Art for Social Change

The society we are living in today is one where life is quickly losing its meaning, not for everyone but at least for the over whelming majority. For most of the people life has become nothing but dull drudgery, a monotonous routine, automated almost robot like repetition of tasks day in and day out. Everything which we do today, from the consumption food to our leisure and even worship has been turned into a means of profit for the corporations. In ancient cultures the times of consumption of food i-e breakfast, lunch and dinner were considered as moments of meditation and reflection. It used to be a time for families to come and sit together, say grace or supplicate to the Lord to thank Him for His blessings. But in today`s society the profundity of it all has been transformed into notions of fun, pleasure and enjoyment. Fast food companies have successfully been able to attach labels of thrill, adventure and even lust with the consumption of food. Why? Because it sells. Nothing sells better than triggering the most basic desires of the lower self. This is the motto and the secret to modern marketing.

Similarly art forms have also been commercialized today, perhaps more than anything else. Art is the expression of human self or creativity and is the by product of culture, so wherever there is culture  art is bound to follow. The purpose of this article is not to delve into the depths of the evolution of art  for it is a topic too great to be dealt with right now but if we simply take an overview we can see that the astounding monuments and relics left behind by the ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians, Mayans, ancient Mesopotamians etc are a testament to the fact that these civilizations had truly remarkable artists.

For some it might be strange but the rule holds true for the Islamic civilization as well. The rise of Islamic civilization in Arabia brought with it its own unique art forms. The Arabs were proud of their poetry, many companions of Prophet Muhammad [Peace and blessings be upon him] were masters of the Arabic poetry, the Holy Quran itself contains a chapter named “The Poets”. Even though Holy Quran is not a book of poetry but the verses of Quran are weaved together in such a magnificent and sublime manner that it feels like a Divine orchestra is at play whenever anyone recites the Quran. Furthermore the companions of Holy Prophet [Peace and blessings be upon him] composed poetry to praise him. Today the poetic verses in praise of Prophet Muhammad [Peace and blessings be upon him] are taken strictly as sacred and religious, which they are but historically these poems and compositions specially in the early Meccan society were also a form of social expression. At a time when the tribal chiefs were resisting the message of Islam, the companions of Prophet Muhammad [Peace and blessings be upon him] used the form of poetry for further propagate the message of Islam and in doing so they used art as a means of social change.

Poetry however is not the only art form found in Islamic culture, as time progressed Muslims delved into other forms of arts such as music which became a central part of Mehfil a Sema but it was Islamic architecture and calligraphy which perhaps stood out the most. The octagonal pillars and Ottoman era minarets, arches and domes, intricate calligraphy, floral patterns and geometric designs. All are symbols which can be heavily seen in Islamic architecture not just historically but even today.

Art for Social Change:

As stated earlier art is not only limited to something which is to be consumed for the purpose of leisure. If used with a purpose and direction art can be as powerful as a weapon, specially today when the emergence of social media has shrunk the barriers and boundaries which once existed as barriers for the flow of thoughts, ideas and concepts. Art can effectively be used as a weapon or tool for social change but for this we have to define social change.

Social change means a collective change over time in the behavior patterns, cultural values and norms. This however is not a newly found use of art forms. If we look at early Islamic civilization particularly the Ummayad and Abbassid era we can find many examples where art forms were used  to subvert oppressive policies of the rulers.

The above excerpt*³ shows how Farazdaq a well known Arabian poet praised Imam Zayn ul abideen [as] in the presence of Hisham bin Abdul Malik the Ummayad caliph, Farazdaq expressed the truth which Hisham did not want to surface for he feared that his own troops might revolt against him if they realized the importance and gravity of the true personality of the 4th imam. As a result Farazdaq was imprisoned.

The excerpt*² above shows a satirical poem written by the poet D`ibil in 2nd century AH (8-9th century AD), in this poem the poet satirized the Abbassid caliph al Mu`tasim. This shows that satire as a form of expression was present in the Islamic society and it was aimed at the rulers when they did wrong. D`ibil had to flee Iraq and settle in Mauritania to escape from the wrath of a ruler he had satirized. Thus a form of consciousness existed among the people to use art as a form of protest and it was certainly powerful which is why rulers feared it and the poets who can be seen as social activists were often arrested for even daring to challenge their authority.

This brings us to the modern day and age when we see art forms bustling forth and becoming pivots for social change. Today one doesn`t need a full blown revolution to cause social change, a well directed stimulation provided through art forms can have a similar effect albeit smaller in quantum. This is where art forms tie in with the monotonous lifestyle of today. Art is creativity of human soul which inherently goes against anything monotonous, today when people lose hope art can perhaps make them hope again. Moreover we cannot underestimate the power of art in bringing about a revolution. As we have seen in the past few decades poets, singers and musicians can charge up the social activists with the expression of their art forms. Dr. Muhammad Iqbal rightfully said “Nations are born in the hearts of poets, they prosper and die in the hands of politicians.”, though Dr. Iqbal cannot simply be called as an artist for he is a philosopher, spiritual guide and perhaps a social scientist who used the medium of poetry in particular to transmit his message to the intended receiver. Nevertheless the work of Dr. Iqbal is pure art and nothing less than pure art which infused life into the revolutionaries of Indian sub-continent and his ideas kick started a movement for the independence of India from British colonial rule.

For many the creation of Pakistan meant the beginning of a golden era for the Muslims of the sub-continent, it did not happen. Perhaps the people failed to realize that having an area geographically marked on the map, recognized by the United Nations is by no means an assurance of a healthy and functional society. Societies and cultures need a firm base to build upon and decades if not centuries to mature. The incubation of cultures is similar to the upbringing of a child, the first few years of a child determine how and what the child grows to be. If a child is reinforced with sound social, moral and ethical values during the years of primary socialization it is most likely that upon growing into adult hood these values will shine through his or her character.

Soon after the creation, the infant society of Pakistan faced trials and turbulence. Some call it conspiracy, evil schemes and plots while others term it is our own incapacity and failure, whatever the case maybe the infant society of Pakistan unfortunately was not reinforced with the ideals set out by Dr. Iqbal and later Muhammad Ali Jinnah and other thinkers behind the Pakistan movement. Hardly a decade after the partition we saw mother of this nation, Fatimah Jinnah being humiliated in public gatherings for the sake of power. Throughout the 60s, 70s and the 80s Pakistani society and culture was being suffocated and thus we saw poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib emerge, who once again tried to infuse a revolutionary spirit into the society. For some reason though their work could not galvanize the society to bring about a wholesome and long lasting change.

I maybe wrong but since the late 80`s hardly anyone has used art forms for social change in Pakistan. Today the potential exists perhaps more than at any other time in history because any ordinary individual can utilize the power of internet and social media to reach the masses however it is one of the curses of a highly commercialized world that everyone wants to sell their talent for money and you hardly get individuals who are willing to use their talents  for social change. It is true that we need money to survive but at the same time those who have been gifted with the talents and means carry a heavy responsibility towards the society they live in.

We don`t need costly campaigns and movements, simply an idea can have far reaching effects. Banksy used  street art to communicate widely understood yet unspoken realities and prejudices. Alamgir Khan of Fixit used a similar art form when he began spray painting silhouettes of the Chief Minister beside open main holes and pot holes, he faced difficulties but was able to sustain his campaign and a year later Fixit is doing surprisingly well though the Fixit campaign is not centered around the phenomenon of social art. Similarly there is a plethora of examples of social art being used to address key issues around the world and creative use of art to address those issues can be the first step towards a better world, a better society.

Presented below are some Tedx talks which I found relevant to this topic.

1-Kashf ul Mahjoob by Ali Hujveri[ra]
2-Tareekh e Khulafa by Jalaluddin Suyuti[ra]


Speak your mind.Give a voice to your thoughts.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s