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Creating National Identity Through the Visual Media

Laila Tyabji

By Saima Zaidi
Oxford University Press & the Prince Claus Fund Library, 2009, pp.349 with index, Rs. 3000.00


Fat, oblong, register-shaped, its densely packed (and extremely unwieldy) 347 page body encased in striking turquoise and gold, Mazaar, Bazaar: Design and Visual Culture in Pakistan, landed on my desk a couple of weeks ago; carrying with it the images, iconography and essence of a country and civilization so near and so akin to us, and yet so unknown. Though India and Pakistan share borders, ethnicity, and a common history of several thousand years, for the past 63 years a curtain has veiled us from each other—created by politics, war, and incompatible national agendas. It is not an iron curtain; more the latticed, brocaded curtain that once separated the zenana from the outside world. We catch occasional glimpses and garbled half-whispers, and the enforced separation both tantalizes and distorts. There is intense fascination and curiosity—almost obsession. When the curtain parts of its own accord, we embrace each other; when politics or war tears it asunder, there is bloodshed and a sense of cruel betrayal. The cliche, ‘love-hate relationship’ has never been more apposite. Mazaar, Bazaar parts the curtain for us. The view, candid and wide-ranging, untouched by the Photoshop of chauvinism or censorship, is revealing and enthralling. In 33 riveting essays, written by Pakistani and international scholars, artists and social and political commentators, Saima, a communication designer and lecturer on design and typography at the Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, explores ‘the interaction between visuals and their viewers.’ Advertising, religious iconography, film hoardings, graffiti, portraits of national leaders, political cartoons, match-box covers, miniature painting, the scenic backdrops of roadside photographers, all are part of her canvas.Visual media is a hugely important component in creating national identity, especially in a country only six decades old and with less than 50% literacy. After partition, Pakistan had to invent itself anew, and Mazaar Bazaar unwraps and elucidates some of the mechanisms and mythology. These range from passport stamps, party symbols, and currency notes to air hostesses uniforms and the artwork on trucks and buses. (Decorating the latter can cost up to 2 lakh rupees—a proof of its perceived value to both owner and viewer). There is a brilliant chapter by S. Akbar Zaidi on how Jinnah’s official photographs gradually metamorphosed from natty, anglicized dandy in monocle, three-piece suit and spats to the achkan-wearing, karakul-capped image Pakistanis revere as their Quaid-e-Azam. As one Pakistani reviewer put it, this ‘vibrant, sensual picture of ...

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