They lay in corridors and corners, dust covered and ignored, sometimes gaped at, but more often passed over. The Buddhist artifacts from Gandhara spent most of the prior few decades housed in the National Museum in Karachi, a squat building holding out amid the furious fumes of a city preoccupied with other things. School children came to visit, corralled by harried teachers, keeping count, threatening the wayward, the stragglers bent on cutting lines and touching things. The ancient relics faced tough competition for the attention of these young minds. As an eighth-grader in Karachi my introduction to the relics was a harried affair. Trooping up and down the musty hallways of the museum with a hundred other girls, I was—like kids through the decades—confused. There were so many of them propped against walls, peering out from too-small glass cabinets murky from the prints of my predecessors. I could not imagine a time when they were venerated, seated on altars, festooned with offerings on the same dusty squares where I was born. Pakistan was forty some years new then, and those relics from the first century seemed too old to be real, too ancient to really belong to a (relatively) brand-new country.
It is little wonder then, that I could barely recognize them in their recent reincarnation in faraway America. After prolonged diplomatic wrangling steeped in civilized mistrust, The Asia Society Museum in New York City has managed to borrow the Gandhara sculptures for an exhibition that runs through the end of October. Escapees from Pakistan, these remnants have now been resuscitated in the nourishing comfort of affluence. A cameo of gold and carnelian having fled its overlooked corner is resplendent in a dimly lit alcove, a first-century Bodhisattva granted reprieve from a sulky corner at home, is a centerpiece in a climate controlled gallery. On the benevolent tree-lined streets of New York’s Park Avenue, in the midst of art objects from all over Asia, these treasures of Pakistan’s discarded past are placed in a narrative that seeks to rise above the politicking, picking, and choosing that have been Pakistan’s experiments with history.
The Gandhara artifacts are not the only imports from Pakistan on display this balmy autumn in New York. Near the end of September, against the frenzied hobnobbing of the United Nations General Assembly, the Asia Society also hosted a concert by Salman Ahmad, the guitarist and vocalist from the band Junoon. It was the band’s anniversary, marking two decades since the release of its first album in 1991. In those days full of newness, Pakistanis, recently rescued from the hell of a single state-run channel and the silence of scarce music, were charmed by Junoon’s sound, delighted with music that was at once modern and indigenous. But while I did see the Gandhara sculptures courtesy of some committed teachers insistent on the necessity of the occasional field trip for girls I was never allowed to attend a Junoon concert. My petitions for permission, carefully worded and passionately plead were summarily rejected by my parents, for the simple reason that I was a girl and it was not safe for me to go, the presence of brothers notwithstanding. In those days pop concerts and democracy were both new to Pakistan, and we were all learning to manage the transformations, the suddenly visible dissent that dictatorship for decades had rendered comfortably invisible.
The intersection this autumn of these two legacies of Pakistan on Park Avenue cannot thus evade evaluation fall on my romantic scales of nostalgia; they wind around questions of what was, what could have been against the darkness of what is. To me, a transplant from Karachi, inhabiting my own migrant limbo, the objects brought from Karachi and Lahore tell the story of a bygone Pakistan, one even I never quite knew. Not the vanished country they would be expected to beckon, the remote world of the first and second centuries that marked the moments of their creation and adulation, but the more recent one, a bit less tattered by war, a little less plagued by disaster. The early nineties in Pakistan were not a period of calm; ethnic violence rent through Karachi bloodletting and killing much as it does now, and military operations attempted to clean up a country that was finding the expectation of purity housed in its name to be an onerous burden.
The Pakistan of the early nineties was not a peaceful or terribly tolerant one, and yet it was also not as muddled as the country occupying its tumultuous outlines today. Not governed particularly well then or now, it was in a way now only preserved in memory, unaffected by the simple binaries it has been cut down to by the War on Terror.
These oppositions reign supreme over all that is Pakistan; long lists of them—hatred versus tolerance, mysticism versus fundamentalism, moderations versus extremism—are neat categories imposed on a nation where everything that does not fit is considered invisible and irrelevant. The tragedy of war has been not simply the mounting deaths, the drained out dregs of empathy but also the destruction of nuance, of originality and variety for a single narrative of waging war and resisting war.
Art and artifacts are expressions of the intangible; they are by definition tenuous and fragile. Pakistani art and music poised at the cusp of actual annihilation is even more so.
Unsurprisingly, neither music nor art sputtering to survive terror can escape the shackles of this reductive tyranny. The Sufi-inspired music of Junoon’s Salman Ahmed attempts to resurrect the forgotten music of saints and mystics edged out of Pakistani culture by the scourge of revisionist history. Similarly, the Gandhara artifacts, carefully displayed with informative cards and curative attentions, attempt to enliven layers of a past eliminated from Pakistan’s national narrative. Both survive but cannot evade being judged by the constraints that dominate Pakistan’s narrative today: the threatening versus the non-threatening. The more insistently different from the grim apparitions of beheadings and bombings an artifact can be, the more space it can procure, the more attentions it can demand.
Undoubtedly, the existence and perseverance of art is brave in its faith in opposing the dark and destructive, but it is also—by definition—inescapably bound and constrained by what it resists. Neither the rhythmic renditions of Sufi poetry, nor the artifacts from Gandhara can evade the realities of their threatened existence. The chords of Salman Ahmad’s guitar cannot be heard apart from the beleaguered existence of music in Pakistan, the piles of CDs burnt outside Lahore’s bombed out Moon Market, the threatened concerts encircled by rings of machine gun toting guards. The suicide bombers that walked into the Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine last year may have heard strains of the same sounds, strung with more traditional instruments but echoing with the same devotion. The Buddhist artifacts cannot escape the haunting shadows of the Bamiyan Buddhas whose destruction over a decade ago is one part of the bouquet of destructive images gifted to the world by the Taliban.
Art and artifacts are expressions of the intangible; they are by definition tenuous and fragile. Pakistani art and music poised at the cusp of actual annihilation is even more so. While their actual elimination may be held at bay by philanthropy and the efforts of expatriate communities, the nobility of such efforts cannot eliminate the limitations to which art in exile must reconcile itself. The tragedy of survival in banishment is ultimately an admission that the threat of extinction supersedes the unpredictable magic of creation. This compromise, the crucial condition for survival abroad, represents a truth beyond politics—the stanching of a process of organic selection and experimentation that attempts to resist the ravages of war but ends up perhaps inevitably being defined by them.
The burdens imposed by this dynamic are formidable. It is not that the music of Salman Ahmed—his resurrection of tradition in modern form, his efforts to reinvigorate a strain of expression that has long enjoyed indigeneity—lacks beauty or the moving claims of tragedy. Its constraints lie not in itself but in the context in which it must now exist. Like the transplanted artifacts from Gandhara, it is trapped in the narrative of a war that has been defined not by art, but by a hatred of art. This mileu, simultaneously whetted by the cruelties of imperialism and fundamentalism, both enables survival and dictates its limits offering a set of requirements that binds creation. If the limiting, hate-filled agendas of the Taliban merit the destruction of mysticism and music and define history and artifacts as objects for destruction, Sufi devotionals and Buddhist relics must be valued not for themselves only, but for the virtue of their condemnation.
In post-colonial societies at war, questions of authenticity linger around every corner. If exile is defeat, then all migrants are all the losers of cultural selection—writers, musicians, and history all banished from the world that created them. If cultural contestation is based on evolutionary logic of survival within the culture in which it is created, then the winners are undoubtedly the Taliban, and before them the engineers of excision that erased a history that preceded Islam, decried mysticism as heresy, and condemned artistic creation as impurity. But if art in exile, banished from the context of its creation, is to go farther than survival, it must begin to recognize the constrictions not simply of its daring escape from elimination but also the compromises of its banishment. An artistic consciousness aware of both of these could then attempt to resurrect not simply the ignored past but also the ambiguity of the present. Such creative endeavor would explore the nuances lost in agendas that easily claim sides and establish parameters for what is usefully Pakistani, acceptably so, relegating all else that does not fit to remote recesses, unfunded corners, extinction.