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When India-Pakistan Cultural Strands Make
A Subcontinental Whole
|by Minu Jain|
The year was 1976 when India's state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan telecast the Urdu film "Mughal-e-Azam" in its border city Amritsar, creating ripples of excitement in Pakistan with nearby Lahore reporting packed hotels, overbooked flights and empty TV shops as Pakistanis grabbed the chance of seeing the much talked about epic romance.
The cultural bonds between India and Pakistan are still as strong as the TV signals between the twin cities of Lahore and Amritsar then -- 30 years ago, the exact halfway point in the six decades since the partition of the Indian subcontinent led to the creation of Pakistan.
India's External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee put it best during his recent visit to Pakistan. Standing behind the ruins of the ancient 5th century BC ruins of Taxila near the Pakistan capital Islamabad, he said: "We share a common linkage and culture and this commonality brings us together to resolve the present crisis in the spirit of understanding and amity."
"If we do not forget that continuity, perhaps we shall find solutions to the present problems," Mukherjee added at the ruins of the Gandharan city and the important centre of Vedic and Buddhist learning at the university of Takshashila.
The "present problems" are rooted in recent history.
Two distinct nations emerged in 1947, living since in often uneasy times and fighting wars with territory and terrorism becoming intractable sources of tension. But for the people, particularly those from northern India, the bonds of shared language, history and culture have survived, and become stronger with time.
Be it cinema, theatre, music, dance or literature, artists in both countries have influenced and inspired each other over the years to create a composite culture.
Take India's $1.3 billion Hindi film industry, popularly called Bollywood, whose stars and styles have found eager audiences across the border. Most Pakistanis are as up to date about Indian film stars as Indians themselves, avidly discussing the latest film, the latest gossip and the latest trends.
Though the commercial release of Indian films is banned, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf made two exceptions last year when he allowed the release of "Taj Mahal", about the eternal love of the Mughal king Shahjehan for his wife Mumtaz and the luminescent white marble mausoleum he built in her memory, and "Mughal-e-Azam", the colored version of the 1960 masterpiece about the romance of another Mughal prince with a courtesan.
The circle had come full circle for India-Pakistan and the complex thread of culture, history and emotion that bind them together with "Mughal-e-Azam". The premiere of "Mughal-e-Azam" in Pakistan was an important symbolic moment for the people of the two countries.
As it was when the hero of "Mughal-e-Azam", the now aging thespian Dilip Kumar traveled to the Pakistan capital Islamabad in 1998 to receive the country's second highest civilian award the Nishan-e-Imtiaz. There were many in India who said he must return the award, but Kumar, born Yusuf Khan in the Pakistan town of Peshawar, did not saying that it had been given to him for the "humane activities" to which he had dedicated himself.
"I have worked for many years to bridge the cultural and communal gaps between India and Pakistan. Politics and religion have created these boundaries. I have striven to bring the two people together in whatever way I could," he stated firmly.
The adoring crowds in Pakistan so overwhelmed Kumar that he couldn't even visit his home in Peshawar.
Any doubt that films and their heroes hold the same emotional appeal on either side of the border have been removed in the years since with current Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan commanding the same following.
Indeed, thanks to the power of DVD and VCDs, Pakistanis get to see Hindi films the day they are released in India.
The buzz that the government is considering normal releases in Pakistan persists and there are Pakistani origin artists like singer Adnan Sami and actress Meera who spend long periods in India for professional purposes.
Stars often bridge the politician-people divide, and it was no coincidence that when former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee crossed over to Pakistan from the Wagah border in Punjab on a bus he took along with him another veteran actor, Dev Anand, who simply stole the show.
Moving beyond cinema are the many other cultural strands that make up the subcontinental whole. Like music with artistes such as the late Pakistani Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan whose albums even after death continue to sell in the thousands in India and who is credited with reviving the qawwali form of singing in the subcontinent.
Or the 'nightingale of India' Lata Mangeshkar, who Pakistanis say only half jokingly would fill up the entire cricket stadium in Lahore just so they could hear a single note.
In the ghazal genre, where verse is set to music, Pakistani artistes have held sway over Indian markets with artists like Mallika Pukhraj, whose immortal paean to youth "Abhi to main jawan hoon" (I am still young) continues to evoke a frisson of delight, Nayyara Noor, Farida Khanum, Noorjehan and Iqbal Bano.
The names are many - Abid Parveen, who travels to India every year for a festival of Sufi music and whose Sufi music touches a chord somewhere deep, Reshma, whose rough cut rural folk songs have always been a rage and Pathana Khan, who sang in Saraiki language. When he died a pauper in Pakistan, it was in India that tears were shed for the unsung artist.
In the more contemporary world, youngsters in India can be seen jiving to the beats of bands like Jal or Junoon.
Sometimes, this cultural connect can lead to hilarious situations. With Pakistanis having a window into India thanks to satellite television and avidly following not only news but also the latest soaps and style trends, even the littlest child is aware of customs or marriage rituals that form the staple of so many shows. And so it was that a young boy at a nikah, a Muslim marriage ceremony, in Islamabad some years ago asked somewhat puzzled: "What happened to the pheras (the Hindu ritual of marriage where a couple takes seven rounds of a fire)?"
Many Pakistani soaps have stood the test of years with Indian viewers. Television serials like "Dhoop Kinare", a doctor-doctor romance, gave Indians the first look into Pakistani society way back in the 1980s. They so caught the fancy that children were named after the heroine called Zoya and the actress herself continues to be a source of some curiosity.
It is said that Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the subcontinent's more revered and read Urdu poets, said the roots of Pakistani culture lay in Delhi and Agra. According to columnist Samuel Baid, Faiz had to leave the country when the record became public during the regime of military dictator Zia-ul Haq.
The other litterateur who held a profound grip over the region was Saadat Hasan Manto whose stories of the partition of the subcontinent held up a grim reflection of the bloody separation, also the gentler, but equally savage Ismat Chugtai, who mirrored the hypocrisies of society and was popular on both sides of the border.
However deep the chasm between the governments of the two countries, the cultural bridge goes stronger everyday and with every crisis. And one day the gulf might be bridged completely.
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