Oxford Professor Dame Marina Warner and Edward Mortimer, former adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, discuss Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret, a film about the Lahore Museum
Anwar Akhtar, a UK citizen from Manchester whose family came from Pakistan, is the founder-director of Samosa, an NGO which seeks to improve mutual knowledge and understanding between the peoples of his two homelands. He had a spectacular success in 2015 when, at his suggestion and with his help as consultant, the National Theatre for the first time adapted and staged a work by a Pakistani theatre company: the play Dara, which depicts the 17th-century struggle for control of the Mughal empire between Dara Shikoh, shown as a mystic with an ecumenical or multicultural view of India’s future, and his younger brother Aurangzeb, who eventually defeated him and imposed a “purer”, more exclusive version of Islam.
The London audience was dazzled by this very colourful production, with a large cast, splendid costumes, appropriate South Asian music, and a dramatic trial scene, reminiscent of The Merchant of Venice, in which the very nature and destiny of Islam seemed to be at stake. After its success as a live play, the full production was filmed in theatre, and Akhtar held screenings of the film up and down the country, using it to stimulate discussions in schools and universities (including Oxford) on this theme which resonates so strongly in 21st-century Britain.
Akhtar’s new project, while much lower-budget, is no less ambitious and potentially of similar cultural importance: a 50-minute documentary film about the Lahore Museum, consisting essentially of an extended conversation between himself, the museum’s former director Sumaira Samad and Shahid Nadeem, playwright-director of the Ajoka Theatre Company and main author of Dara in its original Punjabi form, as they wander through the museum’s immense collection, reflecting on the long history and many diverse cultures that it illustrates.
This low-key approach works surprisingly well. The real star of the film is the museum itself, founded at the height of the British Raj, with John Lockwood Kipling (father of Rudyard) as its first curator. As the film’s title implies, it’s a museum which, if it were in almost any other country, would enjoy worldwide fame. The collection ranges from the very earliest civilisations in the Indus valley through the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain culture, the arrival of Islam in India, the Ghaznavid and Mughal empires, Sikhism, British conquest and rule, the contribution of Indian soldiers to British victory in two World Wars, to the partition of India and the many challenges faced today by a Pakistan whose rich artistic life belies its international reputation.
The single camera moves very simply from object to object, following the three protagonists and periodically zooming in to transform them into “talking heads”. No gimmicks, only minimal (and appropriate) background music, but an extraordinary crash course in five thousand years of history of a region marked at times by terrible violence (the worst being the massacres and ethnic cleansing that accompanied partition in 1947) but more by breath-taking creativity and cultural diversity.
The museum is – as Nadeem says at the end – “a microcosm of what we were, and what we should be, and what we will be”, and the film conveys that, and the film is a tour de force of storytelling, as the three presenters swap rapid-fire opinions on all the above-mentioned issues.
When I showed it this October in All Souls College, to a group including some of Oxford’s most erudite art historians as well as South Asia specialists, it was greeted with unanimous enthusiasm.
The film, made with support from Sir John Cass’s Foundation, The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and Sir Harvey McGrath, is intended as an educational resource to support diversity in the arts as well as heritage, history and religious studies curriculum in schools and universities, and to engage young people with these subjects.
Akhtar is now in discussion with several UK universities and museums, including the Ashmolean, to ensure that the film now reaches the widest possible audience both in the UK and in Pakistan. It deserves the widest audience, and perhaps especially in modern Britain, which owes so much to South Asia and to the Muslim world.
Edward Mortimer, author of Faith and Power: the politics of Islam (Faber 1982) and former adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, is a Distinguished Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford.
Some thoughts after watching Anwar Akhtar’s and Ajoka Theatre’s film, Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret – Lahore Museum
Marina Warner (2 December 2019)
Museums have always interacted with cultural memory, defined a society’s way of remembering its history, of establishing its values, and painted a portrait of its identity over time. At certain moments the story a museum tells comes to feel superannuated or even offensive and then the installation is stripped out and the labels rewritten: at the American Museum of Natural History, the anthropologist Franz Boaz’s once visionary Hall of the Americas has gradually been dismantled in the light of changing ethics; in Britain, the National Portrait Gallery in London is closing its doors for a few years in order to overhaul the displays in their entirety and redraft the national story. Meanwhile, the politics of repatriation convulse collections in Scotland and England, filled as they are with the loot (and acquisitions) of the imperial era. In Anwar Akhtar’s film, the Lahore Museum gradually unfolds to the viewer’s eyes under the lively guidance of its director Sumera Samad, in conversation with the playwright and director Shahid Nadeem, playwright-director of the Ajoka Theatre Company. Prompted by questions from Anwar, they wind through the museum’s many galleries, revealing a remarkable example of a national museum which is chiefly packed with local, national items made over the centuries by and for the people in the region and its neighbours. These objects, varied in meaning and materials, reveal the multiple interconnections of this history with many cultures and their peoples, from Chinese Buddhism to the Expressionism of European art. I remember hearing Kamila Shamsie recently on Radio Four, giving a beautiful talk on the BBC about her approach to Greek myths; she had been challenged for drawing on classical culture, not ‘her own traditions’ and she argued fiercely how writers may inhabit imaginatively many worlds but that regarding the Greeks, she feels a real closeness – as she pointed out Alexander came to the subcontinent and the Lahore Museum includes items that embody these entanglements.
It struck me, watching this revealing film, that this Museum throws light not only onto thousands of beautiful and fascinating works of art but also onto a body of thought, a concept of society, an ecumenical vision and a long view that risks being erased by many forces in the contemporary world. Nadeem ‘s Ajoka Theatre production, Dara, which was also spectacularly performed at the National Theatre, London, in 2015 play tells a related, ambitious story about the struggle for tolerance and peace in Moghul India, in the succession battle for the Throne between the Princes Dara and Aurangzeb – a struggle which ends in violence and tragedy. By contrast, in a marvellous sweep across time, the Lahore museum is still actively engaged in this story, though one senses in the film how this institution is in jeopardy – from wear and tear, neglect, or worse. For the subcontinent’s diaspora, and for the whole community in which they live, the film is eye-opening; it makes inspiring grounds for discovering the transformations of the past, dispelling widespread ignorance, and enlarging the possibilities of the present.
Professor Dame Marina Warner, DBE, CBE, FBA, FRSL. All Souls Distinguished Fellow since 2019. Professor of English and Creative Writing, Birkbeck College, University of London.
Marina Warner is a writer of fiction, criticism and history; her works include novels and short stories as well as studies of art, myths, symbols and fairytales.
 Shahid Nadeem’s Ajoka Theatre production, Dara, was adapted by Tanya Ronder and Nadia Fall, and performed at the National Theatre, London, in 2015.
You can watch a trailer of the film below
Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret Lahore Museum Trailer Asian Studies Centre