Anwar Akhtar on why his film “Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret: Lahore Museum”, has much to say about peace in South Asia and UK
The first half of 2020 has been lively, turbulent and difficult. The Coronavirus has changed our world, no matter whether you’re in India, Pakistan or the UK.
In the UK, the virus has disproportionally affected those from South Asian and Afro-Caribbean backgrounds, with arguments and theories flying in all directions about what social, economic and biological factors are in play. It will take some time to determine fully, but initial analysis points more to nurture, though nature is there as well.
On May 25, we witnessed the horror of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, being killed by police in Minnesota, USA, suffocated with a policeman’s knee on his throat. That one brutal act has led to global support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
This in turn has led to debates and protests around many deep seated issues that have risen to the surface – or in the case of Bristol slave trader Edward Colston’s statue, sunk to the bottom of the harbor. The UK must fully address – in our schools, colleges, universities, galleries and museums – what the British Empire was and why so much of that story has been airbrushed out of British history, from the scale of slavery to the savagery and theft of the East India Company that laid the foundations for so much of Britain’s wealth and power today.
Like all countries, the UK was built by heroes and villains. For every Emmeline Pankhurst, Michael Faraday and Alan Turing, we also have our Robert Clives and Edward Colstons.
Debates about racism, class, religion and empire are not going away any time soon. What is in our museums matters. What is and is not taught in our schools and universities matters. These issues have attained a new prominence in 2020.
Salzburg Global Seminar has always made the case for how arts can act as a social transformer and bring communities together.
I have gained hugely from my time at Salzburg Global programs. At 2014’s Conflict Transformation through Culture: Peace-Building and the Arts, writers, journalists, academics, film and theatre directors, came together, to share stories, culture and heritage from the Balkans, Turkey, South Africa, Uganda, Cambodia, Korea and Ireland. This program helped me develop my thinking, the themes we explore in the Lahore Museum film. Looking at the colleagues present then, brought to life for me, Margaret Mead’s famous words that are part of Salzburg Global Seminar’s story: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
For someone involved in British arts production work and anti-racist activism for 25 years, the scale of change in the last few weeks has at times been breathtaking: statues falling, universities and business schools changing their names. Lloyd’s of London, like many institutions, at the heart of British power today, issuing apologies for their involvement in slavery and pledging to invest in social justice and equality schemes for Black British people. We’ll see if their actions live up to their words.
But change has arrived and it is happening. Lenin’s famous words about revolutions not working to fixed timetables, describe events today: “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”
Many young British people of all backgrounds are questioning the nature of the British Empire and notions of “belonging” in a society where issues of race, culture, language and heritage all dominate.
Surely that is to be welcomed. Great Britain is an island with a global story, a global past, a global heritage, and a former global empire. We should, if I may adapt slightly Oliver Cromwell’s words, view it warts and all.
For many young people – and not just those with South Asian or Afro-Caribbean heritage – part of understanding who they are is to uncover their own history as offspring and descendents of Empire.
But other challenges arise. Competing narratives shroud our views. There is an antagonistic, confrontational nature to some contemporary nations trying to have only one story, one culture, one history, when in reality it is always plural. I think this is especially so, in South Asia today.
The internal turmoil within states, coupled with economic, ethnic and religious tensions, add layers of complexity. Many people are often simply bewildered or angered by or choose to ignore the past. They see it as a different country.
We can learn from history and avoid the mistakes of history by studying our histories. So we need books, films and documentaries to keep informing us. We need to study the archives, the literature, the paintings – and yes, to look at the statues.
This is why the documentary I made with playwright Shahid Nadeem from Ajoka Theatre, “Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret: Lahore Museum”, is so important. It starts us on this journey, informing us that everyone in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and the UK has a shared history, a shared story.
Lahore Museum has a rich, ancient and varied collection, which demonstrates the historical wealth and religious and cultural plurality of Pakistan – one of the largest Muslim-majority countries in the world, but also of course with large indigenous, mistreated and marginalised Hindu, Sikh and Christian communities.
Our film explores the significance of the Lahore Museum – not just in Asia, but also in the UK. Through its magnificent collection we explore stories of ancient cultures: Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim, and those of empire, trade, the East India Company, the contribution of British Indian soldiers in two World Wars, Partition and the creation of Pakistan.
What Sumaria Samad, who was Director of Lahore Museum, and Nadeem have to say about the museum’s extraordinary collection and the history of the region is both compulsive viewing and highly informative. They also give some insight into life in Pakistan today and the future role of the museum within Pakistan’s wider social, political, religious and cultural context, as well as Pakistan’s relationship with the UK.
So much can be gained by this approach of looking at our shared religious and cultural traditions, as well as historic tensions through the ages. Lahore Museum has many stories to tell and our film, can help educate a lot of people online, especially now that colleges and universities have been closed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Most important of all – and the sincere wish of all those involved in making this film – is that perhaps it can help bridge the gaps and divides, and heal some of the hurt, the animosity and the trust deficits that exist between India and Pakistan, so we do not curse another generation in both countries and in their huge diasporas to grow up with sectarian tensions, wondering when, if ever, there can be good relations and peace between us.
Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret: Lahore Museum
Reviews of Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret, Lahore Museum
“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.” – Dame Marina Warner, DBE, CBE, Professor of English and Creative Writing, Birkbeck
“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.” – Edward Mortimer, author of Faith & Power: The Politics of Islam, former adviser to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and long-serving program advisor to Salzburg Global Seminar
“The conversation…is, first and foremost, a pleasure to eavesdrop on. All three protagonists seem to be having fun, to be enjoying the pursuit of serious questions in an extraordinary context. At the Lahore Museum, showing a collection that reflects the serial transformations of this complex country poses thorny problems of identity and ownership. Pakistan’s relatively recent acquisition, in contrast to its long and fluid history, of an apparently monolithic religious identity, makes the museum’s address to a richly diverse past more difficult and more essential.” – Dr Jim Harris, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Teaching Curator, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Anwar Akhtar was born and grew up in Manchester, UK. He is Founder and Director of The Samosa, a UK arts and journalism charity that works to embed diversity in the arts and humanities curriculum in schools, colleges and universities, and produces media that explores cultural and social issues. His latest film is “Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret – Lahore Museum” and his Manchester 4/4 talk, “Cities, Tolerance, Multi Culturalism” is available online. Anwar was the production consultant on the play “Dara,” working with Ajoka Theatre Pakistan and National Theatre UK. The first South Asian history play at the UK’s National Theatre, “Dara” was seen by more than 30,000 people in 2015. “Dara” tells the story of Mughal India, raising questions about religious freedom, tolerance and clerical power that still resonate today. Anwar also led the Royal Society of Arts’ Pakistan Calling project, which produced more than 60 films looking at identity, education, equality, culture, religion, women’s and minority rights in Britain and Pakistan. Anwar was previously project director of the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation, where he led the capital and business development of a new £26 million arts centre in East London. He is a mult-time Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar, having attended programs in the series Culture, the Arts and Society, Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention, and the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change.