The unfortunate death of Amjad Sabri has brought Pakistan back to a familiar juncture -- that of losing an accomplished individual to violence. A brief glance at recent history tells us that this has become routine and that, in all likelihood, this conversation will happen again in the near future. Yet, despite the frequency of these conversations, their content does not change. It remains static and inflexible. It seems that those that engage in these conversations already have fixed notions of what to say -- it is just that every new incident is simply a new opportunity to flaunt one's opinion. This can range from sponsored hyper-nationalism to radical anarchy. It is almost irrelevant who has been targeted where, when, why or how. Indeed, it could be anyone but as long as they are someone half-recognizable, social media will take the issue up, regurgitate the same old euphemisms and analogies, and then spit it out.
Amjad Sabri was a popular singer of devotional music and a recognizable face for a large number of Pakistanis. His father was one of the two Sabri brothers who, together, formed one of the best duets to have ever come out of Pakistan.
While it would be hard for anyone to live up to such a prestigious legacy, whether Amjad would have done so will now forever remain a matter of debate. Death came for him, as it does for everyone else, with little regard for his family, his career, his art or anything else. The unfairness with which death comes begs the age-old question of how could a fair god be so unfair to its creatures? As news filtered through of Amjad's assassination, social media gradually started responding in a manner that we have all become so accustomed to.
Members of our society wage an invisible, ideological war on the arts by dismissing them as useless pursuits...
Amjad's murder has been described in various ways -- as an attack on Pakistan's cultural values (to which I ask the questions that many have before me, have we defined Pakistan already that we can define its cultural values?); as an attack on a specific religious point of view; an attack on art that will inevitably end the art form of qawwali. Of course, similar proclamations have been made for many decades now. Such statements betray a superficial analysis of the situation at hand. I take particular issue with the last one quoted above -- that the attack will end the art form. Indeed, it is disrespectful to both the artist and the art form to come to such a conclusion. Though art lives on because of what the artist has given it, it does not just die when the artist is taken away. Further, as crude as it may sound, an artist being shot in cold blood does not amount to the end of an art form. The real threat to art comes not from the violence that claimed Amjad's life but from the ideological attitudes to art that have gradually become more prominent in our social consciousness.
Amjad was an artist who came from a family of artists. However, there are not many artists who come from non-artist families. But there are many non-artists who leave their artistic familial professions. Because of the movement of our society to a capitalistic economy, the type of individuals who pursue arts has been restricted to three. First, there is the socio-economically privileged individual who can afford to pursue arts without the pressure of having to succeed or having to worry about economic survival. Such an individual is thus able to focus solely on their art. Second, there is the talented individual who is peerless. This individual can be found across different social classes, privileged or not. The talent of this individual almost makes it irrelevant what class they come from. However, this is a rare type of talent and one that succeeds even in the face of obvious institutional and social barriers. Third, there is the devoted individual. This individual eats and breathes art. What distinguishes this individual from others who claim to also be devoted is that he or she is willing to be consumed by their passion for art. The commitment is independent of the class this individual hails from. It should be clear that the latter two types can overlap with first one, or with each other, while also being able to stand on their own. This theoretical refinement is a topic for another time.
Art exists despite the attempts to eradicate it. Art will outlive this country, this society, and this religion and its god.
Beyond these types, however, it is impossible to find individuals who pursue arts. Thus, a kid whose skill falls just short of the rare talent discussed above would never actually pursue arts because of the lack of encouragement (or, indeed, active discouragement) that he or she receives from those around. The kid is instead diverted into the more acceptable professions of medicine, finance, law, engineering etc. and forced to spend a life that does not quite do justice to his or her talents. Thus, the talent that could have been honed and sharpened and transformed into greatness instead becomes a slave to society. In such a situation, not only are norms conformed to and maintained, they are reproduced for future generations.
This is the case in not just my immediate and extended family, but also the rest of the Pakistan. My family would like to think it is educated because it can list the following, among many others, as titles that the members occupy -- a doctor, a teacher, a corporate banker, an engineer, etc. Yet, what good is education if it is merely instrumental to the goal of breaking free of class boundaries? It is useless and ought not to be considered education. Members of my family will die in middle-class mediocrity, having lived unfulfilled lives, and always having been too scared of committing fully and wholly to anything -- whether an idea, or a love, or an art. Yet, their consciousness is shaped by the society around them and thus they are not, unfortunately, isolated examples.
Art can deal with guns and bombs but it cannot deal with the social consciousness that seeks to defeat it.
Society as a whole discourages breaking free of these structures. This means discouraging the pursuit of art. Thus, even as the members of our society wage an invisible, ideological war on the arts by dismissing them as useless pursuits, they are the first ones to throw their arms in the air and declare an attack on Amjad as an attack on arts. Physical attacks, like those on Amjad, do not have the power to threaten art for art is bigger than the perpetrators of this violence. The extremists will die with time, then rise again at a different time, and then die again but art is permanent. It does not ebb and flow. It exists despite the attempts to eradicate it. Art will outlive this country, this society, and this religion and its god.
Art is a domain of ideas and ideas cannot be fought with physically. Ideas must be combated on an ideological level alone. Art can deal with guns and bombs but it cannot deal with the social consciousness that seeks to defeat it. The greatest war against art is not the one waged by the extremists but the one waged by this society. Every person who forces a child to give up a crayon for a stethoscope, a guitar for a calculator, and a sport for a grade is complicit in this war. It may be convenient now to simply shrug and say that economic, social, and political realities do not permit us to let our children pursue arts. But history will show that this is only because we willingly made ourselves subservient to forces that we had ultimately created ourselves. The death of Amjad, an artist, pales in significance when viewed relative to the backdrop of art being killed by us pushing our children away from it.
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