Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Treading Carefully in Lahore
By M Ilyas Khan
BBC News, Lahore

Wine glasses and tumblers sit in a row atop a huge sideboard along the wall and a couple of servants are rearranging furniture in the hall. They are laying the scene for the weekend party at an outhouse across the back lawns of a sprawling villa in the Gulberg locality of Lahore, Pakistan's cultural capital. But the hosts are increasingly nervous. "These days you have to be very careful about who to invite and who to pass over, because the word goes around and there are people who don't like such get-togethers," says one of the hosts, requesting not to be named.

Lahore's party scene has been unlike any other in Pakistan, bringing together aspiring artists, their potential promoters, business magnates, media dons, bureaucrats and politicians. But the growing influence of armed religious groups now threatens the late night revelries of the city's whisky-drinking professionals and topless dancers.

This threat became more pronounced recently when the city suffered two attacks by militants in a single month. "There's extra security at the gates, and we are increasingly careful with our guests' cameras. This is making everybody nervous," says the host. "During the last couple of years, the partying crowds have thinned out," he says. “When reactionary forces try to take hold of a society, art and culture are their first target” Imran Peerzada, Lahore impresario

The situation is no better at Lahore's famous Rafi Peer theatre which until recently was exporting dozens of live shows each month to rural and urban centres in Pakistan as well as abroad. There are hardly any programmes in the making now. "Things have been gradually getting tough since last year and this has led to widespread unemployment among artists and musicians," says Imran Peerzada, one of the owners.

Until last year, programmes overseen by Mr Peerzada alone employed 150 to 200 people, among them actors, puppeteers, dancers, technicians, set designers and other staff. Many more worked with Mr Peerzada's several brothers who together manage the company. Nearly all of them are unemployed now, he says.

This happened because of diminishing audiences as people have grown more cautious about their movements, he says, and also because the sponsors are increasingly reluctant to invest in live shows. Some artists also quit the profession because they were persuaded by Islamist preachers who have made inroads into the circles of actors, painters and musicians.

Aniqa Ali, a young singer who has just launched her first album, says she has come of age at a rather inauspicious time. "The launching [of the album] was good, but it was nothing compared to some launches I witnessed three or four years ago," she says. This is not good for a budding musician's career, she says, a problem made worse by a dearth of news about music, art and culture.

But for many there is a ray of hope. "When the attackers of the Sri Lankan team went unchallenged, the mood in Lahore was one of utter despair," says Yousaf Salahuddin, a socialite, fashion aficionado and music composer. "But the manner in which the attackers of the Manawan police academy were dealt with this week and the way people came out in support of the police, has been a great relief," he says.

To a casual listener, there is also a tinge of cynicism in his tone when he asks why the people of Lahore should be worried when no place on earth is immune to attacks by the militants? "When it first started happening several years ago, it came as a shock, but not any more. Now we have grown used to it." He may not be too far off the point. When asked if the militant threat was the greatest he had faced in his 30-year acting career, Imran Peerzada answered in the negative. "When reactionary forces try to take hold of a society, art and culture are their first target, and in Pakistan this has happened time and again."

“When you switch on the TV, all you see is news about suicide bombers attacking one place or another ” Musician Aniqa Ali

He says he still considers the days of General Zia-ul Haq, Pakistan's military ruler in 1980s and a self-styled Islamist, as the worst period. But the democratic governments that followed him were no better because they too danced to the tune of Islamists within the establishment. "The biggest dilemma of our generation has been to find a footing in a state that has been dictating culture to its people, regimenting them. This has stunted the growth not only of artists and musicians, but of all self-respecting individuals."

Both Mr Peerzada and Mr Salahuddin agree that the wave of militancy is a passing phase because it is opposed to the nature of mankind. But if history is any guide, says senior Lahore-based journalist Azmat Abbas, the current phase of religious militancy must show its ugliest face to the world before it passes into oblivion.

Dancing girls in north-western Pakistan have already seen that face. One of them has even been beheaded by fanatics who disapproved of her profession. But in a modern and culturally vibrant Lahore, that stage has still not arrived. Aniqa Ali worries about her career but, she says, she does not imagine being attacked by militants while walking down a street in Lahore. Not yet.

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