Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret – Lahore Museum features Anwar Akhtar, British Pakistani journalist and director of Samosa Media, in conversation with Lahore Museum’s ex-director Sumaira Samad and playwright Shahid Nadeem. They view the museum’s collection and discuss the future role of the institution within Pakistan’s wider social, political, religious and cultural context today, as well as Pakistan’s relationships with Britain.
Lahore Museum has a rich, ancient and varied collection which shows the historical wealth and religious and cultural plurality of Pakistan, one of the largest Muslim majority countries in the world, with large diaspora communities across the globe.
WATCH THE FILM: Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret – Lahore Museum, Anwar Akhtar
We talked to Anwar about the film and the impact he hopes it has on the audience,
What inspired you to make the film Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret – Lahore Museum?
I’m a British Pakistani journalist and documentary filmmaker and self-taught historian. I was born and grew up in Manchester. My family are originally from – well, my mother was born in Jalandhar, India and was part of the Partition of India. She experienced Partition as a very young child her family all had to leave Jalandhar and came to Bahawalpur that became part of Pakistan. She was part of those famous human refugee caravans. I think that’s a story that’s very common for many British Asians of my generation.
My family came to Britain in the ’60s. I was born and grew up in Manchester in the 80s. As a child and adult I have been a frequent visitor to Pakistan. As part of my work as Founder and Director of The Samosa, a UK arts and journalism charity that works to embed diversity in the arts and humanities curriculum and produce media that explores cultural and social issues, I spent time working with Dawn Media Group in Karachi and Ajoka Theatre in Lahore.
This work led to me being the producer of the play Dara, working with Ajoka Theatre Pakistan and National Theatre UK which was a huge production. The production was a blockbuster and seen by more than 30,000 people in 2015, it received great critical reviews and acclaim. Dara tells the story of Mughal India, raising questions about religious freedom, tolerance and clerical power that still resonates today.
I researched the story of Dara and Aurangzeb conflict for the succession of the Moghul Empire, to reign and sit on the Peacock Throne in the Lahore Museum. I fell in love with the museum, the collection, the stories it holds and has to tell, the location on The Mall, at the heart of Lahore, on the edge of the Old city, the beauty of the building and the beauty of Lahore.As a British person, who has visited many times and also worked in Pakistan, I still never get used to the place.
The cities of Pakistan are despite all the problems including poverty, sectarianism, gender inequality, amazing places. The sights, the smells, the noises of Karachi and Lahore, you know, it’s magical. It’s magical realism when you’re from somewhere like Manchester. The museum for me captured all this magic, but also always felt like a place of calm, surrounded by all the chaos and noise of the city, standing apart reminding the city and the rest of Pakistan of its complex layered multi-cultural multi-faith history, in a land that has over two millennia, seen the epic rise and fall of empires including the Mauryan, the Mughal and the British .
I felt all those stories came alive in the museum. I decided that it was a story that should reach the widest possible audience, not least to try and show the complexity of the region to Western audiences and also as a British Asian, explore the relationships between India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, between Sunni and Shia.
The film explores the significance of the Museum in Asia, but also in Britain today. The Lahore Museum collection tells all these stories of ancient cultures: Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim histories, and those of empire, trade, the arrival of the East India company, the contribution of British Indian soldiers in World Wars I and II, the partition of India, and the creation of Pakistan.
Lahore Museum has a rich, ancient and varied collection which demonstrates the historical wealth, religious and cultural plurality of Pakistan, one of the largest Muslim majority countries in the world. How is the Muslim faith reflected in the museum?
No country has only one culture, one history, in reality it is always plural. I think this is especially so, in South Asia today.The film looks at the shared cultures and faiths of the region, which of course includes the Muslim Faith, but also Sikh, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Christian.
Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and the UK has a shared history, a shared story and the Muslim faith is a huge part of the history. It’s this history we explore on the film from the arrival of Islam in Asia to the Moghul Empire, to the causes and consequence of partition, to the reality of what Pakistan is today.
The film explores the significance of the Museum in South Asia, but also in Britain today. How and why is the museum relevant to Pakistani diaspora communities all over the world?
I think the Museum is just as relevant to South Asian diaspora communities as it is to South Asia. For instance as we approach the 75th anniversary of partition in August 2022, we look at the past and perhaps learn lessons for today from the Lahore Museum. Just look at what’s happening now with extremism and violence, look at what’s happening in Kashmir, look at what’s happening with Modi, look at what’s happening with Imran, look at the Indus Valley Water Treaty tensions.
The 75th anniversary of partition in August 2022 is an important date, we should stop and reflect on in the same way as it’s important to remember the end of World War 2, or is it important to remember the Emancipation Proclamation and the ending of slavery? So these are the huge moments in human history. I think what makes Partition – it’s not unique, but what makes Partition very important is I think like Israel, Palestine, like Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, like Mexico and America, China and Taiwan, with the border arguments, you know, these are the fault lines of the human race at the moment.
With current political tensions around racial injustice and systemic racism in institutions, how can the arts be a vehicle to facilitate change?
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. The arts is all part of education, history and culture. Art can also ask questions and do things that it would be difficult for politicians to do. That why peace building and conflict resolution often comes through art, culture, protest, then politicians follow, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall, The fall of Apartheid and The Northern Ireland peace process.
What do you hope the impact the film has on the viewer?
I hope they enjoy watching the amazing knowledge of the history of the region and the collection that Sumaria Samad, who was Director of Lahore Museum, and Shahid Nadeem of Ajoka Theatre , have to say about the museum’s extraordinary collection and the history of the region is both compulsive viewing and highly informative. I especially hope the film has an impact as an educational and curriculum resource in both Asia and The West
The film also discusses 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 both India and the UK. I hope viewers go away both entertained and feeling like they have learnt something they did not know about other cultures, communities and cultures as well as their own. Most of all I hope it helps at least understand some of the historic tensions in the region, which may also help future peace building efforts.
About Anwar Akhtar:
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. 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 multi-time Fellow of Salzburg Global Seminar. His Manchester 4/4 talk, Cities, Tolerance, Multi culturalism film is here 4x4manchester.com/tolerant and his latest film is Pakistan’s Best Kept Secret – Lahore Museum
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