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Music returns to Pashtun land
Young, educated singers introduce Pashtu music to the world
By Javed Aziz Khan
PESHAWAR - Musical instruments and dancing have returned to the Pashtun belt after years of Taliban-imposed austerity.
Ever since Pakistani troops pushed out the Taliban, more singers and dancers are cropping up in Peshawar. The Taliban had made such festivities impossible in areas under their control.
“The number of concerts, dancing shows and activities at theatres has been increasing fast in (Peshawar) for the last one or two months”, said Mudassir Zaman, a budding Pashtu singer.
Zaman recently launched a new album, "Gham-Khadi". “Pashtu music and songs are being appreciated globally, and that was why even English students ... in London last month performed my song 'Khaperai' ", he said.
Zaman has two songs that reflect the Pashtun belt's tragic situation since 2004: "Nen Pekhawar Jaregi", about the woes of Peshawarites enduring terrorist attacks and "Yau zali bia daa Pekhawar ba khandee", which holds out hope of a brighter future.
Nishtar Hall, a hub of cultural activities, has reopened after a long period of going dark. Bearded elders, youth and visitors from all over the province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas participated in a cultural dance event, Atanr, after a peace conference in that building.
The Dabgari Bazaar, a narrow Peshawar boulevard with ancient wooden buildings on both sides, was once the hub of Pashtu singers, dancers, musical groups and shops of handmade musical instruments. Intimidation reduced the number of shops making the traditional Pashtu musical instrument, the rabab, to two.
“We along with several families of dancers used to live in Dabgari, but we shifted to Faqirabad after threats”, said Sana, a 22-year-old dancer.
Post-Taliban relaxation means "female dancers are no longer reluctant to perform in weddings and shows", Sana said. She and her sister have resumed dancing. They represent an unusual subculture in Pakistan, that of dancers and singers, who celebrate the birth of girls as potential performers.
“Most of the families of dancers and singers are living in miserable conditions in two-room scruffy rented houses. ... The suspension of their activities for a few years played havoc with their financial condition”, Bashir Khan, a resident of Chughulpura village, told Central Asia Online.
The Taliban did their best to crush art and culture in the region, but they conferred a blessing in disguise on artists like Ghazala Javed and Karan Khan. They were forced to migrate from Swat to comparatively stable Peshawar, where they found wealth and fame in a bigger marketplace. A large number of female Pashtun entertainers hail from the Swat Valley.
A new, educated generation of singers has introduced Pashtu music to the entire world. Rahim Shah, a mainstream artist, had the major contribution in promoting Pashtu music across the country. Hadeeqa Kyani, a non-Pashtun popular singer, performed "Janan" after finding inspiration in Pashtu music and poetry.
“After having young and educated artists like Haroon Bacha, Zeek Afridi, Hamayun Khan, Fiza Fayaz, Janas Khan and Irfan Khan, Pashtu music was going to touch new heights, but its flight was suddenly interrupted by threats", said Isra Bacha, a music lover from Malakand.
“Haroon Bacha and several others had to seek asylum in the US and European countries after feeling unsafe in Pakistan", he said.
Tragedy continues to touch the Pashtun performing community. Even though police found no terrorist link, dancers and singers within the past year expressed fear when Ayman Udas (a singer and poet) was shot to death inside her house and when road bandits killed a dancer, Afsana, who was returning from a wedding function.
The community remains scarred by the Taliban’s execution of Shabana, a popular dancer, in Swat in January 2009. That event caused a lack of entertainment activity for months.
It also remembers the bombing of hundreds of movie theatres and CD shops thought to be un-Islamic.
Militants and their sympathisers remain capable of striking. A March 28 bombing of a CD shop in Hayatabad township wounded five people and destroyed three businesses.
But the big difference is that the Taliban are no longer in charge.
“A very slim number of people used to go to the cinema, but their number has been increasing for many weeks”, said Mohammad Fayaz, who has produced two Pashtu movies and runs a cinema.
Many say the performing community has an even more harmful enemy than the Taliban: apathy by senior artists and the government.
“Cheap dances and poetry are not only harming Pashtu music but also the culture", complained emerging singer Janas Khan, who has released three albums so far. He also said senior performers should promote the Pashtu language, since Punjabi and other regional languages enjoy such promotion.