2002 - Ever since humans learned to communicate with one another,
'culture' began to evolve. The earliest people started to show their own
observations - in paintings and sketches on walls of caves. Birds and
animals reacted to changing seasons - and laid the foundation of music.
The historical definition of 'culture' is "a social heritage, or tradition,
that is passed on to future generations". Another definition puts together
the religion, philosophy, poetry, music, art and spiritual traditions of a
people – and calls the result a ‘culture’. Because culture is a direct
reflection of people's aspirations, the culture evolved in a desert locale
cannot be the same as that developed in mountainous regions where singing
streams abound. 'Culture' evolves gradually over the centuries in any given
area, so it cannot be said that you can uproot the local culture in any
place and substitute it with another foreign culture.
Although art, culture and Islam may seem to be contradictory terms, the fact
is that - over the centuries - Islam has deeply impacted the Culture of all
environments with which it came into contact. In fact, Islam has modified
most artistic expression such as painting, sculpture or architecture.
In this 'communications age', when local Eastern arts, music and poetry are
not encouraged, the common man just naturally switches to the dominant
culture of the West. Subsequently, we lament the so-called 'encroachment of
cultural imperialism' and the loss of eastern values. We forget that every
aspect of a culture is interconnected. When we discourage local cultural
activities by saying that they are not Islamic, then also fail to provide
more acceptable alternatives, we must be ready to accept the onslaught of
Western cultural traditions, by default.
Briefly, I have tried to highlight the impact of dominant Western Culture on
the values and culture of South Asia. For lack of a viable alternative, this
impact is in fact visible in Muslim countries all over the world.
Classical music - such as 'ragas' - emanated from various parts of the
Indian peninsula - to express human feelings such as hope, fear, love, joy
and sorrow. It is a well known fact that certain ragas such as
Tilang and Bhairveen were developed and refined in the plains of the
Punjab while others originated in the southern part of the subcontinent.
In ancient India, music and dance were restricted to the upper castes and
were dedicated to various gods and deities. When the Muslim conquerors came
into contact with the local people they transformed this art completely. At
first they introduced it to the royal courts of Kings and Emperors.
Gradually it came down to the level of Rajas, Maharajas and Nawabs who
sponsored unique forms of classical song. This in turn led to various
schools of music that flourished in various local areas. Such exponents of
classical music can still be found all over India.
Long before the high noon of Indian classical music during the time of the
Moghul Emperor Akbar, a great statesman, poet and Sufi, Hazrat Amir Khusro
developed a number of Ragas. His impact has been profound and can still be
felt in the classical realm. The advent of Pakistan saw a gradual decline in
the tradition of classical music. Some Muslims in fact still believe that
all forms of Music are prohibited in Islam! Some even associate 'music'
with the decline of Muslim rule in India. The fact is that the rise of
Muslim power in India was followed by a fusion of Islamic and local Indian
Culture. Similarly, when Muslim power declined - a decline in classical
music also occurred. Musicians were no longer held in respect so the
profession began a downgrading process. As a direct result of this benign
neglect, very few people in Pakistan now understand or appreciate classical
music. These days, most common people just tune in to Hindi film music or
pop music of every description - via their ever-present satellite dishes.
Folk Music, Ghazals, Qawali and Theater
The Indus valley civilization has a rich tradition of folk music, songs and
plays based on local love stories. There was a time when the theater
companies would travel all over Pakistan. This was associated with local
festivals or commemoration of local Sufi Saints. Every year at specified
times folk musicians would perform at shrines of Sufi Saints.
A number of reasons have contributed to a progressive decline in these
activities. Pop singers have replaced folk singers. These pop singers have
roots in Western music and hardly ever touch the inner chords of common
people. So they cannot replace the symbiosis of centuries that has
developed and refined folk music.
Ghazal singing is certainly a contribution that can be attributed to Persian
influence on the music of South Asia. Pakistan has produced a number of
renowned ghazal singers. Pakistan has introduced Qawali singing to the
World through the genius of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Sabri Brothers. After
partition in 1947, North Indian migrants began to revive their old cultural
traditions in India. The popularity of Ghazals in India coincided with
emerging economic rehabilitation of the migrating Indians and still
continues unabated. The same cannot be said about the future of ghazal
singing in Pakistan. Here it is directly linked to the decline of classical
music, which is the foundation of all indigenous music.
Basant or Jashn-e- Baharan
This festival ushers in the spring season in northern India -particularly in
the Punjab. Historically, Punjab has a harsh winter and a simmering summer.
In mid-February the weather starts to change. The countryside is full of
mustard blossoms and the fields look like a flowing river of Yellow. People
in the Punjab regardless of their religious affiliation celebrated this
festival by wearing yellow and by flying kites from roof tops.
After the emergence of Pakistan, the Muslim clergy discouraged this practice
by saying it was a Hindu or Indian celebration. Many a time, religious
parties petitioned the government to outlaw this festival alleging that it
is dangerous and 'against Islam'. Actually, this festival is simply a
celebration of seasonal change. This festival has now emerged even stronger
than before and continues well into the night. Many other items have now
become associated with it. If sober elements prevail, this will be
recognized as a centuries-old tradition, in fact as a human need. Then,
perhaps its features can be changed from within - to make it a healthy
celebration instead of a bug-a-boo that creates so much chaos.
The Film Industry
Over the past 50 years, the film Industry in Pakistan has declined. In the
first place, no government in Pakistan recognized it even as "an industry".
On the contrary, filmmaking was actively discouraged. Sometimes it was
labeled, "against Islam" and other times it was alleged that "films were a
corrupting influence on the morality of common people". I am not advocating
that in the name of freedom of expression, we copy Western culture, which
leaves nothing to the imagination. A better approach would be to positively
encourage "clean entertainment". Because a creative outlet did not exist in
the film industry for artists, they went into Television.
In North America, Pakistani and Indian families do watch PTV plays because
the whole family can see this non-X-rated entertainment together. I believe
that this success can be translated into films. South Asians all over the
World want clean family oriented films and plays. Pakistani Films could fill
this gap if the authorities support it.
Mushaira or Poetry Recitation
The recitation of Urdu poetry started a few hundred years ago in India -in a
particular format. It somehow reached its zenith at a time, which coincided
with the decline of the Mogul Empire. Northern India became a literary
paradise as it saw the emergence of Urdu language, after the British decided
to discard Persian as an official language. This tradition although
gradually declining continues in Pakistan and India today.
The first generation immigrants from Pakistan and Northern India have
brought Urdu with them to the Middle East and North America. Every year,
poets from Pakistan and India tour various countries and recite their latest
poetry. Initially, religious people also attended these poetry recitations
and atmosphere always remained sober. I believe that as long as religious
people stay in touch with cultural activities they have a very positive
Unfortunately, this tradition can not be sustained in North America because
only 25% of our next generation here know Urdu! Out of this 25%, not even
1% can read or write in Urdu. So, as soon as the first generation
immigrants pass the baton on to the next generation, this cultural tradition
called Mushaira will quietly wither away.
However, it does not necessarily have to go away in this manner. Given the
motivation, if our first generation immigrants who are concentrated in large
cities start teaching Urdu, on a voluntary basis, I believe it can easily be
done. Contrary to popular belief, I have seen a significant number of South
Asian young people enjoying Indian songs and movies. Learning Urdu is much
easier for youngsters of Pakistani parentage. Pakistanis send their kids to
Islamic centers where they learn the Quran in Arabic. Because Urdu uses the
same script as Arabic, these kids should easily be able to recognize the
letters and words used in Urdu. In fact, the Urdu language itself is a
mixture of words that originate in Arabic and Persian. Talk of Reverse
Cultural activities need nourishment to survive. Islam and culture do not
contradict one another. Certain cultural traditions that are in conflict
with Islam can be modified or discarded. However there are a number of
cultural activities that are specific to a province, tribe or a country and
should be sustained. If these traditions are backed and reinforced, then
they can easily face western "Cultural Imperialism". The simple reason for
this is that these cultural traditions have taken centuries to emerge and
become refined. All they require is a helping hand - and they will start to
blossom. The result of neglect can only lead to the discarding of a treasure
that has taken centuries to build and the World would be a net loser.
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