All of a sudden, art and cultural cooperation look like becoming a casualty in the latest confrontation between India and Pakistan. We must not let that happen.
Let’s all hit the pause button on the news for a moment and remember what we have in common. Like our Indian counterparts, Pakistani music, poetry, television and literature have acted as a bridge between generations, cultures and nations — our nations. From Madam Noor Jehan to Abida Parveen, from Mehdi Hassan to Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, from Nazia Hassan to Junoon and the present generation, artists have provided a mosaic of cultural spaces that reveal the true face, hopes and common humanity of South Asia.
But amid the ongoing tension, here’s what cross-border collaboration is up against: Pakistani artists working in India have been threatened with violence by hawkish organisations like MNS. Indian film icons Salman Khan and Om Puri have reportedly been labelled traitors for arguing to keep art and culture separate from politics. And on the Pakistani side of the border, in response to the outrage in India, the Pakistani motion picture association and PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) have threatened to stop screening Indian films and ban Indian artists from appearing in Pakistani films and TV commercials.
What the threat-makers forget is this — culture humanises what politics demonises. Banning artists, writers, actors and poets will give victory to the terrorists and extremists who don’t want people-to-people contact. They only want to create fear.
Just a few weeks ago, Om Puri was in Pakistan, promoting the Pakistani-produced film Actor In Law, which is doing record business in the country. Indian artists are embraced by Pakistanis —and it’s not just a one-way street. Indian music companies, film producers and event organisers invite Pakistani artists since it makes good business sense to do so.
I speak from personal experience. Junoon’s short music film Ghoom Tana features my Indian friends Shubha Mudgal, Naseeruddin Shah and Nandita Das. We shot this in Patiala, where my mother was born, and from where she subsequently fled during Partition. What’s more, Junoon was the first and only Pakistani rock band to perform in Srinagar, in May 2008. Performing at the edge of the Dal lake, for thousands of Kashmiri students and South Asian leaders, is one of the best memories of my life. It revealed the possibility of harmony in our subcontinent, too often rocked with violence and border tensions.
Despite the trauma of Partition, our history of conflict and the pain of the present moment, there still remains, miraculously, great love, friendship and a deep spiritual harmony between Indians and Pakistanis, elders to current generations. I know this from my own experience — so does Om Puri and every Indian and Pakistani who has a stake in a peaceful subcontinent. It’s this kind of collaboration we must protect, even as our governments drag their feet to find solutions to our most intractable conflicts.
Driving a wedge between Pakistan and India won’t just imperil artists’ collaboration. It also threatens to disrupt our common cause of improving public health. In July, as a physician, I attended an exercise in the Maldives for building a disease surveillance network in South Asia. It was attended by public health experts from seven South Asian countries. Indian and Pakistani public health experts alike are focused on mobilising a disease surveillance network. That would require better communication between the two countries — not cutting it off.
I’ve lectured and performed at Indian universities and the overwhelming message I heard from students is — more people-to-people contact, not less. In democratic nations, diverse views like these students’ are welcomed, not muzzled. There should be the same across both sides of the border — and more of it.
In the 21st century, we live in an interconnected world. Whether it’s appreciating music and film or fighting polio, the joys and sorrows of life are increasingly shared. After Partition, we have three armies, three cricket teams, two jingoistic medias and two nuclear-armed states. And it seems as if the only people who want to work together are business leaders, artists and doctors.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The circle of light can grow wider.
When Junoon played in Delhi in February at a UNESCO concert promoting peace and education, an Indian mother brought her teenaged daughter to the show. Her daughter was named “Sayonee” after our hit song, since the mother grew up on Junoon’s music. When I met them later, Sayonee told me she’s learning to play the guitar — and the solo song that inspired her name. That is the power of music across generations and barbed-wire borders. Let’s take a deep breath and remember that 60 per cent of well over a billion Indians and Pakistanis are teenagers like Sayonee.
What kind of future do we want to give them? War or peace? The choice is ours to make today.