A Qissa for a Globalised World

[Following is a guest post by Kavita Bhanot. She is a london based writer. Her short stories and non-fiction have been published widely in anthologies, magazines and journals, two of her stories have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4, and she is the editor of the short story collection Too Asian, Not Asian Enough (Tindal Street Press, 2011.) ]

There has, of late, been a revival of Punjabi cinema directed towards and watched by Punjabi audiences. A recent addition to Punjabi language cinema, albeit less ‘commercial’ and more ‘artistic’ is the Punjabi language film Qissa: Tale of a Lonely Ghost which has been doing the rounds at international film festivals and was screened last week at the London Indian Film Festival.

The film is about the violent consequences of son obsession in a Sikh refugee family in post-partition East Punjab.Visually striking, Qissa stands out for its cinematography; the framing, the use of shadows and light, the unusual angles. It was often absorbing, most of all in the scenes between actresses Tillotama Shome and Rasika Dugal, playing the couple Kanwar Singh and Neeli who find themselves in a predicament after marriage when they both discover that Kawar is actually a woman. Their interactions quiver with layered tension and chemistry.
Qissa Continue reading A Qissa for a Globalised World

Reppin Your Hood: Zabān, Pehchān, and Pakistani Rap

[Following up on his earlier essay that traces the development of contemporary rap productions in Pakistan, Khwaja Hamzah Saif profiles two Pakistani rappers, a Sindhi and a Punjabi, rhyming to preserve language and reinvigorate ethnic traditions. This essay was first published on Ajam Media Collective.]

Shahzad Meer (right), who goes by Rapper Meer Janweri, with fellow Thatta artist Wahab Rocx
Shahzad Meer (right), who goes by Rapper Meer Janweri, with fellow Thatta artist Wahab Rocx

Shahzad Meer, or Rapper Meer Janweri, grew up in Thatta, a city in south-eastern Sindh famous for its ancient necropolis,. Once a Sindhi cultural capital, it is now among the smaller cities of a Pakistan bifurcated into the mega-metropolises of Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad and Peshawar, and everything else. Meer’s parents are from Dadu, a comparably sized Sindhi city about 300 kilometers north of Thatta. Shahzad’s Sindhi is accented with the twangs of Dadu and the crispness of Thattai Sindhi. “Northern Sindhi,” he describes it.
Continue reading Reppin Your Hood: Zabān, Pehchān, and Pakistani Rap

Raags to Riches: Globalism and Vernacular in Contemporary Pakistani Rap

[Following is a guest post by Hamzah Saif. A version of this essay was published by Ajam Media Collective.]

By Hamzah Saif

Rap’s transition from the poetry of marginalized African American communities to the mega-hits circulating in mainstream America today draws fierce debate. Consumerism and commodification are frequently found guilty of eviscerating a once-radical movement with the market’s golden handcuffs, swapping its class politics for “mere spectacle.”

In contrast, Western popular and academic assessments of rap’s journey beyond American borders, particularly in the “Muslim world,” are markedly inattentive to this commercialism. Instead, this rap evokes a virtually unanimous nostalgia. There, 1986 Los Angeles is found alive in 2013 Lebanon, and New York’s Public Enemy and L.A.’s N.W.A are discovered rhyming through Beirut’s Rayess Bek and Tehran’s Yas. So prevalent is this penchant for locating the dissent lost in American rap in “over there” rap that the Washington D.C.-based think-tank, Middle East Institute, finds Iran’s Ayatollahs battling a reanimated Tupac, and Wall Street Journal has rappers soundtracking revolt from Egypt to Iran.

The anachronism of finding 1980’s Ice Cube in contemporary Islamabad can be plausible only if one abundantly ignores the realities of contemporary rap. In a landscape where middle class white purchasers have dictated the contours of the genre’s production since at least 1992, it is particularly absurd to impose upon non-American “Muslim” rappers the romantic notion that their rap is protest.

Imagining a resurrection of resistance in “over there” rap shortchanges the breadth of the non-American musical movements. Instead, they are much more productively seen as artists in the peripheral markets of globalized rap. Such a lens appropriately situates the rappers, and accords their work the creativity and artistry it deserves.

Far from culturally-appropriate replicas of bygone American rappers, Middle East and South Asia rappers are creators of an entirely new art, vastly expanding the frontiers of the genre. “It may not have started in our communities, but just like cricket”, says Islamabadi rapper Xpolymer Dar (Muhammad Dar), “we have made rap our own.”

Indeed, in Dar’s country of Pakistan, where rap is a growing underground music genre, the ‘80s American rhymes for race and class justice are judged to have little resonance with Pakistani realities. Instead, it is the stylings of hyper-commercialized contemporary artists such as Eminem and 50 Cent that find ears, and have provided the launching pad for contemporary Pakistani rappers.

Eminem, 50 Cent and Bohemia: Language, Vernacular and Rap

Prior to this most recent spike in the popularity of rap among Pakistani musicians, the genre’s heyday would likely be located in the early 1990s, when acts such as Fakhar-e-Alam enjoyed a broad audience. Alam’s hit track Bhangra Pao held the number-one spot for 28 straight weeks in local charts and was among the first Pakistani songs to be featured on MTV Asia. Indian and South Asian diasporic rappers such as Apache Indian and Baba Sehgal too found their tracks bumping across Pakistan in the 1990s.

Pakistan’s contemporary rappers, however, rarely trace their roots to that rap tradition. In fact, many take reminding to even recall the productions of the 90’s decade. Today’s movement, instead, is overwhelmingly a product of the globalization of commodified American rap. And if there is one American artist around whose productions penetrated Pakistani music stores, and whose face came to represent rap in Pakistan, it is Eminem.

From Peshawar, near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Party Wrecker (Mustafa Khan) of the Pukhtoon rap group, Fortitude, describes its introduction to rap, “I used to go to Shumail and Shahkar’s house and we used to sit and listen to Eminem.” From distant Karachi, Qzer (Qasim Naqvi) similarly describes, “I was eleven years old when I listened to Lose Yourself by Eminem, and realized the connection between my poetry and rap.”

Ali from the Lahore-based crew DirtJaw offers perhaps the most vivid example. A poet for some years, Ali was introduced to rap through the movie 8 Mile, featuring Eminem, and loosely based on the artist’s life. Having no idea who Eminem was, Ali nevertheless discovered the strength of poetry over beats, and began to transform his verses into rhymes.

During this time, a period beginning shortly after Eminem’s release of the Marshall Mathers LP in mid-2000 to 2005, rap remained a marginal artistic force in Pakistan. Rappers were dismissed as Eminem ki aolad (Eminem’s children), and yo-bache (yo-kids), the latter a construction on a caricature of American slang that accused Pakistani rappers of aping Western culture.

This all changed in February 2006, when goliath label Universal Music dropped the first commercially backed album of the Bay Area rapper, Bohemia.


Continue reading Raags to Riches: Globalism and Vernacular in Contemporary Pakistani Rap

Love Sans Gurdwaras

[Following is a guest post by Pukhraj Singh (Email: pukhraj AT gmail), the founder of Abroo.]

By Pukhraj Singh

The latent passions of this land are steeped in love and longing. If one sees Punjab solely from the perspective of its oral traditions, local continuities and folklore, then the picture that emerges is in complete contrast to the drubbed, kitschy monochrome making its way to the mainstream. It is the unquestionable faith and conviction of its peoples, which have often subverted the rigid precepts of religion and nationalism, to create identity markers that are more organically rooted in the mythos and geography.

By innately focusing on the unseen and the unsaid, there will be an emotional realization of a certain kind of inexplicable absence, and the purity of absence, overwhelming its verdant backdrop. The dirt-tracks crisscrossing the rural outliers are pockmarked with the signage of a time bygone, managing to exist somewhere between the interstices of memory and history.

It was from the critically-acclaimed documentaries of Ajay Bhardwaj that I first learnt to conduct séances, invoking an esoteric Punjab that has been rarely been experienced or talked about. His trilogy—Kitte Mil Ve Mahi, Rabba Hun Kee Kariye and Milange Babey Ratan De Mele Te—has archived such crucial portions of its culture that the future generations would forever remain indebted, be it the lesser-known Dalit Sufi customs or the militant pluralism of its men of faith like Baba Hajji Ratan and Sakhi Sarwar. Beating the post-traumatic amnesia of the Partition, the Green Revolution and the militancy, reemerged a few counter-narratives such as these—and that is how I started trusting the contemporary lore more than the intellectual discourse—leading me to territories uncharted.

When Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal laid the foundation stone for a 120-crore Valmiki temple this October to woo the sizeable community, the irony wasn’t lost on me. For decades the Balmikis or Mazhabi Sikhs have consecrated their identity and heritage in barebones temples, overshadowed by the mighty village gurdwara. The fretful caretaker of one such insipid place of devotion in village Dhotian (district Tarn Taran) first apprised me of an unpardonable depravity perpetrated by the local Sikh clergy, which barred the low-castes from performing kar seva (voluntary service) because “they looked dirty.” The dilapidated building, sticking out like a sore thumb, then seemed like a towering tribute to the inconsequential life of a Punjabi Dalit.

The Balmiki shrine of Dhotian.
The Balmiki shrine of Dhotian.

Continue reading Love Sans Gurdwaras

Postcards from the Archive: Goodbye 2013

2013 saw the publication of a collection of Lapata’s translations of Ashk’s short stories. You can read excerpts from the collection here and an interview with Lapata here. CNN returned to talk to her about her art and her new book (link), and again to ask the “terror artist” about the offensiveness of Rolling Stone’s depiction of that good-looking white boy. Sanyasi returned the gaze and observed that CNN’s reading of Lapata’s art reflects “something fundamental about the relationship of art (or representation, more broadly) and politics in our times, namely, a conservative turn in the culture about the subjects proper of art, writing, and scholarship.” Taking some time off from painting terrorists, Lapata also reviewed ‘Aisha Jalaal”s hagiography of Manto.

Sepoy began the year by completing his Berlin series (III IV), and ended by translating Faiz. In the middle was his review of Dalrymple’s latest that found D’s critique of empire to be “at the service of bettering Western-driven governance in Afghanistan and the pacification of Afghan tribes.” And then, there was his piece on the Pakistani elections  for the paper of record (yes, that). In this piece he made some bizarre statement about peasants and laborers having agency, which irked some folks who pointed out that those deaf and dumb slaves only act out the narratives that their superiors set. Sepoy responded by arguing for understanding “agency and contingency in an historical event from the perspective of the subaltern, the vanquished, the dispossessed, the marginalized […].” And so it went.

Sanyasi returned to CM with reflections on the violence of American paranoia from the Hindu-German conspiracy to its present day Islamophobic avatar, and with reviews of Ramachandra Guha’s latest (link) and Niraja Gopal Jayal’s Citizenship and its Discontents: An Indian History (link,). He also gave us a glimpse of his forthcoming book, Refuge: A Work of Memory, Cities, and Loss. Speaking of forthcoming publications, Sepoy discussed his approach for the book he is working on (here, here), and Bulleyah contributed an essay (here, here) on Sepoy’s forthcoming chapter (link) in an edited volume.

Sepoy also wrote about growing up in Dubai, and Basanti about surveillance in the KSA and the USA (link). Our friend MNJ reflected on “[t]he power inherent in autobiographies, and our fascination with them” in a three-part essay on Mahvish Khan’s memoir My Guantánamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me (III, III).

We published a greater number of guest posts this year, bringing to our readers glimpses of JLFKurdistan, and Kabul; a review of Vollman’s memoir; a comment on “the politics of ‘Razakar memory’ in Andhra Pradesh”; a reflection on the “everyday political in Paromita Vohra’s documentary films”; and AJK’s Shura City. Of all these many excellent guest posts,  Prof. Veena Oldenburg’s contribution was truly a cut above.

In 2013, CM launched a new series of conversations to discuss and introduce new and exciting scholarship on South Asia. The interviews with Teena Purohit and Kavita Datla are the first of what we hope will be an ongoing feature of CM. Bint Battuta started contributing excerpts from her readings to CM (here, here). Also, with a satire of LUMS’ paindu dayour friend, Mutiyar, started contributing to CM.

 

PS. Where are you from? Or, how I became a Pakistani?

PPS. OMG, OMJ. 

PPPS. I reviewed a couple of books for Dawn (link).

PPPPS: Here are the previous year-end summaries: 20102011, and 2012.

OMG, Orya Maqbool Jan

[This guest post is Abdul Majeed Abid’s translation of his Urdu column for Dawn. Abdul Majeed Abid is a doctor and a freelance writer from Lahore. He writes about socio-political issues and contemporary history.]

By Abdul Majeed Abid

 

Britain ruled over the subcontinent for ninety years (1857-1947). The task of governance during this period was supervised by the civil bureaucracy. From 1857 till 1947, the number of British officers never exceeded one thousand, and the number of British officers at the time of partition (in 1947) was a paltry Six Hundred and Forty (640). Even with such meager number of officers, the British Raj controlled millions of subjects and a vast stretch of land. A British Prime Minister termed the bureaucracy as the “Steel Frame” of the Monarchy.

Initially, only British citizens were eligible for serving as civil officers but ‘Indian-ization’ started after a few years. Indian officers were trained in the same traditions as British Officers and they served the Monarchy as well as their British counterparts. On the eve of parturition, Pakistan inherited the Muslim civil officers who became part of Pakistan Civil Services (PCS).

Following independence, inept policies and shenanigans by Politicians paved the way for bureaucrats to take the reins of power. Chaudary Muhammad Ali (who remained Prime Minister c.1955-56) and Ghulam Muhammad (who remained Governor General c. 1951-55) were bureaucrats that rose to prominence amid the uncertain initial years of Pakistan.

The successors of this tradition stayed away from direct control of political power but remained hand in glove with Military Dictator Ayub Khan(who ruled Pakistan between 1958-69). This group included the likes of Qudratullah Shahab and Altaf Gauhar. Many of the abovementioned gentlemen tried their hands at becoming writers after retirement. Chaudary M. Ali wrote a book (The Emergence of Pakistan) that is considered a precursor in the quest of Pakistan’s “Ideological direction”. Altaf Gauhar and Shahab also indulged in this tradition.
Shahab Nama by Qudratullah Shahab

Their books are full of their own heroic achievements and an “expert” analysis of the ills that Pakistan faces.

Whenever Urdu literature was discussed during my student days, some particular books and authors were always mentioned, as most people had read them or at least heard about them. One of the most popular books in that regard was Shahab Naama (written by Shahab). According to one of my teachers, Shahab Naama is basically a potpourri of history, fiction, autobiography, spirituality and humor.  Continue reading OMG, Orya Maqbool Jan

Conversations of the Everyday Political in Paromita Vohra’s Documentary Films

This is a guest post by Ashima Duggal. She is an attorney turned documentary filmmaker. She is working on her first film. ]

By Ashima Duggal

 

For more than fifteen years, documentary filmmaker Paromita Vohra has been having large public conversations about everyday political things with Indian audiences. Through her inquisitive, informal, no-boundaries approach to documentary filmmaking, she has encouraged new ways of thinking about a diverse range of questions like “Who has access to public toilets—and, more important, why?” and “How does copyright and creation of art coexist, and how is feminism defined in India?” Her films allow viewers to experience, both sensually and cerebrally, the ways in which unseen political and historical currents influence their personal lives.

However, Vohra was not always so confident in connecting the everyday political to the personal. When she first started making films, she was caught in a self-described “hectic political anxiety.” She felt political, but didn’t know how to express this amorphous sentiment. So she started a long meditation with herself, exploring “the nature of politics, the nature of film as a medium of political activity and the nature of art.” In a 2012 essay in Pratilipi, an Indian literary journal, Vohra asks, “Do we make films that faithfully illustrate our political position? Or do we use our political position to arrive at an understanding of the nature of life in this moment, the catalyst for a creative art?”

Director Paromita VohraA review of her most recent film, Partners in Crime, and a look at two of her other works—Q2P, a film that garnered significant attention in India and globally, and Connected Hum Tum (“Connected You and I”), a progressive new reality TV show—would suggest that Vohra has taken a slightly divergent path, one that is closer to her second inquiry, and yet is not quite fully accepting of it either.

Partners in Crime, which won Best Documentary at the Ladakh International Film Festival in 2011, offers various viewpoints and understandings of copyright enforcement and infringement and artistic creation in India. Vohra’s physical and directorial presence is felt in the film, but she skillfully avoids using her political position to develop a dominant message. In Q2P, which explores women’s access to public toilets in Mumbai, her political position is more evident through her on-screen interactions with her subjects. In this film too, though, Vohra remains curious and casual, and we see her repositioning and refining her stance as the film unfolds. Connected Hum Tum represents a new concept in Indian TV—six eclectic women in Mumbai self-document their daily lives for six months. Vohra’s challenge and opportunity lies in building meaningful and entertaining storylines of the women’s daily encounters. Though the ability to impose any preset position is limited by the fact that the women control what is recorded, Vohra’s instinctive political sensibilities are reflected in the show’s casting and in the creative selection, arrangement, and narration of the women’s stories.

  Continue reading Conversations of the Everyday Political in Paromita Vohra’s Documentary Films