When sometime in the early 90s, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan teamed up with Peter Gabriel to create the kind of music never heard before, qawali aficionados accused him of selling out and distorting a traditional form of devotional music. More recently, the proliferation of private television channels and access to foreign programmes on cable, both operating in a fairly free and unregulated media environment, has intensified once again the debate about ‘Pakistani culture’. Fears are frequently expressed about the corruption of our historic and authentic culture. Some, in fact, mourn the death of culture at the hands of invaders from across the border, or even beyond – from the western world. Conspiracy theorists, of course, see the influence as a premeditated attack on the pristine Pakistani culture.
Those deeming it their duty to defend and protect Pakistani culture fail to realise that culture cannot be static, trapped in some romantic notion of a glorious past. The ‘purists’ whose intentions and concerns may be noble are, nevertheless, fighting a losing battle. From art to music, from architecture to literature, the world is witnessing a fusion of cultures. And while some music bands may experiment with the idea of ‘fusion’, the process is not always deliberate. In most cases, it is a fait accompli of history. The influences and intermingling of cultures is just getting swifter as the world is getting smaller.
There are also frequent complaints of the lack of an official cultural policy. While some governments in the past did make attempts to lay down certain principles of policy, the futility of this exercise in an era of culture without borders is pretty clear. This does not, however, absolve the government of supporting cultural activities and, above all, ensuring an environment that promotes creativity.
It also has the responsibility of promoting the forms of art considered ‘classic’ that may not find support in a fast-paced world. However, people strive for individual creative freedom and the idea of being put into some form of a cultural straitjacket is surely not appealing. Official definitions of culture have the inherent danger of pandering to chauvinistic tendencies.
Pakistan is a relatively young country on the map of the world, although its cultural history dates back to over 5,000 years ago, to the Indus Valley civilisation.
The region absorbed the thoughts and cultures of many travellers in transit – whether they were the invading Greeks and Mughals or the peaceful Buddhist rulers and monks.
To expect the country to have anything that may be termed ‘Pakistani’ culture is non-sequitur. Moreover, the fact that the country is enriched with a mind boggling array of subcultures that differ – and mingle – from region to region is not appreciated by those who would like to see a monolithic form of Pakistani culture.
Our culture today is hybrid and enriched by cross pollination.
The experiments in creativity that we see around us in this country today should make us proud. Whether it is painting, music or literature, the young who have soaked in experiences of various cultures are boldly experimenting with both form and substance.
In each of these areas, they are successfully redefining Pakistani culture and earning for the country a place on the world stage. They have demonstrated that culture is something vibrant, full of vitality and in a state of perpetual evolution.
Although today the world is more aware of the mistakes of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Mao did make one inspiring statement when he exhorted the Chinese nation to “let a thousand flowers bloom”.
Zohra Yusuf is Creative Director, Spectrum Y&R.