South Asia's common heritage: Dire need for support, preservation

Museums and art galleries are the preserves of the common heritage of South Asia, and it is a pity these are often destructively targeted during political conflicts, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor

Mahendra Ved Apr 18, 2022
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Abida Parveen(L), Indus Valley (C) and Bamian Buddha (R)

Good music knows no barriers and transcends times, good or otherwise. On April 9, when Pakistan was being buffeted by a political crisis that eventually led to regime change, came Abida Parveen’s latest Sufi rendering along with Bollywood composers Salim-Sulaiman.

'O Mere Maula', hailed as a “cross-border Eid collaboration” by Dawn newspaper, also features Pankaj Tripathi, the Bollywood actor who is increasingly getting popular on OTT platforms that, mercifully, do not suffer from restrictions of political borders and are viewed globally by South Asian cultural enthusiasts.

As Abida Parveen, Pakistan’s most renowned Sufi singer, creates a spiritual atmosphere along with the Mumbai-based Merchant Brothers, Tripathi plays a poor flute-maker/seller whose children, under the father’s benign gaze, hawk the instrument and spend their earnings to distribute bananas among the poor outside a mosque.

A hit song 
 
The song has surpassed over 200,000 views on YouTube, according to the newspaper that says: “The video started with a show of two locations — Islamabad and Toronto, Canada. The collaboration between the musicians is displayed via video call. Salim-Sulaiman and the backup singers were flooded with bright green light whilst Parveen was washed in red. The neon lighting complemented the dark setting of the room and set the mood for the song. The singers are connected through screens as they serenade their listeners.”

Such cross-border collaborations took place when Imran Khan was at the helm as prime minister. Although he expressed his liking for India and Indians, especially during his last days in office, he deprecated “Hollywood-Bollywood” imports. He preferred and promoted Turkish television series, saying they reflected “Islam’s glory and renaissance”.

New Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has indicated reaching out to India for trade, something Imran Khan did not, despite prodding from his military mentors, especially the Army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and business leaders.

Bollywood & Pakistan 

A businessman to boot, Sharif has also talked of resuming the import of Bollywood films that, in the recent past, helped Pakistan’s film industry grow, especially the film exhibition. It belied the fears of Pakistani filmmakers that they would by swamped by Indian films. The OTT platforms have, in any case, broken that barrier, and Pakistan did come up with some good responses to the challenge. It would now be for the Sharif government to resume drafting a film policy begun (or mooted) by the Imran Khan government.

Nevertheless, Bollywood films have gone global and remain India’s most significant cultural and soft-power export.  Other Indian cultural ‘exports’ have included religion, art, architecture and much else. That came out vividly in the UNESCO’s Goodwill Ambassador Madanjeet Singh Memorial Lecture delivered by Fakir Syed Aijazuddin, renowned Pakistani art connoisseur and a former culture minister in the Punjab government in Pakistan.

His lecture on “South Asian Art in Pakistani Collections, Public and Private" was virtually organized by ACJ: Asian College of Journalism; UMCSAJ: UNESCO Madanjeet Singh Centre for South Asian Journalism; MSF: Madanjeet Singh Foundation and SAF: South Asia Foundation.

Buddhist heritage 

Aijazuddin conducted a virtual tour of what is preserved in Pakistan of ancient Indian heritage from Indus Valley, Buddhist, Shaka and Kushana periods down to the Mughal and British eras and Maharajah Ranjit Singh‘s empire that extended across parts of Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet.

He emphasized that with its rare Buddhist era artefacts and relics, Pakistan had the potential of being a pilgrimage destination for Buddhists across the world.

His lecture covered what is preserved in the museums in Lahore, Taxila (Takshashila), Swat and other places and that brings the focus on the role the museums play in preserving the past. Conflicts have posed the biggest dangers as was evident in Iraq, Syria and other places where the museums have been specially targeted, with all the fury, determination and cruelty that those preserved in stones, canvases and musical instruments do not really deserve.

Kabul Museum, for one, was systematically subjected to stealing as the last century ended and closed down by the Taliban. A visit to the museum in 2005 indicated that what had survived the pillage was fairly well maintained. The fate of the Kabul Museum, and of museums in other Afghan cities, remains unknown, now that the Taliban are back in power.

Taliban vandalism 

The group destroyed the two Buddha statues in Bamiyan, central Afghanistan, on March 11, 2001. On the 20th the anniversary of the carnage, The Art Newspaper, an American publication, reported “New concerns for the Bamiyan Valley's future in Taliban hands” as local Afghan archaeologists reported “evidence of encroaching development, looting and a new coal depot near the site”. The publication said it posed “major threats to its status—and its future”.

However, ancient Buddhist relics located at Mes Aynak, a few kilometres outside Kabul, are being given a facelift and being cleared of encroachments. The reason, ironically, is not archaeology or the love of the past heritage. The area has unexplored copper mines and the cash-strapped Taliban are persuading the Chinese company that had signed a contract to come and begin work.

It was just as well that Fakir Aijazuddin did not touch upon the statue of Maharajah Ranjit Singh in the Lahore Fort. It was donated by a United Kingdom-based Sikh body and installed in the Fort’s premises with the authorities hoping to attract tourists. It has been vandalized thrice by Islamist youths amidst a debate whether it is okay for the Islamic Republic to have a statue of a king who is seen as controversial in his dealings with Sikh, Muslim and Hindu subjects.

The unstated truth is that the museums and art galleries remain perhaps the last preserves of the common heritage of South Asia, and it is a pity that these are often destructively targeted during political conflicts, especially in this part of the world.

(The author is a veteran journalist and commentator on South Asian affairs. Views are personal. He can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com)

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