Middle Ground / Art as social change: "Art and music are universal languages capable of transcending borders"



"We’re not a band."

Over and over again, observers insisted that we looked, acted and performed like one -- as if the possibility that independent artists might come together to jointly organize a tour halfway across the world was inconceivable. It made sense, in one respect, as the perception of Westerners in India reflects the privilege conferred by our exchange rate and standard of living. Why would pampered children of the West leap through hoops to rock rhymes in recent conflict zones?

After hosting the first non-state-sponsored public musical concert in over 17 years in Kashmir, maybe it was inevitable that our project would come to be known as a "band." Few people we encountered had ever heard voices of American dissent, especially wrapped in the particular package of poetry and song -- but perhaps even more energizing were the results of a workshop we facilitated which led to the launch of "Kashmiri Renaissance," the region's first grassroots arts and activism group in a generation.

Over the prior year we spent organizing the ShantiSalaam tour, we couldn’t imagine receiving so warm an embrace and passionate desire for collaboration from the artists we met. As two of ShantiSalaam's three artist-director-founders, we traveled across South Asia to 11 cities in three countries (Pakistan, Kashmir, and India) over eight weeks as cultural ambassadors promoting peace and unity through the arts. Our mission: to present alternatives to violence, and encourage audiences and participants in our workshops and presentations to wield creative expression as a means to represent their experiences and perspectives in social discourse.

During our first week in the field, we hosted an eight-hour leadership development and creative writing workshop with over 80 youth leaders from villages in Himachal Pradesh, a relatively remote mountainous region nestled among the foothills of the Himalayas. Few of our participants spoke English, and none of us were fully fluent in their local language, Pahadi which literally means, "language of the mountain". The situation, which could have ended up being a disaster, actually ended up reinforcing one of the central themes of our workshops: that art and music are universal languages capable of transcending borders, and that if you lead with your heart, the head will follow.

The experience ShantiSalaam granted us included intense exploration, inter-faith prayer, discovery and learning. We visited Delhi, Dharamsala, Srinagar, Amritsar, Mumbai, Pune, Ahmeddbad, and Jaipur. After two weeks of touring and performing across northern India and Kashmir, we visited Lahore and Islamabad in Pakistan -- which split from India when the sub-continent attained independence in 1947, amidst a mass slaughter that claimed as many as 7-10 million lives -- as much as the Nazi holocaust in Europe earlier in the decade. Since then, the countries have gone to war several times; stood toe-to-toe in a nuclear standoff assessed by the U.S. President to be the greatest threat to world peace; and waged a continual low-intensity conflict including charges of state-sponsored terrorism by Pakistan. Yet, while seeing places riven so deeply from each other we saw a great deal that reminded us -- sometimes in unsettling ways -- of home.

Parts of Lahore seem eerily similar to cities in the United States, from its broad roads to the constant presence of Pizza Hut, KFC and McDonald restaurants. Seeing the same brands and development challenges halfway across the globe was initially depressing, since we had hoped to encounter a land less subject to commercial domination. On reflection, however, we found the discovery encouraging, by indicating that the people of both the United States and Pakistan confront common obstacles: not only the divisiveness preached by religious zealots, but also faceless corporate interests that pursue profit even at the cost of human lives.

By the time we reached Islamabad, our camera lenses were flickering to an urban sprawl rivaling that of Los Angeles. Spacious and beautiful city planning unfortunately is being quickly ruined by a transportation system relying on cars -- and vulnerable to the traffic and parking headaches such sprawl encourages.

Sustainability was a word to which people seemed to hold a distant relation. Because of our outreach efforts, we were immediately inundated by fascinating discussion with a standing-room-only class of university students at Quaid-i-Azam University. They reflected a broad consensus that this present world order will not last, and that if it doesn’t bend, soon it surely will break.

The reflections of the university students in Islamabad confirmed what our own experience of being raised in the western world has shown us: that its economic model is both unsustainable and morally bankrupt. By encouraging unchecked consumption, corporate capitalism is destroying the environment, and leaving vast numbers of people hungry and homeless in its wake. The United States repeatedly exports unrest by selling countries weapons and often pitting them against each another. American presidents and business tycoons watch other countries fight with guns and tanks sold to them by corporations whose profits swell with every bullet and bomb fired.

We considered how the armed resistance of groups like al-Qaeda reinforces the same division preached by their Western counterparts. Terrorists and America's right wing leadership reinforce each other: to each side, the other is the threat used to justify its actions. Without the threat of terrorism, the United States would have no basis to fight any war, let alone an endless campaign against limitless targets. And without arrogant multi-national corporations invading the economies (or arrogant U.S. presidents invading the territories) of the developing world, terrorists would be unable to recruit young people to die for their cause.

While visiting South Asia, we wondered, for instance, what would happen if Pakistani business people built indigenous industry, keeping profits within the country rather than handing them to Westerners -- thereby resisting forms of corporate culture and colonization.

Caught in the middle between these two extremes are those of us -- the vast majority of people in every country -- who want simply to live and enjoy peace. While fascist insurgents from the East fight a fascist superpower from the West, people inclined towards peace and justice lack a voice. It is for this reason that we promote art and creative expression as a force more powerful than any weapon.

In the United States, we organize numerous groups wielding performance and visual art as "art-tillery" in the ongoing battle for the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans. U.S. citizens are unfortunately blinded by a constant stream of advertisements and spoon-fed meaningless "news" about sports and celebrities. People around the planet suffer death, starvation, and displacement as a result of our electoral and commercial decisions, yet many Americans concern themselves only with the source of their evening's entertainment. Our efforts focus on educating our neighbors about the state of the world and our own country -- which are hidden by corporate media -- by helping everyday people craft socially relevant art and music.

We are merely two people in a movement of millions, struggling without institutional support to wrest our own country from the grips of corporate vultures and our imperial government. If our governments, commercial institutions and religious authorities have abandoned us to fuel more violence and preach greater division, it falls to us -- as individuals and local communities -- to build a better world capable of confronting our shared global challenges. In this endeavor, we visited 14 cities on three continents in two months, offering everyone we met the opportunity to raise their own individual voice and hear the voices of others who refuse to support division, violence and war.

{liberatormagazine.com exclusive feature}
by Hawah Kasat + Shahid Buttar

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