, and enter into discussion.

Amongst other daily exhibitions were Mauj Collective, interactive art activities with short films and digital games, Shehr-e-Karachi, and Maimaaran-e-Pakistan ki Ankhon Se, a visual look at Karachi from the eyes of an architect celebrating the fine architecture spread through the metropolitan city. The first day began with ‘Chalti ka naam gaari’, an exhibition of vintage cars, a tribute to the classics of the past. Avid writers recalled their experience of pre-partition times, making the audience relive the struggle and rejoice in an undimmed spirit of nationalism. ‘Meri kahani meri zabani’ rekindled patriotism that has taken a back seat in our minds. The experiences narrated by Anita Ghulam Ali, Mirza Jamil, Sami Khan, Sameen Khan, IH Burney and Dr SM Rab compelled the audience to examine the realities of the Partition and the ideology that went into the making of Pakistan. Then there was the charismatic Sheema Kirmani with the play ‘Rang badal lo bhai’, a Tehreek-e-Niswan production. The first day ended with a screening of the classic film Sassi (1956) starring the legendary Noor Jehan.

Chand Sitaray Talay, on the second day, was an event like no other. It was hosted by Faryal Gohar – a woman whose has worn many hats, with writers like Muhammad Hanif to Haseena Moin and Fehmida Riaz participating. The evening was filled with surreal moments of joy, and an expression of how we have relinquished our identity in these maddening times. Each of the writers was asked to read from their favourite authors.

Muhammad Hanif, author of ‘A case of exploding mangoes’ had the audience roaring with laughter with his satirical comments and readings from ‘Zameer ki adalat’, a book that recounts Jam Saqi’s trial by the army. Hanif also read from the works of Najm Hussain Syed, ‘Lahore shehar da wasi’. Ilona Yusuf, a Polish poet raised in Lahore and currently residing in Islamabad, shared her love affair with writing and the motivation that compelled her to pick up her pen again and again. She then read a plethora of snippets from various writers, from Iftikhar Arif to Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Yeh daagh daagh ujala’, which had the audience mesmerised by her eloquence, despite her claims of not being well-versed in Urdu. Musharraf Ali Farooqi recalled his experience of translating ‘Dastan-e-Ameer Hamza’. The audience also heard Afzal M Syed’s poem ‘Buner Street’, a poem that recalled the horrific incident of the beheading of a woman artist in Swat. To lighten the grim atmosphere Haseena Moin talked about her inspiration in life, the legendary writer Quratulain Haider, reading bits from her ‘Gardish-e-rang-e-chaman’.

The last guest of the evening was Fehmida Riaz, one of Pakistan’s legendary writers, whose name needs no introduction. Fehmida recalled her life in exile, her struggle and her resistance against the establishment. A journey down history lane paid tribute to Pakistan’s legendary writers, Manto, Jalib and Faiz. Fehmida Riaz laid emphasis on the need for highlighting the role of writers throughout history. Their resistance will be an inspiration to the youth of today, she said, as we fight against adverse circumstances. Fehmida also recalled her experience of translating Jalaluddin Rumi. This was a time when people were not judged on the basis of religion, when humanity wasn’t bound by sectarian allegiances and when frank intellectual discussion wasn’t equated with blasphemy. This was a stimulating discussion that involved all the listeners. The message seemed to have got through loud and clear when someone from the audience read Baba Bulleh Shah’s ‘Aik alif’. That night we went home with our minds filled with stories of struggles against the dense and dangerous establishment that still rules the roost in Pakistan. We were filled with admiration for those who stood against all odds and fought for justice. For men like Manto who wrote “Toba Tek Singh” in a mental asylum, for Jalib who declaimed his poems publicly against dictators and suffered for it.

It’s worth a mention that the fear of terrorism and disruption did not prevent people from flocking to this invigorating exhibition. There was a sort of defiance in the air – it was as if by showing up people were saying we will resist the demons

of violence and madness. We will not let narrow-minded dictators decide for us who we are and how we should be living. “Shanaakht” was a step forward in rehabilitating our culture and regaining our identity, which has been marred and manipulated by the military and its acolytes for decades. We need to embrace diversity and not try and enforce uniformity, and we must embrace our multiple identities, not striving for a singular one that brings in its wake violence and bigotry.

“Shaanaakht” took us back in time to a different era, a time when the military had not yet consolidated its power in Pakistan. It is a time we must hang on to, rejoice in, remember and strive for again. The festival included a breathtaking performance by the band Laal, with exceptional compositions based on the works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib. The festival ended with a Raag and Roll Music Jam session featuring Noori, Fuzon, Aunty Disco Project, Taal Karisma and Laal, followed by the screening of Armaan (1966) featuring the dreamboat, “chocolate hero” Waheed Murad.

As Published in THE FRIDAY TIMES


4 thoughts on “Identity in a time of trauma

  1. Thank you for posting this! The people of Pakistan have never forgotten their ‘Shanakht’ but their glorious past has got blurred in their minds.

    This kind of festival and people’s participation in it showed that the revival of being proud on their identity has begun which will ultimately create a sense of responsibility to own their nation.

  2. what a fantastic account it is i felt like enjoying the whole event by my self, while reading to this.
    two thumbs up to u for such a nice post.
    well such events are a true need when almost every one is either in search of his identity or is annoyed on its identity. the true soul of identity must be created among the nation and such events can play a vital role in this regard

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