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[National Museum, Karachi, 6 April 2013]



First of all, let me thank three institutional bodies for this invitation to speak to you today – The Endowment Fund Trust for the Preservation of the Heritage of Sindh, the Pakistan Academy of Letters, and the Department of Culture, Government of Sindh. 

The fourth physical body I wish to thank is my dear friend Abdul Hamid Akhund, now Secretary EFT. Hamid has been a consistent comrade and intellectual support for more years than I dare count.

His invitation to speak to you today I regard less as a reflection of my qualifications to talk on Culture, and more as a tribute to Hamid’s sagacity and open-mindedness as a nationalist Sindhi, and as a patriotic Pakistani who can see culture beyond provincial boundaries.   

Never before, in all the sixty-six years of our existence as a nation-state, has there been such a need to remind ourselves that, regardless of the number of provinces we may have – now, and in the future – we belong to a continuum of shared history, a history that pre-dates the dawn of civilisation as we know it.  

When I agreed to speak here today, I wondered how I would be able to compress over five thousand years of our history into one half-hour. Or how I could weave in the short time available the numerous skeins of our colourful diversity into one coherent, cultural tapestry.

By any standards, that would be too formidable a task. I thought it more appropriate therefore, rather than follow a chronological or regional narrative, to take a different, lateral view of Culture.

Some years ago, I had the privilege to contribute to a study conducted by the Fletcher School at Tufts University in the United States. The subject of the study was known as the Culture Matters Research Project, and it enjoyed the benediction of Professor Samuel Huntington who, as you all know, wrote The Clash of Civilisations.

In his book, Huntington dissected the world into nine major mini-civilisations or culture zones.

Rather like Cyril Radcliffe who in August 1947 had drawn a line across the map of the Punjab, Huntington drew lines across the map of the world, dividing it into areas of predominant religious tradition. He identified them as Western Christianity, the Orthodox world, the Islamic world, the African, the Latin American, and in the East the Confucian, the Japanese, Hindu, and the Buddhist.

Huntington’s provocative thesis was that, following the end of the Cold War between the Western Bloc led by the United States and the Eastern Bloc dominated by the Soviet Union, political conflict will occur in future, not on ideological or economic grounds, but across the cultural divide.

I am not sure I agree with Professor Huntington. The conflicts that led to the First and the Second World Wars were between nation-states, not cultural civilisations. It was not a war between the German Lutherans and Shintoist Japanese siding against the Evangelical Americans and the Protestant British.  It was essentially, that the Germans and the Japanese fought the Americans and the British, with smaller nations like ours sucked into the maelstrom.

No one – not even the Christians - perceive Western Christianity as one bloc. While the Roman Catholic Church may operate even now, two thousand years after Christ, as one vast transnational conglomerate with its corporate Headquarters located in the Vatican, the various denominations of Christians such as the Protestants and the Calvinists are not similarly structured. They have no Pope, no Vatican, and no central dogma to serve as unifying factors.

Huntington has grouped all of the countries in Latin America and even all the diverse nations and tribes in the African continent into two separate melting pots. It is almost as if, because they are contained within one geographical continent, they must be uniformly homogenous. Such an assertion is at best superficial and unfair; at its worst, it is arrogant and condescending.  

Similarly, Huntington regards the Hindus as one composite whole. While the recent upsurge of Hindutva could in time lead to a close identification of the Indian state with Hinduism – Hindustan would become what its name says, Hindu-stan, that would mean in effect that the nation-state of India would shed its secular veneer. But why should that be necessarily antithetical to Islam, especially when India has such a large number of Indian Muslims?

Perhaps the litmus test of Huntington’s theory is its application to the Islamic World. Can the Islamic World be regarded as a unified, composite whole? I wonder. Despite the efforts of bodies such as the Organisation of Islamic Countries, Islam remains a common faith, at times a common cause. Unlike Roman Catholicism, though, it does not (except for some specific sects like the Jamaat-e-Islami) have an identifiable, hierarchical structure. Where is the College of Muslim cardinals, for example, who should be electing an Islamic Pope?  

I have mentioned Huntington in particular because no modern sociologist has had such an impact on contemporary thinking as he has.  It is almost as if, in a post Cold War scenario, after the disintegration of the U.S.S.R., he needed on behalf of the West to fabricate a new set of enemies, to construct fresh effigies of the demon Ravana for Western Rams to combat and vanquish.

Huntington’s book appeared in 1993. Twenty-five years earlier, Gunnar Myrdal examined the condition of Asian countries in his seminal work: The Asian Drama- An inquiry into the poverty of nations.   Myrdal was not simply closer to us in relevance, but perhaps because of that, closer to the truth.   While he acknowledged that ‘attitudes, institutions, modes and levels of living, and broadly culture… are so much more difficult to grasp in systematic analysis than are the so-called economic factors’, he believed that cultural change could only be achieved when governments took the lead, particularly through the education system.

This allows me to introduce certain basic questions we should ask ourselves about Culture.

What do we understand by Culture?

Does Culture matter?

Is Culture at odds with modernity?

If religion has been the engine of cultural identity throughout the world – from the time of the Ancient Egyptians to the modern Scientologists - will the new religion of Materialism shape our future cultural identity, and if so at what cost?

First, therefore, what do we understand by Culture?

Civilisations before the modern age did not feel the need to define Culture. They lived it.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, the word ‘culture’ began to be used to denote cultivation or improvement. Hence, the formation of words like agri-culture or horti-culture. It was during the mid-19th century onwards that sociologists and anthropologists in particular got hold of culture, and being inquisitive social scientists, they began dissecting it, classifying it, cataloguing it.

Culture has been defined by one of them as ‘an integrated system of learned behaviour patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society and which are not a result of biological inheritance.’ So here we have the first distinction, albeit a negative one. Culture is not the result of biological inheritance. It is the product of learning and behavior, and it requires a system to act as a framework to support it.

Because Man is a migrant animal, culture knows no boundaries, only overlaps. We are what we are, not simply because of what our forebears were, but also what ancestors from other cultures were. Through their contact with our culture, they left an impact – sometimes beneficial, sometimes not, but always indelible and traceable. The most obvious examples of such influences are, of course, are the impact of invasions by the Greeks, the Afghans, the Persians, the Mughals, and then occupation by the British India Company, and finally the Pakistan Army.   

I cannot ignore the more benign invasions which of course have been the Sufi tradition that, over the centuries, has given depth and resonance to, and transformed our local culture.

Specialists have debated whether culture is affected by geography, whether communities living in cold or temperate zones such as northern Europe and the Americas had a more advanced culture than those in hotter, more enervating zones. There is a truth in that contention somewhere, although it does not explain to me why the Scandinavian countries, Canada, and Alaska, to name a few, were 5000 years ago culturally far behind their contemporaries in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, pre-Columbian South America, China, and our own Indus Valley Civilisation. Or why the two cultures prevalent in the heat of Africa - the Northern and the Sub-Saharan - should nevertheless have produced such distinctive and enduring cultural traditions?         

Weather therefore is not the main determinant. Language is, and nowhere is this more apparent than in India and in Africa. An African sociologist once remarked that there are as many Africas as there are languages or dialects. ‘There is an Arab-phone Africa, an Anglo-phone Africa, a Franco-phone Africa, a Luso-phone Africa, a Hispano-phone Africa, not to mention the scores of languages that have no relation to the languages of the European colonizers.’

While such a diversity of languages in Africa is obviously not a unifying factor, there is, he maintained, ‘a foundation of shared values, attitudes, and institutions that bind together the nations south of the Sahara, and in many respects those to the north as well.’

So now we have in addition to language, three other important ingredients - ‘shared values, attitudes and institutions’.

What about Politics?  Does politics have any bearing on culture?  Some purists would regard modern politicians and their single-minded avariciousness as the very antithesis of culture. The American politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan distinguished between two schools of modern thought regarding the uneasy relationship between culture and politics: ‘The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics that determines the success to society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.’

If war is too serious a business to be left to the generals, is culture too serious a matter to be left to the politicians? Yes, and no. We cannot have governance without leadership. Yet empirical evidence has proved time and again that in developing countries like ours, ‘the underdeveloped are not the people, but their leaders.’

My second question was: Does Culture matter?

Assuredly so, and never more so than today, tomorrow and all the day-after-tomorrows that are yet to follow. Without a distinguishing culture, we would be less than hybrids; we would be social nonentities. We are who we are, because we are. That makes it incumbent upon us to protect, preserve and sustain our cultural identity, because without it we have no identity. In a trans-national world, we would become simply a Mcburger without the beef – or horsemeat substitute, if you bought one recently in Europe.  

My third question was: Is Culture at odds with modernity? I believe not. The modern world with all its crass materialism, its insistence on individual competitiveness at the expense often of the common good, its discouragement of craftsmanship and inspirational skills, its neglect of the past, its heedless descent into bland uniformity is still the only world we live in. The past, they say, is another country. The present is the only country we know. And the future is the country we shape by our actions today.

Every society in the past has been too modern for its time. I am sure even 5,000 years ago there must have been some ageing MohenjoDarans who deplored the new construction being undertaken in their mud-bricked city. They probably felt that it was too radical a departure from the past they were accustomed to.  

Culture thrives when communities thrive; culture survives when institutions survive. It is a truism that if ‘Culture is the mother, then institutions are her children.’ 

That is why I applaud the efforts of institutions such as the Endowment Fund Trust for Preservation of the Heritage of Sindh, the Pakistan Academy of Letters and the Department of Culture Government of Sindh. They play a vital role in the preservation, protection and promotion of our regional and national culture. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. Future generations of Pakistanis hopefully will redeem that debt in time by perpetuating your mission.

Those of us who have written books will realise (as I have done) that authorship is very similar to childbearing. Conception is often accidental, the period of gestation of a book is at least nine months (if not more), the delivery is fraught with anxiety, but all the trouble and the pain and the fatigue evaporate when you hold your new-born book in your hands. The pleasure is incalculable. Suddenly, you are immortal, because you will continue to live as long as your book is read.   

That is why I appreciate the efforts and the achievements of a scholar like the late Dr Nabi Bakhsh Baloch. I look with awe at the list of his publications – over fifty books or articles in English, and many more in Sindhi and Urdu. He was once offered a permanent post as professor at Columbia University. He turned it down. Columbia’s loss became our gain.

I had the privilege of meeting Dr Baloch on a number of occasions in the library of the Archaeological Department. It was located in those days in Civil Lines, near what was then the Paradise Cinema on Victoria (now Haroon) Road. Gentle, unassuming, courteous, he was always generous with his time and his knowledge, even to an amateur like me who had interests divergent from his.

If there was one area that would sum up Dr Baloch’s enduring contribution to our cultural identity, it would be in the area of Education. No-one understood better than he did how important the function of education is in the delineation of our cultural identity.

There is no society in the world – from before the time of Aristotle – that has not emphasised the value of education.  Those who forget history are condemned to relive it. Those who neglect their past are sentenced to forfeit their future. And those who neglect education commit an unconscionable crime against posterity.

In this modern post-Huntington world of trans-nationalist materialism, we need to ask ourselves, to which culture zone do we belong ?

Do we belong to the East or to the West?  Or are we simply somewhere East of West, or just West of the East?

Let me mould this question in another way. Do we wish to include ourselves in the company of Progressive Cultures, or should we reconcile ourselves to being relegated amongst those known as Static Cultures?

The difference between them is one of direction. Progressive Cultures and Static Cultures face in opposite directions. Professor Lawrence Harrison, who organised the Culture Matters Research Project I spoke about earlier, came up with ten distinctions that distinguish Progressive Cultures from Static ones. They are:   

1. Time Orientation. Progressive cultures emphasise the future; static ones extol the past.

2. Work is central to the growth of progressive cultures but is regarded as a burden in static ones.

3. Frugality is a virtue in progressive cultures. It is seen as a threat in static ones.

4. Education is the key to progress in progressive cultures, whereas in static cultures it is given marginal attention – except for children of the elite or the ruling class.

5. Merit is given prominence in progressive cultures; only connections count in static ones.

6. The Community is more important than the individual in progressive cultures; the self or the family at the centre in static cultures.

7. Progressive cultures live by a code of Ethics. Static cultures regard ethics as some-one else’s responsibility.

8. There is a reverence for justice and fair play in progressive cultures. Static cultures prefer the law of the human jungle.

9. Progressive cultures encourage the dispersal or devolution of authority to others. Static cultures prefer the concentration of power in a few hands.  

10.  Lastly, and perhaps controversially, Progressive cultures aim towards Secularism.  Heterodoxy and dissent are encouraged. Static cultures take refuge in orthodoxy and unquestioning conformity.  That is not to say that Islam has not had a Martin Luther. It is just that our Martin Luthers have come over time and in different incarnations.

In our own domestic context, one could add many, many more, but I hope I have conveyed my point.

Culture, I believe, is the sum of all these conditions that Harrison listed, cemented by a common sense of social nationalism, and grouted by the conviction that we are no better than others, nor worse than others. We are who we are, and should be proud of it.  

Recent amendments to our Constitution have devolved political power and social responsibility for subjects like Education to the provinces. Some might interpret this as an abdication of authority by the Centre that could lead to the weakening of the State structure. Others regard this as a step forward, a stage in the natural process of evolution.

Having been associated with education at the secondary, university and post-graduate levels, I can testify to the gap between what we teach and what our students need to learn. We teach what we ourselves learned in the 20th century. The next generation wants to learn what will be of use to them during the 21st century.

We are not alone in this dilemma. On the other side of the globe, Latin American universities face a similar predicament. A Latin American scholar once lamented:

‘The Latin American university – with few and honorable exceptions – has failed as an independent creative centre and has been a tireless repetition of worn-out and dusty ideas. But even more startling is the absence of a close relationship between what the students are taught and the real needs of society.’ More dangerously, ‘the weapons these young men carried with them into the jungle, mountains, and city streets were loaded in the lecture rooms of the universities.’

Did that lament sound familiar?

On a lighter note, just to prove that education is not necessarily synonymous with officialdom, I recall an incident that occurred some years ago, in 1971 before the separation of East Pakistan. A book was being published on Pakistan’s culture by the then Federal Department of Archaeology. Some official had the bright idea that the book should be brought out in two volumes – one for artifacts from West Pakistan and the other for East Pakistan. Wiser counsel prevailed. It would be better for national integration if all the illustrations could be contained in one volume. And so each illustration was numbered with a suffix. Illustration 100 (a) stood for West Pakistan and Illustration 100 (b) for East Pakistan.

I hope we never regress to such a stage again where our provinces will be distinguished from each other by alphabetical or colour codes. We are one nation that happens to have five provinces. We have one identity that draws its inspiration from five distinct but compatible, overlapping cultures and traditions.

It is in that spirit of intellectual equality, of reverence for a culture that is as rich in the past as it promises to be in the future, that I responded to this invitation to speak to you today. And it is with a profound sense of respect for that doyen of Sindhi studies – the late Dr Nabi Bakhsh Baloch – that we have assembled here this afternoon.

For me, Dr Baloch was a pioneer in many ways, for he was the first such local scholar to devote his life to the study of the culture of Sindh. Earliest researches on our heritage were conducted by the British during the 19th century. The publication of the Bombay Government Records for the Province of Scind, published in 1836, consisted of a variety of articles, such as a memoir on the River Indus by J.F. Heddle, on the Plants of Sind and the uses of certain wild plants in medicine by Asst. Surgeon J.E. Stocks, and one by Lieutenant Richard Burton which carried the intriguing title: Division of Time, Articles of Cultivation, and Modes of Intoxication in Sind. 

British officials gave way to quasi-British researchers, like N.M. Billimoria who in the 1930s collated a catalogue of all the books and articles published on Sindh. The nearest parallel in my mind to his seminal work is that of the Sikh scholar and archivist Dr Ganda Singh, who published a similar bibliography of all the books then extant on the Sikhs.

Maneck Pithawala’s slim volumes of the history of Sind, Elliott and Dowson’s The Historians of Sind, and of course first Hughes’ and then Sorley’s magisterial Gazetteers were written primarily for an Anglicised readership.

Dr Baloch was one of the few scholars to mine deeper. His researches explored vernacular documents and they carried therefore the stamp of additional authenticity.

I could recite a list of scholars whom we ought to pay tribute to, but let two petals represent the rose: Dr Annemarie Schimmel whose name you will all recognise, and Mr Idris Siddiqui, who wrote on miniature painting in Sindh and would have been a scholar of note had he not died prematurely in the late 1960s.

Today, that torch of scholarship has passed into the capable hands of persons like Hamid Akhund, under whom a renaissance in Sindhi culture has taken place. His work at the Mohtatta Palace Museum, the exhibitions and publications such as the sumptuously produced Risalo of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai which to me is a work of art in itself, the revival of folk and traditional music, the patronage of artisans and musicians, are some measure of his commitment to a cause that he holds dear, and of which we – the Pakistani public - are the beneficiaries.

Dr Baloch was the lamp that ignited other lamps. In honouring him, we are by association honouring those who have drawn their inspiration from his scholarship.   

 It has been said that a man is dead not when he dies but when he is forgotten. Today, by remembering Dr Baloch, you have ensured that he continues to live – through his work, and through his priceless contribution to the preservation and propagation of Sindhi literature and culture. Because of him, we can be proud - regardless of our provincial affiliations - of our national identity as Pakistanis.





09 April 2013
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