Art’s relationship with power


by Harris Khalique



It is indeed a matter of profound privilege and great pleasure to deliver this speech at the closing ceremony of the 11th Karachi Literature Festival. Particularly, because this city by the sea is my birthplace and although I have not been living here for long, “to my soul/ the streets anywhere are the streets of Karachi”.

Let me begin my submissions on art and its relationship with power: what our previous generations have undergone in the past and what our present generations experience in contemporary times. I speak on behalf of those creative writers and artists who are committed to the values of inclusion and pluralism and believe in fundamental freedoms of speech and artistic expression. I have little concern here for collaborators of power among the ambitious rhymesters, calendar artists, cultural entrepreneurs, and propaganda filmmakers.

In the 19th century, and a little before, our ancestors saw the fall of the Mughal Empire in the Indian subcontinent and the decimation of their succeeding regional domains, from Bengal to Awadh and from the Deccan to Punjab, at the hands of the British. They witnessed the lost War of Independence and the absolute ascendancy of colonial rule. Then, in the first half of the 20th century, their later generations felt the tremors coming their way from Europe, caused by the birth of totalitarianism, ironically from the womb of electoral democracy, and the two great wars.

The spectres of those two ages come together to haunt us today — the spectres of imperial subjugation and popular fascism. Our age, however, is comparable yet distinct from those ages. During the 19th century in the Indian subcontinent, the contours of a different era being born were visible to the wise. In the case of Europe and North America, after surviving totalitarianism and wars, there were thinkers and planners who could go back to the drawing board. But today, we witness a world falling apart without any signs of how the future will unfold. Even the best among us grope in the darkness of the present.

In his recent work Age of Anger (2017), Indian author Pankaj Mishra presents how the long-held beliefs about the impending success of the institutions of the nation-state and liberal democracy are being so vociferously contested. Besides, the very concepts of inclusion and secularism are challenged, largely as a consequence of the disregard for these ideals by their own champion societies and global institutions.

Can art be separated from issues of power? How does creative expression in today’s world differ from the eras that have come before? What is the role of the artist in an age of neoliberal economic order and a global rise in fascism and the crushing of dissent? Eos presents a thought-provoking keynote speech by Harris Khalique, delivered at the closing ceremony of the 11th Karachi Literature Festival 2020

We see the rise of Donald Trump in the US, Boris Johnson in the UK, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Narendra Modi in India. When it comes to international institutions, we live under an undemocratic UN — owing to the arrangement of its Security Council — and the G-7, being an elite nations’ expedient club that overshadows the global economy.

There is no standard path of history available anymore within a normative framework that would describe the future for nations such as ours, who lag behind in political evolution, social development, scientific achievement, and technological advancement. On the one hand, it seems that the human collective has lost track but on the other hand, however, this moment in history may also be taken as an opportunity to stop denying diverse peoples their contexts in the name of universality.

This can mark a new beginning for according due recognition to contextualised discourses without overlooking universal human connections. That will bring enormous responsibility of charting new paths on our indigenous thinking led by contemporary academics, scholars, historians and social scientists. However, this onus has to be equally shared by our artists, because it is the only art that subverts power most decisively.

In Pakistan, since ever, shabby treatment was meted out to nonconforming artists who enriched our writing and fine arts by transcending intellectual and social barriers. Ones who subscribed to the principles of democratic rule or believed in the ideal of a classless society — whether writers or political workers — faced all kinds of repression. They had to make a choice every single moment — between silence and speech, caution and courage, calm and rage, amnesia and memory.

Although I have no personal recollection of the first two successive military dictatorships, I do have vivid memories of the last two. The ill-fated and short-lived civilian interludes between martial rules did much less than needed to remove restrictions on intellectual freedom and eliminate causes for fear among those who act, paint, sing or write. In fact, some civilian leaders matched the intolerance and vindictiveness of the martial rulers.

There is one significant difference between those who lived in the past and we, who survive in the present. Our predecessors in Pakistan faced a visible opponent — the oppression by the state carried out through its coercive arms, which were defined and manifest. Now, we face multiple opponents, besides the coercive arms of the state. They are insidious yet omnipresent. They are discernible but not entirely explainable. Because the key challenge of our times is a society that is both radicalised and fragmented.

Unlike in fascist Germany between 1933 and 1945, there is no unifying force that is able to coalesce these stark sentiments. There is a polycentric horizontal spread of the agency of violence. So there are storm troopers of various hues and colours adhering to different power centres. A society composed of people prone to bigotry and xenophobia characterises a simple linearity leading to popular fascism. It has a desire to eliminate those who shake up this linearity.

Since art and creativity pose a grave threat to linearity by their reliance on discursive categories and disruptive imagination, they make things complex for a simplistic mind. Therefore, art is censured and confined, if it cannot be completely eliminated. In his Lectures on Russian Literature (1980), Vladimir Nabokov comments on how one of the greatest Russian poets, Alexander Pushkin, would cause irritation to the Russian officialdom, particularly the Tsar himself. Here I quote from Nabokov where he mentions power’s view of Pushkin’s poetry:

“… instead of being a good servant of the state in the rank and file of the administration and extolling conventional virtues in his vocational writings (if write he must), [Pushkin] composed extremely arrogant and extremely independent and extremely wicked verse in which dangerous freedom of thought was evident in the novelty of his versification, in the audacity of his sensual fancy, and in his propensity for making fun of major and minor tyrants.”

The relationship between art and power in every society has always remained tricky. It becomes worse when art is confronted with imperial subjugation or popular fascism. Since in our times we face both, there is a constant tension at play, hide-and-seek, a tussle between subservience and subversion. Many, if not most, of the poets and writers anywhere are distressed because the experience of living in many places across continents is increasingly more troubling.

But poets, writers, and artists in deeply troubled societies like Pakistan are deeply troubled. There is an internal urge that makes us revolve around the axis of literature and an external pull that makes us rotate with the sphere of politics. The choice is not only to be made between silence and speech, caution and courage, calm and rage, and amnesia and memory. There is also an artistic choice that also needs to be made between rhapsody or gloom and indifference or compassion. It is a process of creating a space fringed by two options. There is a continuous negotiation that takes place between aesthetic sense and social consciousness. For a poem has to be a poem first and last, without compromising its artistic value.

I understand that the pressure on artists for making these choices battles with the social class of some, but challenges the inherent artistic preferences of all. To paraphrase Milan Kundera, we are hedonists trapped in an intensely political world. But since we are trapped, our expression has to reflect and resonate with the zeitgeist — the spirit of the age. Our writing and creative expression must contest the interests of the neo-liberal economic order only serving the elites and the affluent, and the coercive institutions of the state crushing or silencing dissent.

The dominant classes and institutions have little stake in listening to multiple voices due to their heightened sense of superiority. They seek managerial quick fixes to deep-seated social problems. This mindset leads to behaviours and actions that cause the weakening of participatory democracy and shrinking of the space for the free mind. Consequently, extremism and violence grow and expand. Once violence prevails, not only free political discourse is subdued, but critical cultural dialogue is muffled.

The conversation between art and power is a tedious conversation — frustrating for art and cumbersome for power. It is impossible for art to escape this conversation because there is a certain sensibility that gets developed among the best of its practitioners, who also refuse to leave their countries until forced. The few that immediately come to my mind from a rather long list are Nazim Hikmet from Turkey, Pablo Neruda from Chile, Anna Akhmatova from Russia and Mir Gul Khan Naseer from Pakistan.

Sometimes power is direct, brutal, non-negotiating and uncompromising. In the late 17th and early 18th-century Delhi, when authority sought submission and poetry refused, the verse of absurdist Urdu poet Jafar Zatalli cost him his life. Three centuries later, the designs of exercising brute force are reconfigured. Now purges take place and dissidents disappear. A critical intelligence report, a random petition filed in the court of law, an edict from a religious cleric or the dissection of one’s character by a TV talk-show host is enough to cause deep personal harm and severe public humiliation.

The ways of crude oppression are sometimes replaced by or stay in tandem with the ways of coercive co-option. For instance, in the case of Pakistan, it was during Gen Pervez Musharraf’s martial rule when an illusion of artistic and intellectual freedom was created for a coterie of self-satisfied liberals in metropolitan centres of Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad, that remain far away from Balochistan, parts of Sindh, Gilgit-Baltistan and the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas, now merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The primary narrative, hinging upon the supremacy of institutions inherited from colonial times as well as the dominance of a certain state policy focusing only on national security through kinetic means, unfortunately, remains intact.

In today’s Pakistan, we experience quasi-democracy. Whether or not we find tangible evidence for the so-called hybrid war being waged through cyberspace, we have evidence — firm and sufficient — that we live under a hybrid political dispensation. We see a rise in poverty and destitution, inequality and dispossession. Sometimes it seems that Marie Antoinette has become our queen who tells us to eat cake if we can’t afford bread. This is an age of chilling fear, with incarceration or disappearance of those criticising state policies and colonial sedition laws being used against non-violent political opponents.

These are the consequences of the resurgence of imperial subjugation and popular fascism. Books are being confiscated, films are being banned, poetry is being censored and the press is being gagged. The same is the case in some other parts of the world, and the worst is in Modi’s India. Kashmiris are brutally suppressed and Muslims across India face a pogrom.

Art anywhere confronts such nakedness of power and the artist never submits. A major fiction writer of our times, Julian Barnes writes in Flaubert’s Parrot: “the greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.” This is how real art views patriotism. Art also understands the old German saying: “The king makes war and people die.” In any such conflict perpetuated by power, the side that art picks is the side of life, truth, dignity, and compassion.

The contemporary human condition brings a lot of grief to a creative individual. Yet that feeling of grief is overcome by an inherent sense of pride. That pride comes from the ability of a poet or a painter, musician or a fiction writer, to challenge and ridicule the powers that be — ranging from Western hegemony to Eastern orthodoxy and all that falls in between — through the sheer subversive force of art.

Ghalib says:



For the free, grief does not last beyond a moment

Our lightning illuminates the dark room of sorrow

Courtesy: EOS, Dawn

Harris Khalique is a poet, essayist and the Secretary-General of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

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