After a Revolution:  Authenticity and Art in Pakistan


Like many deeply conservative entities, Pakistan these days is full of talk of revolution. The immediate circumstance is the (alleged) exposure of the fiscal corruption of the Prime Minister and his family, the subsequent calls for his removal and the installation of a new, clean government; the transparency and honesty of which will trickle down to every level of our society and presumably free us of all our problems (starvation, disease, illiteracy and militancy being only the chief of these). In these heady times, it takes a very cynical voice to point out that what is being proposed is less a revolution and more a harsh and probably temporary correction of kleptocratic tendencies in modern states. A revolution would be a violent and complete overturning of the basis on which a nation operates, in spheres such as the economy, the relationship between citizen and state, in the conception of liberty and so on: in other words, revolutions hope to produce new, barely imaginable subjects. What we are in the midst of these days, in keeping with the tenor of our cultural life, is reform and enforcement of the existing laws.


But in many ways Pakistan has always been a country that imagines itself as a revolutionary body, an experiment in the overthrow of certain temporal, cultural or political affiliations in favour of a willed return to a more just way of life. It is in this sense that ‘partition’ constitutes only one aspect of the historical body that is Pakistan, where more pervasively it remains the result of a radical spirit within the Islamic world that drew on both religious revivalism and the European and American revolutionary age that stretched from the 18th to the early 20th century. Despite claims to the contrary, it cannot really be argued with any conviction that what Jinnah and his supporters had in mind, in carving Pakistan out of colonial India, was an entirely secular project (his personal morals and choices notwithstanding). As the religious right repeatedly insists, what could the point of Pakistan be if it was not conceived in the first place as a place to install certain Islamic values that had no chance of finding their way into the constitution and legal codes of India? The liberal counter-argument to this view looks to something like a Muslim culture (rather than doctrine) that in itself is sufficient to maintain a claim to nationhood and territorial integrity in the face of competing boundary claims based on language, kinship and political exigency. The most thorough recent description of this culture is Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, which demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the shared heritage of certain poetic forms, literary themes and sufi traditions constituted a form of life that extended throughout the Muslim world, in what he calls the Bengal-to-Balkans complex. This culture’s integrity was evident in the way in which it transcended the high literary and scholarly culture of the various Muslim courts, and was found equally in the folk songs and poetry that persist to this day in our part of the world. Additionally, the paedia associated with learning in the educated classes was built on a core of competency in Arabic, Persian and Turkic literature, philosophy and art, producing a cosmopolitan group of Muslims who felt at home in a certain cultural world that extended across continents.


What does all this have to do with revolution? Well, if we accept that Pakistan is imagined as a revolutionary break from secular forms of nationalism and imperialism, as embodied by postcolonial India and colonial Britain respectively, we can begin to see certain cultural formations aggregate around the various ways in which this break is conceived. I have just outlined two such ways:


  1. The idea that an Islamic state must begin by returning to an uncorrupted past; this view of history sees the progression from the original Meccan state as one of steady decline and dilution, and desires a return to the governance and culture of that golden era. Various mujaddids and revolutionary thinkers in the Islamic have regularly called for this overthrow of the present state of imperialism (and we should pay attention to the etymology of mujaddid here, relating to both renewal and modernity), to create the conditions in which a purer version of Islam can flourish. To the extent that this pure past is only approachable through historical and hagiographical accounts, this kind of renewal produces a complex relationship to the authority of texts and to textuality itself; rooted in historical temporality, it must deny its own historicism to make claims for a clear view of an absolute or perfect state. Culturally, in Pakistan, we can see this in the form of aesthetic negativity and anti-iconicism, but also in the drive to abandon Western forms of art-making and their concerns in favour of a reimagined relationship to the visual and the aural, where they are placed in the service of a sovereign God rather than of the historical project called ‘man’. The conservative and identifiable version of this revolutionary impulse can be seen in the field of expressionist calligraphy, which thrived during the years of the religious dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq, but which also produced a deeply fascinating link between the supposedly ‘Western’ idea of man (especially the artist) and the Islamic (or at least ‘Eastern’) conception of man as a vessel for a divine logos. What remained unquestioned, of course, in this form was the idea of Art as something that produces objects for not just contemplation but also consumption, possession and trade.


  1. The other form of art that emerged from the nexus of revolutionary ideas that created Pakistan, is congruent with the basic thesis of Shahab Ahmed’s book, i.e., that there exists a Muslim cultural unity that goes beyond doctrinal and juridical forms, and which must be preserved, extended and interpreted by contemporary artists and critics. Chughtai’s post-partition work bears witness to this attempt at forging a connection with this unity, and has close parallels with the modernizing attempts of the Bengal Renaissance, where the emphasis was on a sustained search for harmony between modern science and deep cultural forms (what is posited in both cases is the very existence of ‘deep’ cultural forms, that derive not from universal principles – as European modernism might claim – but from landscapes, languages and ways of life). One way of thinking about Zahoor ul Akhlaq’s work is as precisely an exit from this idea of a deeper cultural unity, by framing Muslim culture in terms of language, textuality and framing; in a sense, then, for Akhlaq the instability of meaning in the constructed frames within frames of painting surrenders the possibility of authentic cultural meaning to the jouissance or play of the language of art.


Akbar Naqvi’s seminal, eccentric book on Pakistani art, Image and Identity presents the most serious argument for this second form of cultural affiliation, through a reading of artists such as Sadequain in the context of the Muslim poetry and art that formed them in ways that remained invisible within an entirely European frame of inquiry.  That is to say, without the apparatus of Muslim culture, the greatness of Sadequain could not be appreciated, indeed he might seem like an exponent of an etiolated modernism, derivative of Picasso and overly-attached to narrative. Naqvi’s genius lies in his (revolutionary) reversal of the line of influence: we no longer have to question the extent of Picasso’s influence on Sadequain, any more than we have to condemn Picasso for being influenced by or misappropriating African sculpture. In both cases, individual borrowing, and peculiar subversions of a tradition (in the figure of the artist as ‘malamati’, one who combines secret inner devotion with outwards unlawfulness) find meaning within a context that cannot be simply replaced by universal critical methods or hermeneutics.


These sharp distinctions do not always or necessarily ever hold absolutely. They serve instead as loci of concerns which overlap in the work of most artists – and often within a single work.  Both these affiliations, moreover, have receded to the background in recent years in Pakistan with the severing of ties between the intellectual world of art and the revolutionary radicalism sweeping the streets in anti-corruption rallies or in anti-blasphemy protests. That is to say, the role of the artist in our time has become that of a moderating, conservative force that seeks to maintain shared human values in the face of the inhumanity of terror; a striking reversal from the values of 20th century modern art and its hatred of petit-bourgeois morality and the myth of humanity. Artists in Pakistan today occupy something analogous to the position of artists in post-revolutionary Iran or post-Taliban Afghanistan: as voices against gender oppression (Shirin Neshat for example, at least on the most basic reading), ironists seeking to destabilize the authority of history as truth (Walid Raad, for instance, or Bani Abidi), or even as universalists looking to eradicate geographical specificity on the grounds that the present, technological world is somehow entirely contemporary with itself. I am not pointing these strategies out to criticize them in any way, but to underline the fact that art today is in opposition to revolution, where revolution is thought of as a complete overturning of a present system of values in favour of a return to the past or an outright creation of the new.


Indeed, we may well ask why art is necessary at all, at least in the terms we have inherited from a variety of predecessors (that are not limited to the immediate colonial past and the Mayo School of Art). Why can we not reject this inheritance. and give up on the idea of a society that values objects as evidence of human creativity, over the dignity of human life itself? I am of course only echoing here a persistent concern in much revolutionary thinking about the relation between art and society, rather than forwarding a claim of any kind. But the link between Richard Wagner’s enormously influential 1848 essay ‘Art and Revolution’, and the more recent hostility towards art and performance in some parts of Pakistan is hardly tenuous. Wagner’s argument, inspired in turn by the revolutionary moment in Europe he found himself in, posited the ancient Greeks as an ideal society in terms of their indivisible relation between art, life and religion in the form of tragic drama; in other words, a society before disenchantment. Institutions such as slavery and innovations such as comedy destroyed the free, manly and unironic nature of Greek life, and with the Gesamtkunstwerk, unifying drama, music and poetry Wagner hoped to return to this freedom. Art as conceived by Wagner, would be wrested from the whims of man and history (fashion) and returned to the service of the Gods, to the appropriate rhythm of the world. Iqbal, in the Indian/Pakistani context, sought to create a form of philosophical/poetic enterprise quite unknown in the contemporary European world he thrived in, but which looked back to the great Muslim paedia described by Shahab Ahmed as an inspiration for the resurgence (tolu) of Islam. Indeed, Iqbal’s Bandagi Nama explores exactly the same theme as Wagner’s essay: the relationship between art and slavery in historical societies. Can we not extend this tradition of rejecting cultural slavery to say that the Taliban and other anti-iconic movements are the true inheritors of the revolutionary spirit of modern art and philosophy? After all, Wagner described his writing as ‘artistic terrorism’…Or do we instead need to reconfigure or sever entirely the link between modern art (revolutionary in its outer form, in its historical dynamics, in its demand for critique and newness) without becoming completely subsumed by fashion, or by forms of life in the age of late capitalism? Is there today the possibility of a revolutionary art, and if not, can art survive as an unrooted practice for much longer? We might as well ask these questions now in Pakistan as in London, Berlin or New York. If a revolution comes, after all, it might not be the one we have all been anticipating.


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