The Dawn: Nov 13, 2015

PUNJAB NOTES: Conference: gathering or knowledge?

Mushtaq Soofi 

Conference in our times is a must have mark of academic and scholarly life. An academic who doesn’t have the list of conferences that he attended in his CV, is considered at best a failure and at worst sorts of pariah by professors and doctors.

Conference normally organised by academic institutions and intellectual forums, public and private, is usually a gathering of literati having specialised expertise in various fields.

Conference’s usefulness or uselessness is hotly contested issue. One of the greatest folklorists of the subcontinent, the legendary Devandar Satiarthi, who was given to wandering, once said that the best outcome of a conference was expressed not in its sessions in the hall or auditorium but rather in the conversations of participants at roadside tea stalls they had after the end of concluding ceremony.

What he meant needs no explanation: a formal conference results in banal formalities, academic and quasi-academic, with little bearing on the future development of subject/topic discussed and its implications for the people in general.

But at times there can be an exception as was the THAAP (an educational and cultural body) conference held recently in Lahore. Professor Pervaiz Vandal, a renowned teacher and architect, and Professor Sajida Haider Vandal, a well-known educationist with a vast teaching experience, organised the conference in collaboration with Kinnaird College Women University, Lahore.

The Higher Education Commission and Global Arts Limited supported the initiative. The theme of the conference was ‘People’s History’, an area much neglected by traditional academia that usually looks at people from their intellectual ivory tower.

History poses difficult problems and people’s history does so more simply because it’s treated the way people are treated i.e. with disdain. So people’s history has suffered at the hands of highbrow historians who in their snobbery bred by cesspool of class superiority take it as a suspect repertoire of unreliable fables and tales.

The reasons are not unfathomable. It challenges standard narratives, local and international, and the worldview that emanates from them. People’s history in myriad manners not only registers what actually happens but also the effects of happenings that happen in the context of people’s life.

People’s life, past and present, when studied as reflective of conflicting historical forces becomes the rock bed of alternative or counter narrative.

The THAAP conference was a part of an on-going endeavour to create alternative perspectives with a view to unearth and understand the secrets that lie buried under the shiny pile of official lies.

Under the rubric of people’s history research papers on a wide range of subjects were presented by Pakistani and foreign scholars in an informally formal manner on the rooftop of a house surrounded by leafy treetops with the joyful bird noise.

The conference went on for three days spread over 27 sessions. Foreign scholars from Germany, UK, US, Bangladesh and India either came in person or sent their papers.

Pakistani scholars, researchers and artists from Karachi, Tharparkar, Lahore, Faisalabad, Islamabad and Swat joined the sessions.

Researches on a staggering range of topics were presented generating a meaningful dialogue.

Diverse topics such as ‘Peasant uprising in East Bengal/East Pakistan’, ‘The Hidden Left’, ‘19th century Painters of Lahore tell the story behind, ‘Popular Culture of Cynicism and its Aesthetic Demonstrations in Pakistan’, ‘Archaeology of Nostalgia: Present History of Pakistani People through Photographs’, ‘Women and History: a critical appraisal of the chronicles of medieval Sindh’, Life of the Meek: shall they inherit the earth? ‘People’s History Through Trees’, ‘Early Portrayal of Punjabi Women’, ‘Basant and Pehalwani: dying cultural traditions of Punjab’, ‘Truck Art’, ‘The Isolated Communities of South Asia’, Lahore’s cityscapes’, ‘Inner structure of Ismaili community’, ‘Voyage to Waziristan, History of the invisible’, ‘Lest we Forget: rugs from war in Afghanistan’.

It was heartening to note that most of the paper readers were relatively young i.e. in their thirties and forties.

The fact simply belied the general opinion which is not entirely baseless that our young scholars lack the passion for research and fear the rigours, critical and analytical studies demand.

The presence of luminaries such as chairman Higher Education, Punjab, VC of Lahore College University, VC of University of Engineering and Technology, director of Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and senior journalist I.A Rehman, celebrated and reviled historian Dr Mubarak Ali and scores of intellectuals, artists and architects expressed the seriousness of what was being said and discussed on the occasion.

The scholars reminded us that we would not grasp the real essence of human evolution if we continued to treat people as if they existed in the liminal space between existence and non-existence. They in fact are the centre piece on the stage of history.

This conference which was more than a mere gathering might in some way help our educationists and policy-makers to understand the significance of research based projects on our history which has been distorted to say the least.

We all are a product of history and if we live with a distorted view of history, we are condemned to live with the distorted image of ourselves. —

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