View from US: A civilisation not to be trifled
Two events trigger this column. One is a visit to New York Metropolitan Museum that puts out a banner in red announcing the ‘Wonder of the Age: master painters of India 1100 -1900’, identifying Indian painters. The second is a personal lamentation after the visit. A loss of inheritance. I look with envy, parents of Indian origin proudly and patiently, explain to their American-born kids the Indian exhibit at the museum. Animation, energy and ethnic pride sucks up the air in the room.
A hundred years from now, I wonder what art will the Met exhibit from Pakistan. As I move in sullen silence with the throng viewing Indian miniature paintings, whose artists are mostly Muslims of the Mughal era, seething anger stirs within me. Ziaul Haq comes to mind. The man who forcibly made us forget our past, consciously replacing it with Kufic calligraphy. The beautiful images of art, culture and heritage of our ancestors were forever shunned. In Pakistan today, on display around homes, shops and public places is mass religiosity.
But soon I cheer up. Art in whatever form, shape, age and century can never die, I assure myself. It will always live, no matter if pillaged, ransacked, looted or ignored by zany extremists or timid governments. My mind plays tricks. From a happy state of hope and celebration, it relapses back to dark despair. Physically I am in New York but my thoughts are grounded thousands of miles away. While we may still have the Lahore, Peshawar, Taxila and Karachi museums, Lok Virsa and Islamabad’s PNCA and National Art Gallery, these institutions are dens of babudom. They lack the oomph, the mojo, the dynamism that is a sign of living, vibrant and progressive societies.
Yahoos, philistines, boors, savages… I’ve run out of adjectives to describe the people who since Pakistan’s birth have vacuumed out our legacy and filled it up with hate, prejudice and intolerance, indoctrinating the people that anything pre-Zia is un-Islamic. Unlike America, our roots go back to the times when Alexandar came to our region. The stupa on the GT Road from Lahore to Rawalpindi stands solitary as Bucephalus’ final resting place. Bucephalus was Alexandar’s horse. So moved was his master that he named the place after his horse which many think is Jhelum today. I have a distinct memory of the dilapidated stupa rising against a hazy horizon among green fields while motoring on GT Road as a kid.
How many of you have been to the Peshawar Museum lately? Not me. But when I did visit two decades ago, I could not absorb the arc of history displayed by Gandhara sculptures excavated from well-documented sites like Shahji ki Dheri, Sahri Bahlol, Takht-i-Bahi and Jamal Garhi by British scholars in the 1930s. Later when I visited some of the actual Buddhist sites, all I wanted was to own an original Gandhara piece to keep up with the Joneses, so to say. Believe it or not original pieces were openly sold by the keepers of the place for a paltry sum. If you remember, owning a Buddha head or a Gandhara frieze was like winning the lottery – people, including yours truly, had them mounted and displayed as trophies in their drawing rooms.
This was the 60s and 70s when I lived in a place called Akora Khattak, home to the famous Darul Uloom Haqqania. The madressah named after the Haqqani tribe is considered the Harvard of Taliban and boasts among its alumni Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, the current commander, Siraj. Mullah Omar is also a graduate of this seminary.
In the mid-‘60s, I would drive down the tiny bazaar for my grocery shopping or to visit my tailor. Women didn’t even wear dupattas then, leave alone cover their heads. During my five years there, danger of the unknown never crossed my mind. I roamed free and fearless. Never in my wildest dream did I imagine that these very same clerics, benignly innocuous, would turn into a dreaded proper noun – the Taliban. That they would take over our culture and heritage, destroying at will – human or lifeless – that they consider repugnant to Islam. How within a span of 40 years Pakistan has undergone a sea change.
And yet our educated elite own all the modern gizmos that money can buy. They have the latest version of Blackberry and Apple. All are masters of social media and consume it 24/7. And who exactly heralded the wave of innovation – one man called Steve Jobs. Why did the 20-something Jobs spend seven months in India looking for Zen, when he could have come to Pakistan, the mother of Gandhara civilisation? He could have spent his time among the ruins of ancient Buddhist monastery at Jaulian or roamed around the ruins of Takht-i-Bahi, or gone to that lovely British relic, the Taxila Museum with sloping roofs tiled in green lined with tall graceful Cyprus trees.
Some decades back I interviewed the historian and archaeologist Ahmad Hassan Dani. He talked without a pause of artefacts, millions of years old, buried in our backyards around Islamabad. He discovered a pre-historic human footprint imprinted in sandstone near the Margalla hills. It was Dani and his German colleagues who discovered rock carvings from the Karakorams dating back 40,000 years. Today, they are in danger of drowning when the Diamer Bhasha Dam comes up.
Will no one save them? Ask the Metropolitan philanthropists for help who have donated money towards the just-opened gallery of Islamic art from the Middle East to South Asia at the Met. I know of some wealthy American New Yorkers who have been to it and returned raving. Today these same art-lovers can hop on a 13-hour flight to Pakistan and can see millennium delights from Peshawar to Karachi, with a stop-over at the rock carvings, all with a naked eye.