To anyone who thinks of art as abstract, elitist and irrelevant to real life, a recent event in Pakistan might be a counterpoint. Recently a photoshoot featuring Zulfiqar Mannan and his woman colleague in front of the monument to Mr M. A. Jinnah (the Quaid-e-Azam) on the main Islamabad Highway has raised the heckles of the prudish nationalist brigade in Pakistan. A police report was filed against the models under Section 294 which relates to obscenity. Mr. Mannan evidently presented himself at the police station in Islamabad to offer his assistance in the investigation, following which, fake reports of his arrest started making the rounds. The incident invited the ire of the Twitterati in Pakistan, with many celebrities decrying the moral policing, misplaced priorities and state heavy handedness implicit in the persecution of the budding artist and a post-graduate student at the prestigious Yale University in the United States.
I must congratulate Mr Zulfiqar Mannan to share the honour of persecution for obscenity with another Lahori, Saadat Hassan Manto. Equally, Mr Rashid Malik, who filed the FIR against the artists, also deserves a (dis)honourable mention. He continues the long line of Kaedoos who always pop up wherever Heers and Ranjhas engage in matters of the heart and spirit. This Kaedoo may not be langrha (lame) but his sensibilities certainly are, as are those of his votaries.
First, I must confess that the ‘monument’ if one can call it that, encapsulates everything that is wrong with the official national imaginary
As the Pakistani press and social media burst out in outrage, the Indian media seemed to take a wicked pride in its coverage of the incident with screaming headlines like “Gender Jihad activist arrested” while others covered the outrage of the “Pakistanis over Yale student’s arrest.” The incident and the filing of the report against the model is like a joke writing itself, in addition to the hapless country providing fodder to its detractors. It is, however, the visual aspect of the photoshoot and its politics that invited my interest.
First, I must confess that the ‘monument,’ if one can call it that, encapsulates everything that is wrong with the official national imaginary. The portrait of Mr. Jinnah presents him in such a ghoulish aspect that I personally – as a Pakistani – am offended. You have to try very hard to make anyone’s portrait as unflattering as that of the father of the nation by Islamabad Highway. But the real gems are below that portrait. There is the obligatory reference to the militarist idiom of the castle of Islam. The three most hideous and sinister walls complete with battlements and mock arrow slits have inscribed on them the three words of the national motto. The words are in an order that they should be in an insecure Islamic Republic, instead of the order in which the father of the nation had intended them. Instead of the original order of ‘Unity, Faith, Discipline’, Faith trumps Unity to feature on top, just as it has since the days of General Zia in the national consciousness. The contraption is more a monument to the dreariness of the bureaucratic mind, that conceived and built it, than the rich constitutional legacy of Mr Jinnah.
It is in front of this reminder of the ossified imaginary of the establishment that the two artists saw it fit to enact some colour, life and irreverent comedy. They might as well have done the same in the humourless offices of Punjab Mehkma Maal (Revenue Office) or Thana Kuraal – the two archetypes of the Pakistani state’s cold and hard posture towards the populace.
It is in front of this reminder of the ossified imaginary of the establishment that the two artists saw it fit to enact some colour, life and irreverent comedy. They might as well have done the same in the humourless offices of Punjab Mehkma Maal (Revenue Office) or Thana Kuraal – the two archetypes of the Pakistani state’s cold and hard posture towards the populace
The inimitable Muhammad Hanif says that it takes years for the state machinery to even get a simple joke. But in this instance, a simple photoshoot hit the spot. The subversion is not of disrespect to Quaid-e-Azam, his awfully composed portrait does a fine enough job of that! The real subversion is bringing humanity and hence sexuality, laughter, gender and youth to the vapidly stoic story inscribed on the unfortunate hillside. It is this story that hurts the eviscerated and insecure nationalistic brigade the most. A banal soulless world where regimented concocted realities become the refuge of the “patriot,” is deeply shaken by the power of comedic and creative expression.
If art is about capturing the diversity, uncertainty, colour, joy, sorrow and richness of humanity in all its frailties and strengths, then that has to be a mortal threat to a state narrative of unidimensional militarist strength. The controversy around the photoshoot is an apt reminder that art and artists more than any other community are the vanguard of progressive change in society and the greatest threat to power. Even the vacuous nationalistic brigade is not vacuous enough to miss the threat.
Why should they not be protesting “obscenity” that destabilizes their deeper intellectual obscenity infused into the contraption?