Pakistan: Music returns to region amid scepticism

10 August 2016

pakistan-swat-report-frontcover-photocollage-590x300The provincial government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the north-western region of Pakistan, announced a fund to support 500 artists, including musicians, in the area by giving them $300 USD per month to create and practice their art, reported Al Jazeera on 27 May 2016.

Apart from the fund, the government is also planning on spending $5 million USD to revive the area’s cultural heritage after it has had to bear the brunt of a decade’s worth of fighting and destruction by Pakistani Taliban, as well as their strict enforcement of Islamic law that included banning musicians, thus risking their livelihoods.

The funds were alluded to on 3 March 2016 when musicians and artists gathered in Peshawar to celebrate Music Freedom Day where they raised the demand to the provincial government to draft a comprehensive cultural policy and brought attention to the fact that government after government have ignored their cultural contributions and demands.

Director of Culture Abdul Basit at the event said a cultural policy was being drafted along with an endowment fund for the welfare of artists, and that the stipend programme would be extended and would address those artists who were “left out” in the scheme.

Mixed reaction
However, now a few weeks later, the official announcement of the fund has been met with a “mixed reaction”, according to a Freemuse interview with Muhammad Rome, Executive Director of the Pakhtunkhwa Cultural Foundation-Peshawar.

“Many argue that the selection of the musicians and artists was not properly done, as many of the deserved artists have not been included to get benefited from the announced funds,” Rome said. “Many of the artists have refused to accept the monthly stipend from the fund. They argue that the provincial government on the one hand claims to promote the culture, but on the other they are all against it.”

The cultural policy has also been met with some scrutiny and is being seen by some as a ploy to garner favour with the government.

“The current government refuses to formulate the much needed cultural policy of which the draft was made long ago. In places like Swat and other parts, government-supported musical concerts are held, but they are performed by Punjabi artists rather than local artists,” Rome explained. “Analysts believe that the move has political objectives rather than the uplift of the culture. They think that such funds are meant to get sympathy from the artists in favour of the government who are facing failures on many fronts.”

History of music in the region
In a new report by the Pakhtunkhwa Cultural Foundation the history of music and culture is tracked from its beginning in the region to the unsteadiness of today that began when the Swat State was merged with Pakistan in 1969.

While music and other arts were enjoyed and featured in festivals in the past, the merger, subsequent spread of madrassa culture and the rise of the Taliban, which declared music “haram” – banning it in public and private places – with harsh punishments, meant that musicians and artists could no longer practice their craft, the public could no longer participate in such cultural activities, and businesses could no longer sell, produce or distribute the artists’ works.

swatreport-cover200-pakistanThe report, using primary and secondary sources of information, as well as extensive face-to-face interviews, notes that the volatile situation in the area has not only left artists ”psychologically shaken”, but left the area in economic ruin with a sharp drop in both national and international tourism, the “economic backbone” of the Swat valley.

“Large public performances faded away resulting in economic constraints for the community of musician families. Living in poverty has affected the quality of the art and is one of the main factors in the decline that took place in the following years,” the report reads.

For more on the state of music and culture in the Swat valley, read the story and download the full report here:
Pakistan: The war on living arts in Swat

This fear to perform, produce or participate in art continues to this day, even though the Taliban was dislodged in the area in 2009. Further, due to the still-tense security situation, public gatherings are a rarity and can only occur with permission from the local administration.

“Before the crisis, musical events regularly happened in the open; now they are only indoors, and that too is very rare,” singer and performer Kianat said. “When people prefer to go home early and avoid night gatherings, how is it possible to hold music gatherings?”

Music still feared
While the provincial government may try to change the landscape of the area for musicians, there are still villages in the region that remain cautious about what re-introducing music could mean for them.

Local government officials in the village of Sheikhan have banned music and dancing during weddings as they had “concrete information” from security forces that such events could be targets for militants, Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper reported on 28 May 2016.

The announcement, made via mosque loudspeakers, not only caused a panic in the village, but led to the cancellation of three musical gatherings and dancing events.

District member Fazalullah told the newspaper that the ban is intended to “reform” the youth who participate in weddings and to “prevent any attack” to the village since its near Khyber Agency, an area known to harbour militants.

“We need to stop the practice of musical evenings that are organised on the occasion of weddings and continue till quite late into the night,” Fazalullah said, calling the events and the late-night activities “not a healthy social activity at all”.

The Express Tribune contacted local police who said they had no information that militants were targeting musical events in the area.


» The Express Tribune – 28 May 2016:
K-P village bans music, dance during wedding celebrations

» Al Jazeera – 27 May 2016:
Music returns to Pakistan’s Peshawar

More from Freemuse

» 27 June 2016: Pakistan: The war on living arts in Swat

» 4 March 2016: Music Freedom Day in Pakistan: Call for cultural policy

» 3 March 2015: Pakistan: Artists and singers need safety, not a Censorship Act

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