Nowhere to Go

By Anjum Altaf

I am intrigued by the thought that for an ambitious youngster, passionate about the arts and with a compelling belief in himself or herself, there may be no place in Pakistan to run away to.

The thought occurred to me on reading the biography of Naushad, one of our great music directors. Born in Lucknow, he became fascinated with music early in life. Told by his father to choose between home and music Naushad ran away to Bombay at the age of 18. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Bombay of those times was the place to run away to for the passionate young. Naushad was not the only one. There were literally hundreds of others from cities as far away as Peshawar and Madras and towns and villages scattered across the subcontinent. It was a magnet not only for those interested in music but in dance, theater, films and writing – a mecca for aspiring artists whose talents and ambitions were either thwarted or had no prospects of fruition in the milieus in which they were born and raised.

Bombay was a magnet because it also had the ecosystem of peer groups, mentors and patrons in which a young runaway could hope to find a niche and be accommodated. Naushad, after sleeping on footpaths for a while, found Ustad Jhande Khan (himself from Gujranwala) who became a guide and a link to others who could recognize, appreciate and nurture a precocious talent.

Thinking along these lines brought home to me that such artistic meccas exist in many countries. New York City is the quintessential example. Reading the biographies of celebrated American artists one is struck by how many of them gravitated there from small towns, rural districts and depressed areas thousands of miles away and how the city provided the nourishment for their talents to be realized.

London, Paris and Vienna are well-known examples from other countries. It is cities like these that keep culture alive and vibrant within countries and serve as beacons of hope for those who feel the overpowering urge to become a part of that culture.

One might wish such ambitions to find nourishment for their fulfillment anywhere in a country but that is an impossibility because of the economies of scale and agglomeration. Much like clusters of industry there are clusters of the arts where nourishing ecosystems become established. Some countries have more than one. In the US, for example, one can consider New Orleans and Los Angeles in a similar light. Young people attracted to jazz head to New Orleans while those hoping to make it in the world of film are drawn to Los Angeles.

Does it matter that there is no such place for the young to run away to akistan? Is the artistic culture of the country being impoverished or not being rejuvenated sufficiently or being confined to those who have privileged access to it by being born in the right home in the right place?

Young men from Charsadda and Skardu and Turbat do move to Karachi for jobs but does one know of budding musicians or artists or actors heading there from similar places with a hope that a nurturing haven would be found in the metropolis.

Lahore could have been considered a mini-Bombay in the decades when it had its major film studios and the Pak Tea House as the abode of writers. But that seems no more the case. Even then, at the Tea House it was only local students who could become part of the intellectual circle. There is no evidence of a regular influx of outsiders turning up with burning ambition and the hope of learning enough to make a living from their passions.

I hope I am wrong and wish someone will identify such places in the country. Perhaps some shrines, especially in Sindh, serve a similar function though I wouldn’t put them in the same category as a place like New York where something new is always in the process of being born.

I am also sobered by the thought that over the last few decades places to run away to in Pakistan might have emerged for the young moved by religious fervor. Depending on preference they could head to Raiwind or Akora Khattak or Karachi with the knowledge that they would find a haven with refuge and nurturing.

Some of these havens have acquired international recognition and youngsters have started streaming to them from the far corners of the globe. In a sense they have attained the stature of the Paris between the two wars when it became the destination of choice for aspiring artists from the world over.

Could this be a reason that Pakistan has become known in the world as the center of Jihadi culture while its artistic evolution continues to shrivel?

This opinion appeared in Dawn on April 30, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.

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