Saturday, October 29, 2011

VIEW: Year of The Faiz

By Afrah Jamal

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, October 29, 2011

“For the saddest epitaph which can be carved in memory of a vanished freedom is that it was lost because its possessors failed to stretch forth a saving hand while there was still time” — George Sutherland.

A bit of art to rebuild an ancient potter’s village, a sampling of prose to challenge the established order, a simple vision used as ballast to steady a foundering ship — when all three intersect, the ripples can create an alternate timeline. Setting aside 2011 as the year of Faiz has opened a doorway of possibilities.

Several months ago an open call was issued to interpret Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry through visual art. A specially designed A4-sized paper was the chosen medium of expression. This ambitious project was part of the ongoing centennial celebrations to honour a legendary poet. A few weeks ago that vision took the form of ‘Postcards to Faiz’ and was unveiled at Frere Hall, Karachi — a city where he spent many a day.


Faiz and his collection of ‘poetry with a purpose’ were recalled to serve as a mentor to the new generation who brought his most memorable verses to life. There was a nobler side to this charming little proposal that went beyond ending a nation’s prolonged estrangement from culture. This was reflected in the stirring speeches given by admirers, echoed in the sumptuous interpretations mounted on the panels, and witnessed in the determined faces leading the charge. The wall was not just a sentimental showcase for Faiz — it was an intervention to preserve the narrative of rationality in a polarised society.


The exhibit forged a connection between art and prose — a fusion that was to fuel a silent movement of change. Entries came from far and wide including the Fine Arts School within the local central jail. Around 150 artists (students and professionals alike from across the country and beyond the borders) came up with a compelling version of political/social transformation mined from his works. Arresting the downward drift remained the ultimate theme; the extension of a cultural lifeline to empower the disenfranchised became a valuable side effect.

The nation was entreated to join in the celebration of true genius. But this was also a contest — accompanied by a (not so) silent auction. Those who walked away with a piece of art would be assisting in the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the flood-affected village of Yarak (near D I Khan). Saving the potters was said to be in “keeping with the spirit of Faiz who touched upon the symbiotic relationship between people and culture”.

While being urged to rescue one heritage from Mother Nature’s wrath, extricating another from man’s careless hands was also indicated as a priority. Though the display was held in Gallerie Sadequain inside the freshly reopened Frere Hall (described somewhere as the best preserved monument of the British Raj) on the eve of its 146th anniversary, the need for restoration was deeply felt all around. Faiz, as the man credited with the creation of the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA) and Lok Virsa, the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage, would have shuddered at the state of neglect.



Nukta Art magazine and the Progressive Writers Association are doing their bit in fashioning a world where progressive ideas bloom and disparate voices speak in sync — a world that values culture as a necessary bulwark and a vital aspect of diplomacy. By fortifying such structures, many hope to outwait the coming storm.



Rumana Husain (founder/senior editor Nukta Art, founder-editor Aye Karachi) engaged youth from far flung areas and madrassas in the dialogue and in a few cases helped write the first chapter in their artistic education. For some it was a first visit to Frere Hall; for others a first encounter with Faiz. Such events set up a striking contrast between the wealth of talent and a dearth of understanding in the hopes of rectifying such imbalances.

The Faiz Art Award ceremony marked the end of the six-day event. Some of the art work is still available for sale with Nukta Art. That a man forced to endure incarceration and self-exile — a man who had his patriotism questioned and his loyalties tested has been enshrined in yet another Hall of Fame is a remarkable twist of fate.


Saleema Hashmi, Faiz’s daughter, often wondered about Faiz’s bond with his fans and family to figure out which was stronger and came to the comforting conclusion that both parties were treated on an equal footing. The connection was never lost but perhaps with time it got a little frayed. Reviving that link has been an important part of the process; redirecting the torrent of creative energy away from the fiery shores remains an ongoing struggle. The year-long celebrations are coming to a close. Whether this is acknowledged as a means to escape a waking nightmare, appraised for its enriching effect or treasured for its raw appeal, ‘Postcards to Faiz’ is a sweet notch on the cultural belt.

The writer is a freelance journalist who blogs at http://afrahjamal.blogspot.com. She can be reached at afrahjh@hotmail.com

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Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Book, a Social Networking site & 2 Photographers

Thanks to Tapu Javeri for the Twitter Invite.

BOOK REVIEW: Dou Rukh / By Arif Mahmood &Tapu Javeri
Published in Daily Times / October 15, 2011
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal


Two of the people in the room strive for the same, elusive goal — to crystallise intangible fragments of the soul, to craft safe harbours for frenzied energy; to coax secrets out of ciphers. They may wander the same planes but have different agendas. And only when they are done plumbing the depth of human emotion can the rest experience a world draped in shadow and light.


Their separate ideologies run parallel in Dou Rukh (two sides) — a coffee table book that showcases the work of two giants — Arif Mahmood and Tapu Javeri and the exhibition of original photographs that accompanied the launch. With 16 willing subjects — 18 if one counts the cameramen who posed for the shoot, and more than 30 images, these two collaborators briefly transform an ordinary surface into a veritable pantheon.

A Twitter invite wrested from Tapu Javeri can enable one to access the star-studded opening night extravaganza and witness the portraits come alive — starting with the mysterious lady on the cover. A few words from Arif Mahmood can help clarify the complex forces at play.

Arif is an award-winning Karachi-based street photographer with a slew of shows and publications to his credit. Tapu Javeri is a dominant force in the world of fashion and art photography. Pushing boundaries is his favourite pastime — according to an old interview.

Their objective, one learns, is not to document Jekyll and Hyde in action, which come to think of it is an equally fascinating endeavour, but to help the audience gauge the men behind the camera and their differing techniques. Together, these maestros have settled upon a simple theme — crafting two versions of the same story to stage a spectacle using the same ingredients, which is why one subject shows up twice.


The personalities chosen include veterans from the arts — some are already legends in their field, others are on the ascent. Dou Rukh offers something besides the ‘most wanted’ from celebrity-ville. A chosen few outside of showbiz make the cut. The social worker might feign indifference to the socialite but both will find themselves sharing the same space. As both mosaics overlap and diverge, pairing revered icons with beloved stars lends that perfect inimitable flavour.

IVS gallery featured the actual photos displayed side by side to provide an immediate sense of their whimsical style and distinctive artistic sensibilities. The book has been divided in two portions. The blank page preceding each image is for effect — says Arif.


But that picture hanging next to the monochromatic portrait of the qawwals — Farid Ayaz and Abu Mohammad by Arif Mahmood gives one pause. Has an exquisite piece of art lost its way? How does Tapu’s (odd looking) rendition relate to Arif’s (clear-cut) vision? “If you see the exhibit,” says Arif helpfully, “then you will get it” — forcing one to confess that they did, they have, and it did not help. Tapu Javeri’s delirium-inducing piece gets approving nods but continues to confound. One could have spent a lifetime trying to decipher its meaning. But there is no need to tax the poor overworked brain. The magicians are more than willing to reveal their secrets. It is just a face — blurred — a brilliant symphony of motion.


Shakeel appears happy that the hitherto undiscovered aspect of his character has been so effectively rendered. This duet is merely a vessel to serve up the contrasting colours and savour ephemeral sentiments. Whether it is the fraught subtext of Tapu Javeri’s Shakeel or the colourful flamboyance that is Arif Mahmood’s Marzi, Dou Rukh leaves a lingering sense of wonder in its wake.


Markings; Rs 1,200

Sunday, October 2, 2011

EVENT: (Original) Down the Rabbit Hole….with Our Lady of Alice Bhatti / By Afrah Jamal

slightly Mutilated version Published in Daily Times

The evening is a blur. Nothing works. Neither the mike - nor the trusty recorder. When the electricity bails – no one is really surprised. Karachi is here for a chance to witness M Hanif’s trademark irreverence, sample some delicious irony and get copies of his new book - ‘Our lady of Alice Bhatti’ - (and perhaps a dog-eared ‘Case of Exploding Mangoes’) signed in the bargain. So what if the world keeps collapsing around them.


M. Hanif - an award winning author who also served as the head of BBC Urdu service is here for a book reading/discussion/interrogation. Unlike his highly acclaimed debut novel - ‘The Case of Exploding Mangoes’ – which features a military academy and a high profile cold case (President Zia’s crash) - this one is not drawn from memory. Hanif pleads guilty to being a cadet once. He denies being a nurse.

Apparently he changed his mind about interviewing a real caregiver for fear of her forever looking for a faithful rendition of a nurse’s life. Hanif has not met Teddy’s of the world either unless one counts the scary encounter with a wretched body builder, at the mention of whom the lights, as if on cue - go out.


He reads an excerpt that hurls readers down the rabbit hole - all the way to downtown Karachi. Anyone familiar with Hanif’s writings will not be deceived by the demure looking cover or ‘Alice Bhatti’s’ seemingly harmless premise. This wordsmith is capable of unleashing a devastating tsunami with just a few brutal strokes from a world fashioned out of grainy images and stray bits of conversation.

‘…Alice Bhatti’ features at least one familiar face from Hanif’s literary past. Muneeza Shamsie - writer and critic extraordinaire who presides over the session wants to know about this cameo appearance by a character from his first novel. He is delightfully vague. Could it be nostalgia that prompted this sudden interest in time travel - a yearning to explore an old, forgotten character arc or a maybe it is just ploy to fill a void? He cannot (or will not) commit himself.

The session provides an unexpected insight into the author’s writing process. How Alice refused to behave till he changed her name - how he did not know where the story was set because for the longest time the character had not left the room. While his book may not deliberately set out to make a political statement but he insists on staying true to the politics of the characters.

‘Would he like to read from his book some more’, Ms. Shamsie wants to know. He would not. He then turns to the audience on a sudden whim - or so it seems (he had done this before in Islamabad & Lahore) wondering if they were okay with him sharing something from his Urdu collection. They jump at the mention of Urdu. ‘Why Defence needs Sharia’ is wickedly funny piece written some years ago when Swat was under the influence of one Maulana Fazl Rahman and his cohorts. Rehearsed or otherwise, an unexpected detour to satire-ville is a welcome distraction. Listeners only shriek when someone reveals a crucial bit of plot from ‘Our Lady of Alice….’ But otherwise the evening is a success.

Memorable moments from the event have been duly captured on film and a requiem for the lost audio file has already been held. Attendees will remember that there is a waft of mischief in the air. That both Hanif and Muneeza were good sports during the ‘can you hear me now’ game. And that no nurses were harmed during the making of this book. It is best to forget the mike which has a mind of its own – a mind that goes ta tum, ta tum ta tum, prompting the guest of honour to wonder if he could keep pace with the beat. Maybe he could. We will never know.