The brash and unthinking endangerment of antiquity on the altars of cultural resistance against the Taliban is a fine illustration of Pakistan’s conundrums

The logo chosen by the government of Sindh in Pakistan for the Sindh Cultural Festival is immediately familiar — an “S” encased in a diamond; it is the logo for “Superman,” the hero who has delighted audiences around the world for decades. To indigenise this borrowed bit, the insides of the Sindh Festival’s “S” are filled in with burgundy and black in the traditional block print design of the Sindhi ajrak pattern. It is perhaps an apt pilfering; a superhero is indeed required to save the cultural heritage of Sindh, its languishing folk music, its shutdown art galleries, and its burnt down cinemas — all damning proof of a silenced cultural discourse.

If the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) were to have its way, that hero, prescient and powerful, would be Mr. Bilawal Bhutto, the son of the slain Benazir Bhutto and Mr. Asif Zardari. If Superman’s “S” has been the letter dominating the festival, Mr. Bilawal Bhutto’s smiling face and stilted Urdu, sometimes flanked by one or both of his sisters, have reigned over its events. On February 1, 2014, at the inaugural ceremony of the two-week saga, beaming, smiling Bilawal, the author of so many brave, anti-extremist tweets, vowed to save Sindh’s culture against the obscurantism of the Taliban. Before an audience of hundreds, mostly political functionaries and friends and relatives of party leaders, his sister, Ms Bakhtawar sang a rap song in English. Its lyrics exhorted Pakistanis to “stand tall” on “their soil with pride.”

Another story, of neglect

The stage on which the Bhutto children stood, as also the soil on which it had been erected to showcase their efforts at cultural regeneration, has a story. In the darkness behind the stage stood the 3,000-year-old “Mound of the Dead,” the iconic centre of the ancient city of Moenjodaro. In past years, this remnant of the Indus Valley civilization has been the site of just neglect and disrepair.

None of that is surprising in a country where history has been the handmaiden of the political ambitions of this or that ruler; the ruins of Moenjodaro have not added much to most strategic calculations. The dust has blown across its desolate mud buildings, the water table has risen, threatening the excavations, and the delicate mud bricks from which the inhabitants wrought their dwellings have begun to erode.

This has been the story until now. Sometime late last year, the leadership of the PPP, which controls the government of Sindh, decided that the inauguration ceremony for the festival must be held in Moenjodaro itself, and its proceedings undertaken on a stage directly in front of the historic “Mound of the Dead.” Against this decision no opposition could stand. It did not matter that the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared such a construction, of the stage, so close to the Mound excavation an “improper activity” that threatened the universal value of the archaeological site. It mattered even less that conservationists at the Department of Museums and Archaeology reminded the Sindh government officials that the Antiquities Act of 1975 prohibits any human activity within 200 feet of any national heritage.

The massive stage was thus constructed in the middle of Moenjodaro and with the old Mound as its photographic backdrop. Hundreds of workers, more than the site has ever had for its preservation or excavation, drilled and dug and dragged. They bought electric poles, wooden platforms and plastic chairs and all the other trappings needed to hold a grand event of unprecedented cultural regeneration. On Twitter, the superhero under construction, Mr. Bilawal Bhutto, gathered volunteers, saying, “If u would like 2 volunteer 2 help me preserve, protect & promote Sindh’s heritage email festivalsindh@gmail.com”.

In a letter, the UNESCO representative, Kozue Nagata, made a last-ditch effort on behalf of maimed Moenjodaro: “We appreciate the effort to revitalise the long-lost culture,” she said, “but it should not be done at the cost of destroying the ruins and structure of the site.” Sadly, the resuscitators of culture were too busy to listen.

A rabid ravaging

Culture and context are wed, and in Pakistan, the context is one of a rabid ravaging of all forms of cultural expression. The blasting of Buddhas, the bombing of Sufi shrines, and the banning of representational art and music are all mainstays in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s arsenal of terror. In killing-laden Karachi, 400 kilometres from Moenjodaro, the Taliban have killed a hundred people in blasts, murders and shootings in the single month of January. Beginning February with music and dance, the sale of artefacts and the display of tradition seems commendable. So it would be, were it not for the details of destruction wrought within it.

The brash and unthinking endangerment of antiquity on the altars of cultural resistance against the Taliban is a fine illustration of the country’s conundrums. If the forms of resuscitation were sowed in democratic groundswell and provided opportunity for political expression to the millions of Pakistani youth and not simply the scions of feudal families, they would represent an authentic and widely relevant oppositional discourse against the Taliban, one that is desperately needed. Like the stage erected for the Sindh Cultural Festival, built such that it destroys the very heritage it seeks to protect, the PPP-led effort to inaugurate and foment a form of cultural resistance has become instead the hollow manipulation of a cultural cataclysm for the launch of the next generation of Bhutto heirs.

(Rafia Zakaria is the author of the forthcoming The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan.)

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