Since 1947, when India and Pakistan split based on Hindu and Muslim religious majorities, the two countries have maintained a state of enmity, also fighting a war in 1965 due to the territorial disputes over the Kashmir region. This conflict has escalated a number of times since then into confrontations on multiple fronts, with global implications. While politics and competitive sports still feed this rivalry, art has brought the people of the two nations together throughout time.
Bollywood films were banned in Pakistan in the aftermath of the war and almost two generations of Pakistani citizens grew up without watching Indian films legally. Until the advent of VHS tapes in the 80s when the country soon became a thriving market for pirated Bollywood films.
But this turned into a problem for the film industries of both countries where Bollywood lost one of its largest markets to piracy and Pakistan lost a major chunk of potential tax revenue. The film distribution and cinema industry in general also suffered badly in Pakistan since the ban. The country's cinema halls were affected as no one went to the theatres anymore. In the duration of the ban, its number of halls went from 1300 to 270.
Finally, in 2006, Musharraf lifted the ban on movies as one of the first "confidence-building measures with India". This was a win-win for both countries where Bollywood found its market again and the revenue from the movie theatres went into reviving the Pakistani film industry. Pakistan become one of the top five overseas market for Bollywood and revived 100 of its multiplexes by 2016.
However, in 2016 tensions arose again with The Indian Motion Picture Producers Association issuing a temporary ban on Pakistani talent from working in India following the deadly attack on an Indian army base that India alleged was the work of terrorists from Pakistan. In return, Pakistan also banned the release of Indian films in the country. Fortunately, unlike the previous ban that lasted 40 years, this one ended in 3 months.
Things have since been relatively cold in our filmic relationship but that 2006 lifting of the ban still remains a notable moment of history as it was the first time both countries united for a synergetic relationship for the sake of cinema.
In 2008, Pakistan Launched the Coke Studio that became a pivotal point in the relationship of the two countries. Where in any other video on the internet that remotely touches nationality and religion, you could and still can find comments of hatred between people of the two nations, Coke Studio became a haven for a mutual appreciation of music among citizens. It has developed a massive loyal fanbase in India in its 14 seasons.
Last year a track called Pasoori by Pakistani singer, Ali Sethi featured in Disney's Ms. Marvel and by October, it became the most-watched Coke Studio music video of all time with 410 million views. Pasoori is a Punjabi word that translates to 'a difficult mess'. It's a courtesan-style song about forbidden love and the longing of two star-crossed lovers acting as a metaphor for the contentious relationship of India and Pakistan that used to be one.
People from both the countries have always shared a deep affinity for each other’s art and culture. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Sethi, Ali Zafar and Atif Aslam are some of the most beloved names in Indian pop culture despite their Pakistani roots. In fact, this hatred that is so prevalent in other aspects is almost non-existent when it comes to music.
In my teen years, Imran Khan, Bilal Saeed, Atif Aslam, Xulfi and Jal were my jams that made any conflict between the countries irrelevant. My late father who would casually make remarks about Pakistan every once in a while ironically was also a devoted fan of Ghulam Ali and Mehdi Hassan. When it came to music, the rigid borders of the nations and all those political/ideologial differences somehow melted away.
Right after the Kargil war of 1999, A project rooted in friendship and collaboration called Aar Paar was formed. Led by Pakistani artist Huma Mulji and Indian artist Shilpa Gupta, the project was conceptualised following their participation in an international artists’ workshop organised by the Khoj International Artists Association in 1999.
The project took place in three iterations in 2000, 2002 and 2004 and expanded to include several artists such as Tushar Joag, Imran Qureshi and Sharmila Samant. The first iteration was premised on an exchange of physical artworks mailed across the border. The second exchange took place digitally with works that were emailed between the cities and mass produced in the destination city using cheap offset printing. The third involved the submission of video pieces that were projected in public spaces in Mumbai and Lahore.
Even in a fraught political period, the spirit of unity stood tall and even emerged stronger amidst the art community. Aar Paar marked an important moment in the history of contemporary art in the subcontinent when the promise of art-making was deployed as a subversive tool to destroy any ideas of separation.
In 2015, a collaborative project was curated by Open Sky brought together various visual artists and writers of India and Pakistan. It returned next year in a 2.0 version as well. Here are some of the artworks from that project.
In 2020, a group of accomplished Indian and Pakistani artists brought some of their best works to a unique virtual art exhibition called 'Irteqa', organised by Overseas Pakistani Artists Fraternity. Irteqa translates to evolution, and embodying the same, the artists interacted on Zoom sharing stories of their artworks and the similarities between the countries.
A year later, on the occasion of independence day, 40 UAE-based artists — 20 each from India and Pakistan took part in an exhibition called 'Jashn-e-Azaadi' with their paintings under the theme of 'Art Unites Us All' depicting various colours of culture, customs, religions, people and their lifestyles.
In mediums of films, music, literature and fine arts, the creative and collaborative relationship of India and Pakistan hasn't dwindled a bit like its political counterpart. People's multiple attempts to unite through art throughout the decades only bear witness to the fact that art transcends fear and hatred. It's an ethereal bridge that floats above the walls of zealotry and xenophobia enabling connection between people divided by borders and it will live along afters those borders have dissolved.