The Second Floor

Karachi’s voices of art and dissent are rising above the suppression and lockdowns in the most unlikely little venue… Meghna Kundu reports.

In a corner of Karachi, on the second floor of a very nondescript building a hub for progressive Pakistani minds has emerged. Aptly named The Second Floor and more commonly known as T2F, it is a safe haven for artists and writers from different walks of life, providing a much needed platform for their work.

But in larger context T2F’s main aim is to become a mechanism for social change through enriching cultural activities, public discourse and the promotion of liberal ideas through new media.

Established in May 2007, T2F is the brainchild of PeaceNiche, a not-for-profit NGO, which is committed to becoming a vibrant centre of Pakistan’s developing civil society. T2F, has hosted several hundred events to date, like poetry readings, interactive conversations with writers, debates, discussions, film screenings, theatre performances, activist art exhibitions (including photography and design), and musicians’ open mic nights and jam sessions. They’ve even started monthly stand-up comedy nights. Among their latest ventures is Faraar, which literally means ‘escape’ in Urdu. It provides a medium for upcoming artists to escape the monotony of everyday life and gives them a space to showcase their work. They specially promote artists who take risks and experiment with mixed media and technology. Faraar encourages these artists to incorporate themes that spark debates and  raise questions about pertinent socio-political issues.

Looking in from the outside, it’s perhaps difficult for us to fathom the kind of vision it would take to start such an enterprise. In one of her early blogs, Sabeen Mahmud, the founder, vents her frustration about how she came home to Karachi to find that it had become a “cesspool of chaos” through the multiple clean-up operations fragmenting the city. Everyone who could afford it was migrating out and those who couldn’t, stood as silent spectators watching the country change hands from one dictatorship to another, leaving the city a mere shadow of its former self. The unfulfilled promises of politicians on whom people had pinned their hopes had turned them passive and a sense of discontentment prevailed throughout the city.

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It was perhaps the loss of her own voice and the complete unacceptability of it that made her want to bring about a change. Not just for herself but for all the others who were feeling the same. On her blog, she talks about how she began to ask herself a lot of tough questions like: How could we become agents of social change if our theater practitioners had no rehearsal spaces, if our underground musicians had no venues to perform in, if our emerging artists had nowhere to hang their work? How could creative dissidents even learn of each other’s existence, let alone build and cultivate a community, without physical spaces where people could talk politics? 

T2F was born with the intention of recreating the environment Mahmud grew up in, surrounded by revolutionaries and poets, but more like a postmodern version of it. It would be a sanctuary for the thinkers and innovators, a refuge for writers and artists–  basically anybody who needed to get away from the constant oppression they were being subjected to.

Almost a decade after its inception there are still several struggles they have to deal with on a regular basis. But Mahmud and her team have learnt to “roll with the punches.” Nimbly and efficiently, they utilize the city and the culture’s endless potential for new and creative ventures. Even though given the current political scenario in Pakistan and Karachi’s constant challenges like the incessant lockdowns and various other problems, T2F considers itself fortunate to be part of a growing community of progressive intellectuals who demand their voices to be heard. They believe in taking matters into their own hands rather than acting as passive spectators.

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