By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR - Not so long ago, Gul Pana's pursuit of a career as a professional singer in Khyber Pakthunkhwa province would have invited certain death at the hands of the Taliban.
But times have changed in Pakistan, and Gul is glad that the present provincial government has picked up enough courage to stand up to the Taliban's terrorism and promote music and other cultural programmes.
"I enjoy music and, at the same time, I am able to earn money for my family through singing," the pretty young diva tells IPS. "The people cannot be kept away from listening to songs."
Cultural activities were unthinkable in Khyber Pakthunkhwa as long as the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) or United Council of Action - an alliance of religio-political parties - ruled the province from 2002 to 2008 with backing from the Taliban militia.
After the MMA lost elections held in 2008 to the left-wing, socialist Awami National Party (ANP), bombing attacks by the Taliban on CD shops, cinemas and schools in Khyber Pakthunkhwa and the adjacent Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) increased briefly.
On the night of January 2, 2009, the Taliban brutally executed Shabana, a popular female dancer in Swat and strung up her body from an electric pole. That year, local singer Ghani Dad was killed in Swat while he was returning home from a music session.
But the tide began changing against the Taliban after the Pakistan army launched operations against militancy in the region in 2009 and the United States military stepped up drone strikes targeting top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders holed up in Pakistan's northwest.
"We have opened the 600-seat Nishtar Hall for cultural activities and want to defeat terrorism through music and art," Mian Iftikhar Hussain, Khyber Pakthunkhwa's culture minister, tells IPS.
Hussain wants to reverse the policies of the former MMA government which banned musical concerts and other cultural events, considering them to be un-Islamic.
Hussain says the revival of music and cultural activities was also part of the government's campaign to send across the message that the Pashtuns are a liberal people and opposed to terrorism.
Over two-thirds of Khyber Pakthunkhwa's 21 million people are Pashtuns, an ethnic group that straddles the Pakistan-Afghan border and provides the main support base for the Taliban.
"The Nishtar Hall, which remained closed for six consecutive years, now regularly hosts events where enthusiasts enjoy music, drama and other activities," Hussain said, indicating the most visible sign of the government's determination.
Reviving cultural programs across the province has been welcomed by the entertainment-starved Pashtuns, known to be traditionally fond of music, art and dance.
"We came to watch our favorite singers and dancers. The night was fun-filled and we enjoyed ourselves," said Zawar Ali, a resident of Mardan, one of the 25 districts of Khyber Pakthunkhwa.
Ali, who attended the musical night at the Nishtar Hall along with 10 of his friends, said he was thankful to the ANP-led government for defying the Taliban, who have now taken to attacking mosques and funerals.
On March 11, a suicide bomber attacked a funeral ceremony in Badhber village, on the outskirts of Peshawar, killing 15 mourners and narrowly missing his target, ANP politician Khush Dil Khan.
Pakistan began to be directly affected by terrorism after the ouster of Taliban rule in Afghanistan by the US towards the end of 2001, as part of the war-on-terror following the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington.
When their government was toppled in Kabul, the Taliban's leadership crossed over the porous border into Pakistan and concentrated in the FATA from where they began targeting government installations, schools and music and CD shops.
"The Taliban destroyed 600 music and CD shops in Khyber Pakthunkhwa over the past five years. They also forced several singers to leave the province," said Sher Dil Khan, president of the province's CD Shops Association.
"With a new government ruling Khyber Pakthunkhwa, attacks on CD shops have stopped," Khan said.
"During Taliban days, the majority of the singers, dancers and other people related to showbiz left the province," said Gulzar Alam, a crooner, who fled to Karachi himself. Gulzar and other singers are now signed up for back-to-back cultural programs.
The government has even started construction for an art academy where talented youths will be provided training in singing, dancing and playing musical instruments.
"About 100 youths have expressed willingness to undergo training in different genres and we are going to start training programs very soon," said Khyber Pakthunkhwa's director for culture, Pervaiz Khan Sabatkhel.
The province has been traditionally rich in music and art. "People organized musical events to celebrate their weddings and other festive occasions. They cannot be forced to stop listening to music or watching dramas. It has always been a part of their lives," Sabatkhel said.
Minister Hussain says his government is providing security to the CD shops and singers so they can carry on their business fearlessly.
"We have broken the command and control system of the Taliban and they cannot come back. We hope that art and culture activities will increase in the days to come," he said.