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Pakistan: The war on living arts in Swat

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Who is protecting and supporting the living arts after a conflict? A new report reveals how artistic life and the cultural industry is still suffering immensely after the Taliban were ousted from the Swat Valley in Pakistan more than seven years ago.

A new report on the effects of war and repression of musicians, performers and the public of Swat, Pakistan, published today, reveals how artistic life and the cultural industry is still suffering immensely after the Taliban were ousted more than seven years ago.

Written by Muhammed Rome, the report and five videos are published today simultaneously by Freemuse and Peshawar-based Pakhtunkhwa Cultural Foundation (PCF).

Impact of conflicts
The study reveals that although music slowly returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was overthrown, a renewed wave of terrorism began on the Pakistani side of the border. Cinema houses and exhibition centres were set on fire. Billboards that displayed images of women were smashed. CD and DVD shops were bombed.

To this day public concerts have almost ceased in Swat. Prolonged unstable conditions have resulted in the dwindling of professional musicians’ families – once a major feature of cultural life in the region. The number of families has fallen drastically, from 80 in the 1980s to 25 today. Due to fear of terrorists, shopping complex owners no longer allow the trade of CDs. Close to 200 CD shops have closed in Swat, only a dozen remain open.

“When the world talks about the destruction of cultural heritage by militants, there is a tendency to focus on sculptures, museums and monuments,” said Ole Reitov, Freemuse Executive Director. “The report shows how important it is that we address the huge impact conflicts have on the living heritage, the music, dance, cinema and other artistic expressions and the general public’s right to access arts and culture. ”

Cultural expressions halted
Music activities in the Swat Valley, once known for its rich music and dance traditions, were completely banned after Muttaheda Majles-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six ultra-conservative religious parties, came into power in the then North West Frontier Province (NWFP) from 2002 to 2007. During this period, the Taliban consolidated their hold in the region and severely punished people related to the music industry.

Although their public support had collapsed by 2008, in cultural terms the five years of MMA rule literally halted cultural expressions and proved suicidal for music. The only concert auditorium in the province, Nishtar Hall in Peshawar, stopped all its cultural and entertainment activities. The informal music institutions of Banr, Swat and the Dabgarai bazaar in Peshawar became victims of police harassment on a daily basis.

Revival of the living art
“Governments and donor organisations should not only focus on the safeguarding and restoration of monuments and heritage sites, but equally support the revival of the living art and the artists’ communities, which has suffered immensely as an effect of conflicts and wars. Swat Valley would be a good place to start,” Mr Reitov said.

The Taleban was finally ousted from Swat in 2009 in a comprehensive military operation, but the lack of action of the Pakistani government to support the development of cultural industries, together with the lack of a strategy on the part of the incumbent provincial government to redress the situation, has washed away hopes for the revival of music and cultural life in Swat.

“The incumbent provincial government claims high for the revival of cultural life but in actual they drag far behind in stepping towards the goal. They have even failed in formulating a cultural policy. If true and long lasting peace is meant in Swat, the lost socio-cultural spaces need to be regained”, said Muhammad Rome, Pakhtunkhwa Cultural Foundation Executive Director.



⇒ Read or download the full report:
‘Study on effects of war and repression of musicians, performers and the public of Swat, Pakistan’ (PDF)


⇒ See the videos

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Rehabilitation process ignores significance of the arts

“The Swat Valley, a beautiful natural region in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountain range, has witnessed many cultural, religious and political changes in its long history, some peaceful, but many others not.” (…)

“The current militants in the region are against singers, actors, writers, poets, musicians, performers and all things representing culture. The sharp decline in socio-cultural life has created a vacuum that is being filled by religious missionaries. Following these years of conflict, initiatives have taken place as part of the rehabilitation process. However, art and music, despite being important components of society, have been ignored.

The lack of action of the Pakistani government to support the development of cultural industries, together with the lack of a strategy on the part of the incumbent provincial government to redress the situation, has washed away any other hope for the revival of music and cultural life in Swat.

Despite all this, music and artistic expression is natural to human culture. They have been thrown to the back at the moment but cannot be pushed altogether to oblivion. The younger generation of musicians, the love for the Rabab and the people’s realization of their losses present a hope for regeneration.”

Excerpt from the Executive Summary of the report

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Report videos: The war on living arts in Swat

Five video productions, listed below, have been produced as a part of the ‘Study on effects of war and repression of musicians, performers and the public of Swat, Pakistan’ by Muhammad Rome

1. Discussions with the Banr community

Discussions with vocalists Kianat and Muskan Fayaz and musician Fayaz who are members of the Banr musician community in Swat.

The musician community of Banr has been evolved during the rule of Mian Gul Jahanzeb (1949–1969). The community has contributed a lot to the realm of Pashto music in terms of vocalists and musicians. After the merger of the State in 1969, the downfall of the community began. Great damage was done to the community during the rule and Islamisation drive of General Zia.

Later developments in the region had long-lasting effects on the community. The MMA rule (2002 to 2007) and the Taliban rise in the valley have a shattering effect on the music and the people related to it. They have been targeted and finally displaced. The crises have drastically affected the quality as well as the number of the professional community families.

In the upheavals the number of musician community families fell from 85 to 40 in the 1980s.



2. Interview with actors about the war on living arts in Swat

This discussion was held with actors, producers and play writers in Mingawara Swat.

The local acting industry before the militancy in Swat was quite flourishing. There were many actors and actresses who were involved in the production of the short plays. These short plays were very popular in Swat and beyond. The militancy damaged the industry severely. After the crisis it was expected that the industry would be revived. But no attention has been given to the socio-cultural life in Swat. The production of the short plays have become very less. The people related to the industry have been suffering due to the lack of interest in its revival.



3. Malak Iqbal Rawan talks about the war on living arts in Swat

Malik Iqbal Rawan is an elder of Swat. He is a passionate artist and organiser who holds musical gatherings against all odds.

Malik Iqbal Rawan has been a participant in musical gatherings since the Swat State time and has been an eyewitness to the transition period of the socio-cultural life of Swat.

The interview about current issues and the Swat State era in regard to the artistic and cultural life of Swat was held in the lawn of Malak Iqbal residence in Sangota, Swat.



4. Usman Ulasyar talks about the war on living arts in Swat

Usman Ulasyar is a cultural expert and activist from Swat. Currently he is heading Suvastu Arts and Cultural Association (SACA).

The interview was conducted in his residence in Saidu Sharif, former capital of Swat State. He has analysed in depth the socio-cultural aspect of Swat, the situation of music, Swat musician community during the State times and afterwards.



5. CD retailer Usman Khyali talks about the war on music in Swat

Pakistani CD retailer Usman Khyali talks about the disastrous effects of the war and repression.

The militants burned Khyali’s three shops. After the militancy period, no compensations or the revival of the industry took place.

During the militancy period in Swat (2007–2009), CD shops were targeted frequently. The content of the CDs were music and short plays. The militants banned all things related to music and acting. As a result, the CD business halted completely during the period.

Usman Khyali was interviewed to highlight the situation during the militancy and afterwards. The interview was held in the shop of Usman Khyali in Mingawara, Swat, Pakistan.

» Read more: www.freemuse.org/?p=9587



The videos above can also been seen and shared via this Youtube-channel. They were produced as part of the ‘Study on effects of war and repression of musicians, performers and the public of Swat, Pakistan’ by Muhammad Rome



Pakistan: Famed Sufi singer killed by gunmen

Freemuse calls for counter narratives to religious extremism

On 22 June 2016, one of Pakistan’s most famous singers Amjad Sabri was killed by two gunmen. A spokesperson for a branch Taliban group in the country said they targeted the singer because they consider his music to be blasphemous.

“We call on Pakistan to bring to justice those who are responsible for the killing and those who are continuing their hate speech against artistic freedom. These atrocities will not cease until Pakistan actively begins to engage in counter-narratives to the religious extremism in the school systems as well as in the media,” said Freemuse Executive Director Ole Reitov.

» Read more



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