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Salima Hashmi on art, activism and being the daughter of Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Artist and peace activist Salima Hashmi talks about South Asian history, the lure of Lahore, and growing up as the daughter of legendary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

By Pragya Narang

Salima Hashmi is a renowned Pakistani artist, former college professor, anti-nuclear weapons activist, and former caretaker minister in the Najam Sethi caretaker ministry in Punjab, Pakistan. She was the dean of National College of Arts (NCA), where she taught for 30 years, as well as the dean of the School of Visual Arts and Design at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore.

A respected patron of young artists known to have the capacity to make or break a career, she set up the prestigious Rohtas 2 Gallery (initially named Art Shart) in Lahore.

A recipient of the Pride of Performance Award by the President of Pakistan in 1999, Hashmi also authored a critically lauded book Unveiling the Visible: Lives and Works of Women Artists of Pakistan (2003).

The eldest daughter of the renowned poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and his British-born wife Alys Faiz, Salima was a speaker at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women held on October 2-3, 2021, and spoke at the panel “Not Repeating History: Lessons from the Past for the Future“.

The panel discussed why South Asia needs to look objectively at its conflicted past and ensure that the trauma — of Partition, of religious conflict, gender violence, caste oppression — is not repeated.

Here, in conversation with eShe, she fills us in about her father, South Asian history, and Lahore – all things that both Pakistan and India claim as their own.

Many people know you as the daughter of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, but you have also made a mark on your own. Was getting out of the shadow of being your father’s daughter and creating your own identity difficult? How did you handle it?

People often ask me what it means to be the daughter of Faiz and if it was like a banyan tree under which little plants grow but it was quite the contrary, actually. Like all daughters, I thought my father was special, and I was also aware that it was because of him that there was a great separation and hardship in the house.

Yet, because he was a magician with words, he had power over people. That is something I discovered for the first time when I handed over his first volume of poetry from jail to a large group of people while he was imprisoned. I witnessed people reading it and weeping, and was suddenly aware that my father’s words had this effect.

But apart from that ours was not a household which nurtured a feeling that there was a genius at work. In fact, contrary to this, he was often teased by all of us. My mother, sister, and I would joke about the fact that people thought he was great guns and he would joke about it himself too.

I once accompanied him to a mushaira, and there was a big fuss when we arrived, with grand words used in his introduction. He caught my eye and gave me a smile, and on the way back he joked – “Who were they talking about?” He was someone who had a sense of humour about his status and we felt the same.

For us, it was a given that we would make the best use of our talent and do what we please. Yet, there were some values that were very firmly upheld in the house, unspoken values that you simply imbibed.

These values were humanism, a belief in just play, and equality for men and women – we were only two sisters so it was stressed upon us that we must become professionals. He was always tremendously proud that we made our own way in what we pursued.

Our success was a great source of comfort for him because he didn’t have an easy life. When he was exiled to Beirut, his last years during Zia’s time, he missed home a lot. And when I finally made the journey there in the middle of the civil war, he was just so immensely grateful that I had brought his grandchildren along too. Our ability to share trials and tribulations was important and I believe it has continued ever since I can remember.

I know Faiz and his poetry are loved and valued the world over. He’s a man of peace, and I follow that belief. So, I cannot say that I ever felt that I was growing up in a shadow. I am eternally grateful for the love I received because of him, from him as well as from people who know me as his daughter – a love I feel that I have not earned. It comes to me as his legacy. This immense love is and has always been a treasure.

He was also one of my best friends, so in that sense, his persona was never a burden, or one that forced me to be somebody or perform a role required of me. It was always assumed that we would be our own persons.

Belonging to Lahore – which Indian Punjabis often claim as their own in casual conversations and pop culture – how do you view the dual pull that both nation-states have over this historic city?

Being a dedicated Lahori, I, of course, uphold its heritage and name as being the heart of Punjab, doesn’t matter this side or that of the border. So many times, one has welcomed people from other parts of India who have had some link with Lahore – maybe their fathers or grandfathers have studied in Government College in Lahore or they came from here pre-1947. They carry intergenerational stories in their hearts and memories. They want to visit Anarkali (Bazaar) or find their family house.

Lahore has always welcomed visitors, not just from Indian Punjab but from everywhere in India because Lahore has a heart that is huge! The city also has a desire to please and to play host to whoever comes. This is to do with the special characteristics of its inhabitants.

Apart from the fact that “Jinne Lahore ni vekhya o jameya e nai” (one who hasn’t seen Lahore is not born – meaning one has seen nothing), there is also the saying “Nai reesa shehar Lahore diyan” – there is no place like Lahore. And in spite of the fact that the city has grown in the last 40 – 50 years, there is an urban sprawl all over, its suburbs are a mess, and it faces similar issues that any other historic South Asian city is suffering from such as sanitation and traffic, Lahore has managed to retain its magic.

This intangible magic has something to do with the average Lahori, who loves food, music, and is a real joker. The humour in Lahore is endemic and you come across it all the time.

I remember when my father was in exile in Beirut, in the Zia-ul-Haq period, I managed to get there to see him with my two little children. The first thing he asked when we sat down was, “Tell me the Zia jokes!” Needless to say, there were so many of them.

Once he heard them, he felt assured, “Now I know that the people are alive and well.” And this is true – Lahoris have the capability of laughing at themselves, of enjoying life, but also loving their city.

This feeling exists in a handful of cities around the world where people feel very strongly, emotionally about what their city gives them and how it nurtures them. Lahore has this quality too, and because it opens its arms wide to people who come from other places, but most especially when people come from India, they unquestionably become Lahoris too for the time that they are here, and they never forget when they go back about how they, albeit briefly, became a part of the story of Lahore.

Art and culture play a very important role in connecting Indians and Pakistanis. As an alumnus and a former head of NCA that sends regular student groups from Pakistan to visit India, please share how this initiative came about?

I remember the first time we took students and teachers across the border to India in 1986. It was Zia’s time. Those were difficult times but somehow my friend Nazish, also an artist and a teacher who taught at NCA, and I wrangled that permission from both sides and that’s how we managed to plan this trip. We took 40 people that included 30 students and 10 teachers from NCA across the border by train to Delhi.

We were helped by young diplomats from our embassy, who had made bus arrangements and other bookings. It was the first time we had tried the cross-border culture connect in a serious manner.

It came about when, at a dinner, foreign secretaries of both countries were present, and we made them feel a little guilty about the fact that there was a Biennale exhibition going on in Delhi and youngsters here in Pakistan would be deprived of it. Both of them magnanimously promised to arrange the exchange and it did happen.

One saw the deep effect the opening of another window had on these students. And for years afterwards, they continued telling me how important that contact was. We were lucky as IK Gujral, who was the chairperson of the Pakistan-India friendship forum, invited us to his house. We met Satish Gujral, and many other artists. That was how this tradition began.

Do you feel that we are not doing enough to utilise this connect for a more connected South Asia? How can we better harness the power of art to bring in cross-border friendliness?

We were sad that sometimes our enthusiasm was not reciprocated, and that institutions in India did not show as much interest. But there were individual artists and initiatives such as Pooja Sood’s Khoj, which became a vehicle for back and forth and, eventually, the advent of the internet made it easy. We have now built up a very strong network that very often operates away from the subcontinent for obvious reasons.

The last five years have put a stop to all kinds of cross-border linkages, relationships, exhibitions, and it has become exceedingly difficult to collaborate. Art is not like music. You need to have a physical encounter. But, of course, we never give up! I remember that in 2002, we all met up in Manchester at a conference where artists from all over South Asia were present.

I don’t just look at the Pakistan-India interaction. I believe we are South Asians and we must operate that way, that is, together. South Asia is always at loggerheads with itself and one doesn’t accept that and one insists that there must have been a time when it was not so and we make these little parcels of time.

You will be surprised that whenever there is an exhibition in Dubai or London or Colombo, we see that suddenly the connections are there! And since I am connected to the Beaconhouse University, we have had this scholarship from the late ambassador Madanjeet Singh, which has allowed art students from all over south Asia to come to Lahore to study. We manage to get students from India too and they have gone back enchanted with their experience! As someone who has witnessed these moments, I am not one to be deflected by the pettiness of politics.

As a relatively new nation, how does Pakistani art draw into its civilisational heritage and art history that invariably overlaps with its neighbour India, which it is now at conflict with?

Yes, Pakistan is supposedly a new nation as its political life started in 1947, but it is as ancient as the rest of the subcontinent and of course it goes back thousands of years to paleolithic times, with its cave drawings and rock carvings, the Indus Valley civilisation, the Mehrgarh civilisation in Balochistan that predates even Indus Valley civilisation, and of course all the later civilisations such as the Gandhara. But it has had major issues working out its identity as different from that of India.

This is an enormously difficult task simply because, apart from the fact that the majority of its people are Muslim, the cultural and civilisational aspects are very difficult to separate. Half of Punjab is on the other side of the border. You are connected by language, music, culture, food, dress and all the other things that are part of people’s lived experience.

Therefore, the official narrative of Pakistan has had a hard task to define its identity. But people intuitively know and understand that everything they eat, drink, wear, and speak about or love in terms of music is something that is easily shared across the border except when there are political differences as there are right now. Suddenly there is a border that separates not just politically but also in terms of how we define ourselves.

I feel that it is a futile exercise because you cannot, in 75 years, make a culture or profess to be different people when your DNA speaks otherwise.

The whole idea of making artists aware of what’s going on across the border was to break open these stereotypical ideas that this is my culture, and this is that culture. On a wider scale, it is really films, Bollywood, music, and now even content on Netflix and similar OTT platforms that are mediums through which people come to know one another.

Yes, there are differences, and those differences persist, nurtured by political life. But when people of the subcontinent meet each other away from the subcontinent, they immediately gravitate to each other because they have so much to share!

The province of Sindh has so much to share with Bombay, which was an erstwhile part of the province, so do both the Punjabs. People are happy to continue to share their commonalities when given even half a chance and, in such situations, you cannot find animosity that is caused by politics.

Borders are realities of a particular time. They become less important when there are economic or cultural reasons such as poetry, music, films, and art, to come together. I remain an incorrigible optimist and don’t give in to jingoism.

How important is it to proactively promote women in all fields and especially in art, as you do?

Women have been on the forefront for making overtures to other women across the whole of South Asia. They have played a very important role in SAARC. In the arts too, they have been prominent in fighting misogyny, patriarchy, and have been often victimised because of this. They have used their talents to overcome some of these constraints that are present in the patriarchal society and to highlight the injustices they see against women.

The feminist poets in Pakistan, for example, especially during the Zia era, were in the forefront with movements such as the women’s action forum. Names like Fehmida Riaz, Kishwar Naheed, and Zehra Nigah were popular not just amongst women but even men who regained strength from these voices and their poetry of defiance. The same thing is true of women in street theatre and other arts.

My interest in those days was to investigate and research how women could look for narratives that were personal to them and also be very inventive in terms of material moving away from things such as oil on canvas or the grand way of using medium and going to more personal processes that are present in the domestic spheres.

Women became exceedingly inventive and even took charge in the education field, which is very unusual in Pakistan. All the major art schools and art departments in the universities were headed by women, long before that happened anywhere else in the world!

What are some of the lessons from History that South Asians need to remember while trying to create a prosperous and harmonious region?

I am very passionate about South Asia. Of course, part of the reason is my father and his pivotal role in setting up the Afro-Asian Writers Association. While his work was on a wider campus, including Africa, parts of Central Asia, and even Japan, we South Asians have been able to knit various movements like the women’s movements or the struggle for human rights into the work of artists.

The deep-rooted belief that we have so many common roots, and the fact that we face the same 21st-century problems, has created a desire to explore our connections. We have evolved almost a common vocabulary, in which we string these traditions and weave them into our contemporary lives. All of us do work that is easily read, understood, felt, and experienced by the other.

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