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Documenting Pakistan’s Cultural Evolution

Mamun M. Adil reviews Faith, State, and the Soul: A History of Popular Culture in Pakistan and speaks to its author, Nadeem Farooq Paracha
Updated 17 Jan, 2024 01:53pm

Faith, State, and the Soul: A History of Popular Culture in Pakistan juxtaposes Pakistan’s 75-year history with pop culture and its development. However, contrary to my assumptions based on the cover (remember what they say about not doing so?), it is not a cursory look or solely a visual examination of pop culture. Instead, although it comes in a coffee table format, it is an in-depth view of how pop culture has evolved due to several factors, but primarily the politics of the country, and how various facets, be they cricket, music or television dramas, have been influenced. The book is equally dense in terms of text and illustrations and divided into six chapters, and requires an in-depth read to appreciate it rather than casually flipping through it.

Paracha traces the beginning of pop culture globally to the 19th century, and attributes it to people belonging to the “emerging middle classes.” As time went by “posters of Hindu mythological figures and Sufi saints… began to appear in shops and homes in cities such as Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi and Lahore.” These were mostly printed in Germany until printing took off in the Subcontinent. These posters were placed in “cheap eateries and shops” a tradition that one could argue continues to this day, albeit in smaller doses.

Another age-old tradition was the Sufi music experienced at several shrines across the Subcontinent, although this did not elicit much interest from urbanites until American jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie visited Pakistan “and was photographed playing his saxophone with a traditional pungi playing snake charmer in a public park in Karachi.” Over the decades, it led to Sufi Rock and continues to be an important facet of Coke Studio.

Pakistani films were initially unable to compete with their Indian counterparts but grew rapidly so that by the seventies, the country’s film industry was the fourth largest in the world, a state of affairs that is far from the case today, despite various attempts at revival. TV, however, which took off in the sixties, managed to grow despite Zia’s rule (although there was a surge in religious programming); it was a time when shows like Waris (which centred feudalism) as well as women-centric dramas such as Ankahi and Tanhaiyan were aired. This period also witnessed the emergence of pop culture icons such as Mohammad Ali Shehki, Alamgir, and Nazia and Zoheb Hassan, although they faced several restrictions. The eighties also marked the ascent of cricket, solidifying its place as the most beloved sport in the country. These factors made the chapter on Zia’s regime among the most interesting to read.

In contrast, the later period of Pakistan’s history, spanning from 1988 to 2022, is not as enlightening. This, of course, may be due to the fact that many of us have lived through this time, although according to Paracha, the sixties and eighties were more interesting, especially as in the case of the eighties, popular culture grew as “a reaction to Zia’s reactionary policies.”

After Zia’s death, despite the fact that his worldview kept rearing its head well into Imran Khan’s tenure as prime minister, pop culture did indeed grow, although at a slower rate, with icons such as Malala Yousafzai, ‘FM Mullah’ Fazlullah and General Raheel Sharif surfacing. This deceleration could be attributed, as Paracha concludes, to a splintering of pop culture in the early noughties and beyond.

The subject matter of the book is engaging and the well-researched and compelling narrative complements it, even if the last chapter seems a tad compressed. The eye-catching illustrations enrich the narrative, although they could have benefited from informative captions, especially for readers who may not be familiar with the subject matter.

Ultimately, Paracha’s detailed exploration of popular culture in Pakistan showcases the relationship between politics and creative forms of expression and reminds us that popular culture is not just entertainment; it is a reflection of how societies evolve as a result of their surroundings.

MAMUN M. ADIL: What is your definition of pop culture?

NADEEM FAROOQ PARACHA: Popular culture is usually made up of art forms emerging from the people for the people. It is art stemming from below and is often populist in nature. What interests me is the way in which political and social currents influence the creation of popular culture products. This is what my book is about.

MMA: What challenges did you encounter while writing the book?

NFP: The biggest was that studies on art forms, such as popular cinema, qawwali and naats are scarce in Pakistan. Ironically, I found more material in the US than I did here. In 2018, I was accepted as a research scholar by a well-known academic institution in Washington DC and, as a result, I was able to gain access to a few remarkable sources. I spent months going through the research and studies available on popular art forms in Pakistan. It took a good 20 years for me to gather enough material for the book.

MMA: From an advertising standpoint, do you think Pakistan has enough pop culture icons that brands can successfully deploy in their communications?

NFP: I am often frustrated by the fact that brands and ad agencies just stick to a handful of faces and voices. They go for outright glamour and safe bets. Advertising plays a huge role in creating popular culture icons. For example, it was a washing powder brand that first introduced Babra Sharif. Imagine a brand or ad agency using the guy who composed the People’s Party song, Dila Teer Vija. He was from Lyari and he spearheaded a now forgotten Lyari music scene in the eighties. These days, brands chase after so-called influencers in the belief that they are connecting with young Pakistanis. But this is such BS because there is no art involved. It is creative laziness. The excuse that there are not enough popular cultural icons in Pakistan is nonsense. I say, create the icons instead of demeaning or mocking these icons just because they don’t come from the classes you do. Have some vision. Walk the streets if you want to discover popular culture and shape icons from it.

MMA: The Zia regime was a time when the arts suffered, yet it was then that dramas such as Ankahi and Tanhaiyan were released and featured strong female characters (who wore saris which were not looked at favourably). What do you attribute this to?

NFP: A lot of popular culture products were emerging as a reaction to his reactionary policies. Take Maula Jatt for instance, which was banned on numerous occasions and ruthlessly censored. But whereas Maula Jatt was shaped by a lower-middle-class Punjabi and plotted around rugged rural Punjabi ethos and myths, Ankahi and Tanhaiyan were lightweight rom-coms. They existed in a bubble and were designed as urban middle-class fantasies. The so-called strong female characters were Hasina Moin’s trademark heroines which were also present in her rom-coms of the seventies. Her female heroines were funny, lovable yet clumsy, silly and often stupid until they were sobered by a conventional romantic relationship and, ultimately, marriage. And by the way, in the eighties, none of them were allowed to wear saris. In fact, PTV openly discouraged women from appearing in saris.

MMA: Name five popular Pakistani pop culture icons.

NFP: The late comedian and actor Umer Sharif; the late qawwals Aziz Mian and the Sabri Brothers; film star Waheed Murad; actress Anjuman; singers Noor Jehan and Nazia Hassan. The list is long and these are people whose appeal cuts across classes. On many occasions, their art emerged from below before being accepted above.

MMA: Who do you think will – and should – read your book?

NFP: Anyone interested in knowing how social and political trends play a prominent role in shaping popular culture products. The book can also come in handy for strategists, marketers and creatives working for or on brands but can’t turn their minds away from Indian examples. What they are looking for is right underneath their noses.

Faith, State, and the Soul: A History of Popular Culture in Pakistan
By Nadeem Farooq Paracha
Published by Markings
202 pp; Rs 12,000
ISBN: 9789697120666