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Pakistani Artists: An Endangered Species

Saadat Hasan Manto

“When we were colonial subjects, we could dream of freedom, but now that we were free, what would we dream of? Were we even free?” said Sadat Hassan Manto, an Urdu short story writer who loved his country, however poor and ignorant.

Art is, essentially, an illusion of any kind. It is a mere ground where we feed our imagination, where we feel relief from the reality that we are bound to return back to. It is, in other words, created in the dreams of a creator. Without whom, its emergence is impossible.

I have always been fascinated by the artists, thinkers, and dreamers the Indian subcontinent produced before the independence, Manto himself being one of the most influential. After the cracking of India, the graph only fell and deepness in people, so to speak, started to drain. The love for art; lost. The drive for passion; missing. And most of all, the dreams themselves; which were nowhere to be found.

Why is it that when we were most oppressed, we dreamt, and produced names, writers specifically, like Allama Iqbal, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Bano Qudsia, Bapsi Sidhwa, Mustansar Hussain Tarar, Anwar Maqsood and many more? While now that we are ‘free’, we are left with the scrap like, far from any offense, Kamila Shamsie, Bina Shah and Mohammed Hanif, none of whom even dare to live in Pakistan or are even educated here, while still proudly use this identity.

Perhaps the feeling of being free and independent has actually caged our minds in the delusion of having everything.

Is it precisely that, as Manto said, we are left with no pain to suffer in order to seek satisfaction? Perhaps the feeling of being free and independent has actually caged our minds in the delusion of having everything. When in reality, we are actually in process of losing even what we already once proudly acquired.

Then there is also a hype of ‘changing culture’, where art has started to be found on YouTube. While no doubt conveying a message, preferably a deep one, though a screen is no less great than creating a painting on a canvas. Yet associating it with art by calling it of ‘modern era’ would be a huge mistake for our nation’s future, affecting the youth’s mind to become deprived of actual reality, and dependent on temporary entertainment — or distraction.

Arts colleges have become a disgrace for our society now, where only the ones below 60% get to study, and that too unwillingly. In fact, so much a shame, that Islamabad, the capital of a nation of 200 million, has no government art college with permanent teachers anymore.

More and more of our youth, who later aim to take the nation on their shoulders, are getting into this delusion that art is no longer the thing that it was 50 years back, forgetting that it is, in actual fact, the very idea that never expires and has, in fact, led to the current inventions the world plays with today.

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The fault is not their either, as they have never been exposed to true art and what it really has to offer. Their tastes are like a boy standing on two boats going in completely opposite directions; one group is influenced by western rock, while other is confined to the mosques only.

On the other hand, the middle ones, who make up most of our population, have their choices not based on their individual minds, but rather crafted by the regrets of their parents, and strongly influenced by the local traditions.

Arts colleges have become a disgrace for our society now, where only the ones below 60% get to study, and that too unwillingly. In fact, so much a shame, that Islamabad, the capital of a nation of 200 million, has no government art college with permanent teachers anymore. One can count prestigious art colleges on fingers now in the country, while science institutes are no far, busy producing bankers in almost every street.

Those who still somehow manage to pursue their dreams receive a backlash from the society. And when they begin to get some appreciation from the neighbouring country, these very people specifically suddenly want them back.

Architecture, then, without any doubt, defines the taste, preference, and way of living of people in a nation, just as a house defines how well-mannered and sophisticated the owner is.

The idea of throwing light — a very faint one actually — on the treatment art gets in our nation was simply to explain that Pakistan is losing a thing that actually holds a nation’s identity together. Since individuals form a nation, their preference defines where it is meant to head, that is, reading an individual’s mind is equivalent to reading the whole nation.

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Architecture, for instance, by which the quality and character of a nation is defined, has completely lost its prestige in our nation. Visiting houses will make one feel like touring an unmaintained hospital; empty walls, barren lawns, white fluorescent lights that make one dizzy, and no antiques whatsoever.

Many might have improved but you cannot guess the theme residents are trying to give to their homes; clay angels marking their spot on the shelves usually bought from thrift stores donated by the whites, and Quran verses on the walls, creating a mix of Victorian and Islamic style.

Architecture, then, without any doubt, defines the taste, preference, and way of living of people in a nation, just as a house defines how well-mannered and sophisticated the owner is. Only a good society can realise the power that architecture, and for that matter, art actually plays on their consciousness and culture, while a backward one will continue to shatter and ignore it.

Art emerges from dreams, as mentioned earlier, and when individuals have lost the ability to dream, art vanishes from their lives. Everything, then, becomes duller, a little dimmer. Such an atmosphere can never produce brilliant minds that we dream of, and in fact, it silently endangers the existence of those few who still, after all the resistance, decide to go against the flow.

Pakistan was a dream, a dream that, once achieved, shunned the very people from dreaming. We were freer, mentally, when we were slaves, and now that we are free, actually, we are left with nothing to dream about.

Pakistan, then, can only redefine its individual identity when its people can dream again, making a clear way for the art in their minds to blossom and show its true colors.

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