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Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade

Published in Nov-Dec 2019

Zohra Yusuf on Pakistan’s most ebullient cultural decade.
Photo" Whitestar
Photo" Whitestar

The seventies were Pakistan’s swinging sixties. In the midst of political promises of building a new and better Pakistan (after the loss of half the country), a great deal of creative energy was being unleashed – in the arts, in the theatre and in the media.

However, it is an enigma as to how a decade that was traumatic for Pakistan in many ways saw such an explosion of cultural expressions. This curious aspect has been touched upon by Niilofur Farrukh in her introduction to Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade – A Memory That Cannot Find Rest. The decade witnessed the break-up of the country in December 1971, martial law in 1977 and the execution of a prime minister in 1979 – along with the proclamation of ordinances that discriminated against women and made them more vulnerable. Yet, there is hardly any field of culture and the arts where experiments and excellence were not present. Farrukh’s evocative piece attributes this phenomenon to the sense of optimism that (rightly or wrongly) many experienced after the coming into power of the government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto that adopted liberal policies towards the arts and culture.

Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade is a by-product of the marvellous exhibition on the same theme jointly curated by Niilofur Farrukh, Amin Gulgee and John McCarry in 2016, in which over 40 artists, with expertise in different mediums, participated. The three curators have jointly edited this compilation. The publication also documents the exhibition by reproducing the works of art displayed, adding an attractive and useful context to the articles that follow. The overwhelming feeling the book evokes – as did the exhibition – is one of nostalgia. Those visiting the exhibition and now going through the book would, depending on their age, inevitably recall the eventful decade – through rose-tinted glasses or not.

The scope of Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade is ambitious and as is the case where there are multiple writers, the quality of the contribution varies. However, it is a stupendous undertaking which the co-editors have completed quite creditably. By and large, there has been a fairly appropriate selection of contributors. Salima Hashmi, for one. She is an artist, a curator, a writer on art as well as a teacher. She is equally well-known for her work in theatre and in PTV in the seventies. In The Seventies – Tracing the Dreams, Hashmi begins by lamenting the loss of artists from East Pakistan who exercised a tremendous influence in the development of art in both parts of the country but were severed from us as a consequence of the civil war.

They include Zainul Abedin, Qayyum Chowdhury, Qamrul Hasan and Kibria among others. However, Shakir Ali, teaching at the National College of Arts, soon emerged as an inspiration for many young artists making their mark in the seventies. Among them were Zahoorul Akhlaque, Bashir Mirza, Jamil Naqsh and sculptor Shahid Sajjad. The chapter also covers the significant women artists of the decade, some of whom were just beginning to get recognition.

It may surprise many younger readers to know that PTV was the primary mass portrayer and broadcaster of culture in the seventies. Within the few hours of transmission it could manage in the initial years, PTV broadcast programmes as varied as dramas, satire, music (pop, folk and classical) and dance. While all news broadcasts remained government-dictated, considerable freedom was given to cultural and critical expressions. Government ministers and bureaucrats could be lampooned and significant issues, such as women’s rights, were addressed through plays. PTV’s Khabarnama became a chronicler of the changing times, spouting the words of whoever happened to be in power with incredible zeal. In fact, among the fascinating displays at the exhibition Radioactive Decade was a spool of clips from Khabarnama, including one of General Ziaul Haq declaring martial law on July 5, 1977. Although three writers have contributed to this section, a larger overview is lacking, since out of the three articles, two are interviews (which is the format of the publication).

Theatre in the seventies was not exactly thriving in Pakistan due to the introduction of television but should have received better attention. Karachi’s Theatrical World by Sibtain Naqvi, while thorough in covering the history of theatre in the city, says little about the seventies. However, that caveat apart, the chapter brings into focus the contribution of Karachi’s diverse communities in the promotion of theatre. Gujarati language theatre was tremendously popular at one time and the Parsees played a major role in keeping the tradition alive. The interview with the late Madiha Gauhar shows her political awareness from a young age and a rare commitment that led to the founding of Ajoka, Lahore’s highly respected theatre group.

As far as cinema is concerned, the seventies were The Best of Times, the Worst of Times to borrow the title of the chapter by Khusro Mumtaz. As with other fields of art, cinema, too, suffered as a result of the country’s break-up – losing access to talent as well as a market. However, Mumtaz points to the resilience of Pakistan’s cinema industry that, in the face of setbacks, managed to release 115 films in 1974 – the highest number being in Punjabi, followed by Urdu and other regional languages. This was a decade when Pakistan’s filmmakers were also experimenting with bolder themes. Actor Kamal teamed up with Rangeela to produce a political and social satire, Insaan Aur Gadha, and its box office hit indicated that audiences were ready for stories far removed from the Lollywood formula.

While it is extremely comprehensive in covering all that could be brought together in a single volume, I found Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade to be rather Karachi-centric. Lahore, the country’s other centre of culture (and perhaps richer in its history and heritage) does not quite receive the attention it deserves. In the field of journalism, for example, Lahore was perhaps more vibrant than Karachi. I was, however, pleased to see an editorial by I.H. Burney from Outlook reproduced. Hameed Haroon’s A Decade of Polarization succinctly sums up the decade that was, bookending it with the sixties that preceded it and the eighties lurking in the shadow. All in all, a commendable effort which could have done well with better research and planning.

Zohra Yusuf is Chief Creative Officer, Spectrum VMLY&R.

Pakistan’s Radioactive Decade: An Informal Cultural History of the 1970s
Edited by Niilofur Farrukh, Amin Gulgee and John McCarry
Oxford University Press, Karachi
448pp; Rs 3,500
ISBN: 978-0199405695