This week reports emerged that Punjab’s Information and Culture Minister Fayazul Hasan Chohan “dissolved” the “governing body” of Alhamra Art Centre in Lahore, and that from now on the scripts of all plays to be staged at the venue will be scrutinised by a newly constituted government body.
Many were aghast at the news report and troubled by the prospect of curbs on the freedom of expression that is the cornerstone of culture in any progressive society.
But what really is going on at the Alhamra? Speaking to Images, Punjab Culture and Information Minister Chohan denied outright all the reports and said there was a huge misconception in the public's mind about the issue.
He said that there was no such thing as a 'governing body' overseeing Al Hamra, hence none had been dissolved or disbanded. But what had, in fact, happened was that the tenure of the board of governors (BoG) of the institution had ended four months ago -- even before the new government took over -- and the ministry, as per law, was in the process of constituting a new board.
The BoG at the AlHamra is responsible for managing internal matters of both complexes of Alhamra, new projects and plans are pitched in its meetings and members’ opinion sought. The executive director heads the institute and is the signatory authority by law, while the BoG chairman heads the board meetings.
“The main issue is that there is a mafia of producers here that has been booking the halls for over a year for at least 10 years now. How does this make sense?" said Chohan. "Whether it is railway or bus, years-long bookings aren’t fair. This mafia comprises around four to five people that has made directors, writers and actors their slaves. These poor people are eventually dependent on this mafia for their meagre payments. This mafia included the executive director, who has earned billions through this exploitation, and financial corruption was rampant for a decade,” the minister exclusively told Images.
He elaborated that he had cancelled all such bookings, alleging that the “mafia” tried to bribe him, strike deals with him and even threatened him, but he said he told them he wanted dramas staged systematically without any corruption.
"The executive director in connivance with the programmes director and a few others would embezzle millions and stage all kinds of vulgar plays... I can assure you that there will be no restriction on content or freedom of expression," says the Punjab Culture and Information Minister
“To deal with this mafia, I have constituted a committee to allot dates on merit and for a specific period of time so that everybody gets a fair chance to stage their plays. The BoG is entirely a separate entity. Earlier, solely the executive director would allot dates to producers in exchange for billions of rupees in kickbacks and through underhand deals. Now, he won’t have the authority to do so."
He continued: "This new committee would comprise me, the information and culture secretary, the executive director, the BoG chairman, programmes director, Alhamra Cultural Complex programmes director and the accounts officer. No producer will be allotted dates for over two months. A single play runs for 16 days in one hall. The committee will select four plays for each of the four halls at Alhamra through applications submitted to it, as was the earlier practice. This way, every two months a new play and a new producer will get a chance,” he added.
Talking about media reports that spoke of the dissolution of a “governing body”, Chohan accused the “mafia” of using their friends in the media to air false news after they failed to bribe him.
“The BoG’s tenure lapsed even before our government took over. I was forwarded a summary to constitute a new one but I remained busy. Now, we’ll constitute a new board in 15-20 days. The Alhamra BoG is formed with the chief minister’s approval after the culture ministry suggests its members. This board looks after the institute’s daily affairs. The issue was always the mafia and its corruption that I had to deal with.”
"Two kinds of extremists have ruined our country: liberal and religious. They will both twist anything I say and start hating me,” he said.
The minister was also asked about the reports that scripts will be screened and scrutinised by a committee from now on and the fears this would hamper free cultural expression.
He asserted that scripts of plays staged at both private theatres and Alhamra were always scrutinised by a committee but that the committee was never taken seriously or made properly functional. “We have had systems in place, but they were never implemented. The executive director in connivance with the programmes director and a few others would embezzle millions and stage all kinds of vulgar plays. I can assure you that there will be no restriction on content or freedom of expression. The content of plays or vulgarity isn’t even the main objective of this new committee, but only giving everyone a fair chance to stage dramas. I allowed Faiz Mela also; who would be more controversial than Faiz? Rest assured we do not plan to restrict anything. Two kinds of extremists have ruined our country: liberal and religious. They will both twist anything I say and start hating me.”
Meanwhile, the public information officer at Alhamra, Samreen Bukhari, also added to what the minister had to say about the dissolution of the board.
She said the institute had not received any notification in this regard and hence had no information about any board being dissolved. “If there has been any discussion within the culture ministry, then we don’t know about it. We just haven’t received any notification about the BoG. The body still exists as of now and till we get a notification we can’t discuss it. When we receive notification we will announce to media ourselves.”
Images also spoke to a few members of the Alhamra BoG to find out if the board had actually been dissolved. The chairman, Tauqeer Nasir, reiterated Ms Bukhari's stance. “Let’s wait and watch because there is no notification yet. But if there is one in the future then whatever happens will be for the good. There must be a good intention behind it,” he said.
Commenting on any fears of restrictions on scripts and content of plays, Mr Nasir said restrictions were always there in every society. “Everyone says that theatre has declined, so whatever is happening or will happen will only be to improve theatre and not shut it down. We have to revive the classical drama and bring back the theatre of the old times. Let’s take it all positively.”
BoG member and veteran playwright Asghar Nadeem Syed said that he had only read the newspaper reports about the board’s dissolution and had not been notified of it. “I don’t think it’s dissolved. And maybe it had and the members have not been informed of it. Maybe an official decision has been taken, but the members haven’t received any notice about it.”
He also, kind of, agreed to what the minister said about just one person deciding what content should be staged. “Earlier, the deputy directors approved scripts; board members only took decisions when an issue was brought to their attention. A script scrutiny committee has always been there, but I don’t think it scrutinises commercial plays. Even when Naseeruddin Shah presented his play, I had scrutinised it. Scrutiny doesn’t mean removing something, but making sure it complied with societal norms and that a dialogue doesn’t hurt anyone’s sentiments or damages their rights. No one’s freedom is curbed. Scrutiny is protecting rights of everyone and not judging what’s right and wrong. I’ve approved creatively bad scripts too because they didn’t damage or hurt anyone,” Mr Syed added.
Board member Nusrat Jamil said she supported the minister if he is out to eliminate corruption from the institute and shut down the vulgar plays staged at Alhamra late at night, which she called “soft porn for an all-male audience”.
“I was horrified at reading the news reports about dissolution of the board because I’m a member and currently not in the country, so I was shocked. Also, all the plays were always scrutinised, so this isn’t new. But if this new committee means ending vulgarity from Alhamra then I’m all for it,” she said.
"Ajoka and Madeeha Gauhar and events like the Lahore Literary Festival are the kind of stuff that should be supported and encouraged by the government... I hope the new board will be given the visionary culture policy that is enshrined in the Charter of the Alhamra Arts Council by people like Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Unnecessary interference is not to be encouraged."
Meanwhile, the minister also attempted to clear any misconceptions surrounding his intentions by detailing the steps he’s taken in the last three months for the promotion of culture.
This included the approval by the chief minister to issue health insurance cards to 6,000 artists in Punjab and their families. “For the first time in Punjab, we’re launching the ‘Voice of Punjab’ contest to select the new Noor Jehan, Mehdi Hasan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Arif Lohar from every nook and cranny of Punjab. We’re also starting the first arts college inside Alhamra to award degrees, affiliated with Punjab University, in various art disciplines. Then very soon we’re starting a series of concerts all over the province as well as melas with music, food etc. I will not allow vulgarity at all, but sincere promotion of music, drama, theatre and culture,” he said.