My only sin was my profession, for which the previous rulers made my life miserable,” says Gulzar Alam, the heartthrob of scores of Pashto music lovers. In 2003, the 53-year-old vocalist, while performing at a wedding ceremony in Peshawar, was beaten up and detained by the police. At the time, security personnel were instigated by a ‘drive against obscenity’ campaign being waged by the MMA, the Islamic political coalition Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which had been in power in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) since 2002.
Soon after he was released from detention, Alam began to receive anonymous letters warning him of dire consequences if he did not quit singing in public. He heeded the advice, and for a while switched over to selling property in the outskirts of Peshawar. Eventually, he fled the province entirely, and landed up in Karachi. But Alam’s fortunes have changed in recent months. With the MMA’s ouster during the elections in February, he has now returned to Peshawar and resumed his public singing.
Alam’s experience has been similar to that of many performers in the NWFP over the past several years. Between November 2002 and February 2008, performers of all hues faced threats from extremists and state security forces alike in the province. The years that the pro-Taliban MMA spent in power saw growing Talibanisation throughout the province, and one of the most public crackdowns was on shops selling music and movies. According to MMA diktat, these were ‘un-Islamic’, and shops that continued to sell these items were bombed.
This was only part of a broader attack on what was perceived as ‘immoral’ culture in general. Music was banned on public transport, for instance, as well as coffee shops, restaurants and other public places. Throughout the NWFP, MMA-ordered burnings of CDs and cassettes became common public spectacles. Baton-armed seminary students, who considered unveiled women ‘depraved’, forcefully removed mannequins from boutiques in Peshawar markets, and blackened the faces of male and female models on roadside billboard advertisements. Amidst all this, suicide attacks against both civilians and the military created an air of increased insecurity.
Given this vitiated atmosphere, many singers in the NWFP decided, as did Gulzar Alam, to swap their art for other jobs as taxi drivers, hotel staff or even manual labourers. Also like Alam, others left the province entirely, choosing to build lives in Punjab or across the border in Kabul in order to continue their profession. In particular, the province saw the exodus of long-beloved female singers, including Mashooq Sultan, Mah Jabeen Qazalbash, Zar Sanga, Naghma and Nazia Iqbal.
Says Gulzar Alam, “I remained in Karachi for three years, along with my family. I was driving a taxi in the city, in order to be able to put food on my family’s table.” Having now returned to Peshawar, he plans to open an academy for singers and musicians, which he hopes the new provincial government will “encourage”. But what is most important for Gulzar Alam is to perform ghazals, again, at Peshawar’s famed Nishtar Hall.
Although Peshawar was not the only area of the NWFP targeted during the MMA cultural crackdown, it was the hardest hit. This is undoubtedly due to the city’s longtime position as an entrepot – in terms of politics, trade and culture – for the surrounding area. Much of this was long symbolised by Nishtar Hall, Peshawar’s sole large entertainment venue, capable of fitting around 600 people. The hall itself was established in 1985, and named after the well-known freedom fighter Sardar Abdul Rab Nishtar. Almost immediately after the MMA took over, Nishtar Hall was shut down, after a purportedly ‘indecent’ performance.
Though Nishtar Hall remained boarded up throughout the MMA rule, Alam and other artists sought other ways to reach their fans. During their exile of recent years, those who used to perform songs and dances at Nishtar Hall have been recording CDs and DVDs, and illicitly flooding Peshawar markets with dramas, stage shows and music programmes. And people back home snatched them up, braving the ban on music CDs. For his part, Alam, who has some 750 albums under his belt, also decided to take political matters into his own hands. His most recent album is a collection of songs and poems in praise of the Pashtun and their leaders, (“Ai zama watana da laloono khazanai zama,” he sings. “Oh my country, you are my store of gems”). Its release was timed to boost support for the secular Awami National Party (ANP) during its recent election campaign. Today, the ANP and the People’s Party of Pakistan (PPP) are together sharing the halls of power in Peshawar.
Says a drag dancer named Reema, releasing CDs and DVDs allowed exiled dancers and musicians who used to perform in Nishtar Hall to maintain their fan following in the NWFP throughout MMA rule. But despite their innovative success, Reema emphasises that the real work for most dancers and singers is not in recording studios, but in public, particularly at Nishtar Hall. “I used to perform at Nishtar Hall, as well as in marriage ceremonies,” he says. “I was earning a handsome amount. But then the government deprived me and others in my community of our bread and butter.” Today, Reema believes that the ANP-PPP government has instilled new hope for the entertainers of the NWFP.
Indeed, today Reema and Gulzar Alam – along with such notable NWFP performers as Sardar Ali Takar, Haroon Bacha, Rasool Badshah and Rafiq Alam – have every reason to smile. Not only have the culture-based bans been lifted, but Nishtar Hall is re-opening, and nearly everyone is looking forward to a return to the theatre, either in the audience or at centre stage. “This work is being done at a cost of 4.6 million rupees, allotted by the interim government,” said a contractor, describing the hall’s ongoing renovation. As he spoke, his employees were busily repairing the hall’s lighting system, furnishing the walls and floor, and replacing broken seats and the moth-eaten stage curtains. In early April, Nishtar Hall was officially re-inaugurated by the new NWFP Culture Minister, Syed Aqil Shah. “Let’s not mention the MMA era now,” Shah noted at the ceremony. “It’s gone; let’s start anew. This place symbolises our culture.” The re-opening of Nishtar Hall has certainly given artists and music lovers from the NWFP a longed-for respite from the chaos of the past several years.
Even so, Shah’s reference to ‘culture’ seems worryingly narrow in its definition. In rhetoric reminiscent of that of the MMA era, Shah said that, while Nishtar Hall had been re-opened for “healthy cultural activities”, he cautioned that “programmes with obscene scenes” would not be permitted. ‘Obscene’, meanwhile, has been left undefined. Likewise, although the political situation is clearly changing, the drag dancer Reema says that, at the moment, remnants of the MMA system are still firmly in place. During the course of the interview for this story, he said he was reluctant to use his real name, due to fear of reprisals from the radical arm of the mullahs. But while the harmonies of pre-2002 NWFP have yet to make a complete return, the groundwork for such an eventuality is well underway.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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