National Narrative, Erasure and Twenty Third March
National Narrative, Erasure and Twenty Third March

The boundary wall of Press Club was covered with larger-than-life portraits of iconic women of Pakistan (2016). This gesture of acknowledgement commissioned by the I Am Karachi campaign was painted by truck artists from the urban art collective, Phool Pati. However, the Press Club management could not stop the mural from disappearing behind posters put up repeatedly by people, who with their anger and pain were only looking to destroy. Each time posters were pasted on them, artists tried to restore the work; but in the end the murals were so badly defaced that the battle to save this artistic tribute was lost. Recognition of lifetime’s works of trailblazers like Yasmin Lari, Zubeida Mustafa, Fatima Suriya Bajia, Parween Rehman and Sabeen Mehmud among others, is now buried under white paint, away from the eyes of generations who could have been inspired by their courage and grit. Today a whitewashed wall stands in its place.

The first time I saw Amin Gulgee’s monumental sculpture at the intersection near BBQ Tonite’s roundabout, I was intrigued by its colossal size and in awe of the vision and effort behind it. Crafted from welded metal bars, wires and sheets it carried symbols from the Indus Valley clay seals. The image spoke of the legacy of a syncretic culture, and questioned the false construct of Pakistan’s history beginning with the invasion of Mohammed bin Qasim, a claim that is being instilled through history textbooks. The emblem flagged our proud lineage, one of an advanced civilization with the capacity to create a written language and build functional cities that traded with most of the known world of its time. Tragically, this monumental piece that had been commissioned with the support of corporate money and installed in a public space mysteriously disappeared overnight (2008, shortly after it was installed). It has been said, someone powerful could not relate to its aesthetics so carried out in a disappearing act that rivals the great Houdini. The sudden and willful disappearance of Amin Gulgee’s piece may be the result of seeing it as threatening— introducing an alternative perspective of history.

For centuries, the Clifton Road ended in a panoramic view of the shore beyond: the glittering sand skirting the ocean blue, a flaming orb over water at sunset, or glowing quietly at night. It was a magical moment we all anticipated at the top of the road just before turning. The familiar sight brought comfort; it was like greeting an old friend. This view was ‘stolen’ forever when the road was excavated to replace it with an underpass. The developers, insensitive to this millennia old natural heritage site erased it in a destructive act which could have been easily avoided. A century ago, a different more sincere and committed group of municipal leaders of Karachi developed the bandstand, Kothari Parade and walkway leading to the water in the same space. They envisioned it as hawa bandar… a space to enjoy the cool evening sea breeze for all. Despite the strict control of the colonial policies that governed the city and the brutal crushing of the Naval uprising here, there was also a spirit among the prosperous to give back to the city not just take from it. The irrevocable damage to the heritage site at the peak of Clifton Road, speaks of the hegemony of a new power nexus that marginalizes the citizen, tramples cultural rights and successfully silences all those who speak out to protect the tangible and intangible heritage.

Twenty Third March, circa 1966, students march at the Railway Stadium. The thousands of youths in their school uniforms, charged by a collective fervor presented themselves in contingent after contingent to the Governor of Sindh. The synchronized sound of dozens of school bands and the voices of thousands singing the National Anthem is an unforgettable memory for all who were a part of it. Today, a fractured nation with a youth population that exceeds fifty percent, has receded to individual school grounds, disconnected and without the power of being invested together in the future of the country. This Twenty Third March commemorations were the seventy seventh since Pakistan’s independence, and the big question to ask is how long before we are free from systemic erasure and official indifference to people’s aspirations? Can we continue to have our history rewritten without facts?

Decolonization in academia and in discursive groups is the rage today, it explores the violence to intellectual traditions inflicted by the policies of control by the outsider. It’s time to turn our lens inward to the daily obliteration of the spirit and legacy of the freedom movement, the violation of freedom of expression and forgotten promise of equal opportunity. Let us document and critically examine all we have lost to build for tomorrow. Let this be our resistance.

Title image source: The Citizen Archive Pakistan

Niilofur Farrukh is a Karachi based art interventionist whose seminal initiatives have expanded the space for art publication, curation and public art in Pakistan. Her primary interest lies in issues of decolonization and as a writer/curator her focus has been on the excavation of lost interdisciplinary connections within the cultural matrix. She has several books to her credit and has been a columnist with Dawn and Newsline. The cornerstone of her curatorial practice underlines a more inclusive social dialogue through art in public spaces, something she is fully committed to as the CEO of the Karachi Biennale.

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