Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Destruction of Karachi's Statues

With an estimated population of 18 million, the city of Karachi is the largest in Pakistan and the second largest metropolitan area in the world. You would expect that such a huge, sprawling city would have numerous examples of public art to display, and at one time it did. Unfortunately, as Agence France Presse reported on September 2, the decades long Islamization of Pakistani society has resulted in the destruction of most of this heritage:

"What the Taliban have done to the ancient Buddha's statue in Bamiyan a few years ago, fanatics and ruthless government functionaries did to Karachi's statues long ago," says Shahid Rassam, lamenting the dearth of public artworks in Pakistan's biggest city.

Rassam is one of a handful of local artists working to revive Karachi's public art, which flourished under the British Raj in India and survived for a couple of decades until the early years of military dictator Zia ul-Haq.

But public art crumbled under Zia, as culture became an early casualty of a regime that nurtured religious fanaticism.

The rot had set in under Zia's predecessor, Abub Khan, the first in a long line of military rulers, who held power from 1958-1969.

"The religious extremists launched the first campaign against beautiful statues in Karachi during Ayub Khan's rule when the city was stripped of most of its street artifacts," says former city official Saifur Rehman Grami.

(Emphasis added-DD)

The article lays out at great length the campaign of vandalism directed against Karachi's once numerous statues. As noted above, a courageous group of individuals is trying to reclaim this important part of the city's cultural heritage. However, AFP makes clear just how difficult a challenge they face:

A Karachi city hall official says those who ruined Karachi's sculptures did so on the pretext that the art of sculpture was "un-Islamic".

"They stripped the whole city of its beautiful art on such pretexts," said the official on condition of anonymity.

"And their terror is still reigning so supreme that most artists and authorities seldom dare think about a revival."

(Emphasis added-DD)

It is incredible to think that the second largest city in the world is virtually devoid of public art. Sadly, though, the fanatical hatred of Islamists for any form of "un-Islamic" expression is not to be underestimated.


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