Twilight of the arts

Abdur Rauf Yousafzai reports on Mardan's traditional singers and dancers, many of whom feel increasing hostility from society

Twilight of the arts
Mohalla Phulail or Shago at Par Hoti, district of Mardan, comprises of mud and brick houses. The dirt in the streets negates the tall claims by the Mardan Municipal Corporation and the ruling party in the province, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), of a clean city. Phulail Mohalla is in the main bazaar opposite to Par Hoti Police Station. It would seem that everyone wants to pass this place without looking towards the buildings and their inhabitants. But at the same time some young men are roaming in the streets and waiting for sunset. Once this place was a known hub of culture and artistic activities, and it has produced popular custodians of Pakhtun music and performing arts. Since a century, Phulail Street introduced magnificent singers and dancers like ghazal maestro Khyal Muhammad, the melodious voice of Bacha Zareen Jan, Kishwar Sultan and dozens more.

“Before the Afghan war, there were dozens of Balakhani or Kothas [traditional singing and dancing venues] but this centre of arts and culture, once a refined and civilised learning spot, has been replaced by shops, tea stalls and banks” says Malik Ghulam Qadir, an 80-year-old local. “The dancers, musicians and singers would have to set up their instruments after sunset. At that time people thought in a more democratic or open way and the atmosphere was peaceful. This very area would sleep late at night and start its day after dusk!” he recalls.

Qamro Jan

The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa police force is notorious for "moral policing"

Popular singer Qamro Jan started her career along with her sisters and cousins in this very street. Today she is living in a small house with her brother in another locality and she is hesitant to disclose her identity because now her art is stigma for her nephews. Qamro is in her mid-seventies and spends a dependent life. She remembers her singing days: “It was another time. Respect for art and artists was at its peak and this area was attracting art- and dance-lovers”. Qamro appears to find it hard to explain the decline of the music scene and the behavioural change of the state and its citizens.

“Society was more balanced and no one was violating the other’s rights but the abrupt change in peoples’ thinking about artists is beyond my imagination,” Qamro states. “We [artists] have received immense appreciation from the common people of this region but now a majority of the population consider us preachers of sin and be-hayai [immodesty or indecency]” she laments.

Iqbal Hussain is proud to have passed his artistic heritage on to his daughter

Prof. Khadim Hussain expresses his views in his last article about this phenomenon in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA):

“This region was ‘Arabised’ and Talibanised through extremist violent organisations and their hardliner madrassahs and religio-political parties. Space for indigenous literature, music and dance was squeezed through all academic, media, cultural, legal and political tools. Celebration of diversity and tolerance for difference of opinion were also squeezed out of the veins and arteries of the Pashtun society”.

Famed singer Kishwar Sultan performs on national TV

Dancer and singer Intizar Gul’s whole family is involved in the singing and dance profession for more than 100 years. She has learned the art of dancing from her grandfather and now goes for Mujras along with her sister and cousins. She, too, complains about the society’s thinking and approach towards art and artists in recent years.

“The protectors (Police) and society’s attitude is very disgusting towards us,” Intizar says. She speaks of an incident a few days ago when the local police station raided her house and locked up the male members without any warrant.

Her husband says in a long, breathless and emotional sentence, “We are the last custodians of the indigenous Pakhtun music, we spread happiness among the people, we are born to celebrate the memorable days of the people!”
"I am from the last generation who kept lit the candle of love and peace. Now my profession is no more one of respect - instead, it is a stigma" Intizar Gul says

Meanwhile a police officer at the Par Hoti Police Station rejects all such claims of harassment of artists. He adds that “on and off”, the police search the homes of these people because “criminal persons” often visit their houses later in the night.

“To ensure the safety and easy life of the artists is the prime motive of the KP police” he insists.

Nevertheless, the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa police force is notorious for “moral policing”. In the recent past, in Mardan and Swat, transgender individuals were asked by District Police Officers to leave the town. In reaction, the Peshawar and Mardan transgender community organised protests with the support of civil society in front of the Peshawar Press Club.

Intizar Gul feels that the traditional instruments and artists have been replaced by ‘modern technology’ as well as the girls from “non-artist” families. And thus, for her, music and dancing have lost their ‘pride’ as art forms in the region.

Malik Ghulam Qadir, the aged local resident I met earlier, remembers a time when such cultural activities were rarely - if at all - criticised or halted by mullahs and religious elements.“Four decades ago, people’s level of understanding about culture was higher and faith was not at risk from artistic activities” Qadir puts it bluntly.

Another artists talks on condition of anonymity – clearly, safety is a significant concern:

”We abide by the rules and regulations and are also well aware of the critical situation in these days particularly for art and artists. Sometimes we request the police to arrive for raids with a lady police constable at any time, but they have very little concern for our self-respect. Although this society considers us “daman”, we too have a sense of self-esteem and are equal citizens of this country. Law enforcement personnel must give us the due respect.”

A traditional singer with rabab sings in a Hujra

Interestingly, artiste Intizar Gul denies any threat from militant groups and believes that the societal shift in attitudes is indeed the primary reason for the decline of the arts that she practices. “Yes we can adopt some other profession and we will” she says.

Safety issues are compounded by the fact that these artists are afraid of criminals, because they are known for being peaceful and are an easy target. “They do not how to use guns: their hands are made for Rabab, Harmonium and Tabla. There was a time when in this locale, dozens of Balakhani establishments were keeping alive music and art but now eight families are the sole custodians of cultural activities in Par Hoti, Mardan!” Gul says.

When all of Mardan city would prepare for sleeping, then this small town near the Kalpani river would start its day with Sur and Taal. “The sound of the flowing river and the melodious voice of Bacha Zareen Jan with Rabab and Tabla would ring throughout the area”, an elder resident of the street recalls, shaking his head wistfully.

“Modern technology increases the quantity of music but decreased the quality. In the old days everything was live!” a Tabla Nawaz named Naveed tells me. “Only professional singers were active in those days but now the computer makes everyone a singer.”

“We earn 15,000 to 20,000 rupees on any average music and dance night” a female dancer says. She doesn’t want to be named either. She adds, “After the killing of Aiman Udas and later of Ghazala Javed, all of us were terrified and for a few days we cancelled our activities and remained inside our houses.” Both were famous Pashto singers who were killed in Peshawar.

Intizar Gul, though, is a proud dancer who carries her elders’ profession. Nevertheless, even she does not want to see her daughters in this profession anymore. “I am from the last generation who kept lit the candle of love and peace. Now my profession is no more one of respect – instead, it is a stigma” she says. “Back in the day, in our Balakhana after sunset, many notable personalities of the town would visit to enjoy our performances. That is no more! This place was all about arts and entertainment but now the same society considers us ‘prostitutes’!” Intizar says, with a gesture of sadness.

Hidayat Khan contributes from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa on the subjects of music, art and other cultural activities for various media outlets. He believes that in General Zia-ul-Haq’s dictatorial regime the hardliners or religious fanatics changed the “secular and peaceful face of the Pakhtun society”. Hidayat adds: “The society here was changed in a most systematic way, to adopt a harsher vision of religion.”

Since 35 years, Iqbal Hussain is involved in the singing profession and lives in this historical neighbourhood. He recalls the times when he had a great name as a local artist. Today, he has been replaced by his daughter Ghazala Iqbal. In his case, at least, a century-old legacy has been successfully transferred to the next generation.

“I am proud. It was my prime responsibility to transfer this art, which I have accomplished before death” Iqbal smiles. “I have confidence in Ghazala’s talent. She will carry the flag as a sacred gift.”

Bakht Zaman Yousafzai, an Assistant Professor and Drama Director at the University of Peshawar, says: “Only flourishing societies have the courage to keep their culture alive in all circumstances. One of the reasons for intolerance in this society is a lack of extra-curricular activities in schools and colleges. Decades ago, educational institutions would provide an atmosphere of tolerance and respect for art in the shape of Bazm-e-Adab and cultural events that brought together students of differing ideological persuasions.”

For Prof. Khadim Hussain, meanwhile, the problem is also of a broadly ideological nature. He speaks of the decline of the legacy of Bacha Khan and his brand of inclusive politics:

“The legacy of the Khudai Khidmatgaar movement that had constructed and perpetuated a non-violent, pluralist and democratic narrative deep into the core of the Pashtun society was ruptured by state institutions for pursuing self-destructive policies in the region. The organisational continuity of an enlightened secular democratic movement was badly dented by dubbing it anti-state. Its system of large-scale political education was forcibly made dysfunctional.”

It would seem that among the many results of such a process is the decline of traditional arts and culture.

Abdur Rauf Yousafzai reports for The Friday Times from FATA and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. He may be reached at and tweets at @raufabdur