Cultural taboos, militancy, financial insecurity and lack of official patronage are the recurrent themes that have shaped the fate of artists, performers and singers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and no substantive change seems to have occurred in their lives despite tall claims by governments over the years.
Many noted artists, musicians and writers related to art, music, film, stage, radio and television passed away during 2018 under miserable conditions. These include Riaz Akhtar (TV artist), Akbar Hussain (folk singer), Masoodur Rahman (folk singer), Umar Daraz Marwat (poet), Iqbal Jan (poet), Iftikhar Qaiser (TV artist), Naeem Jan (TV artist), Munshi Abdur Rahman (TV scriptwriter), Wali Dad (tabla nawaz) and Younas Qiasi (film, TV scriptwriter).
Moreover, veteran artists who have been bedridden since long and still await the state’s financial support include Syed Mumtaz Ali Shah (TV and radio artist), Hidayatullah (folk singer), Arshad Hussain (TV artist), Khial Mohammad (ghazal and folk singer), Roidad Khan (TV artist) and Akhtari Begum (radio and TV artist).
It is now largely believed that the much-needed funds for suffering artists arrive only at the time of their burial. Quite a few senior artists died in squalor as their cries for financial assistance fell on the deaf ears of those in power. Many more were forced to bid goodbye to the profession and turn to other jobs while some fortunate few fled to foreign shores. The performing arts scene in KP paints a very gloomy picture indeed as the once resounding hubs of arts and culture lie in ruin and neglect, silenced by years of indifference. Artists, performers and musicians who once used to draw applause and ovation now go about their dreary everyday lives with hopelessness and a look of sheer abandonment writ largely across pained faces.
It is now largely believed that the much-needed funds for suffering artists arrive only at the time of their burial
Even before the era of militancy that riddled Swat and swept across KP and the erstwhile Fata region, conditions were never ideal for its many artists. The Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) — the religious parties’ alliance which was in power from 2002 to 2008 — had aggravated the plight of the already threatened community as the doors of Peshawar city’s lone theatre, Nishtar Hall, were shut on them. The Awami National Party (ANP)-led government, which succeeded the MMA government in the militancy-plagued province, did offer a ray of hope in such dark times as literary and cultural activities were revived and the Nishtar Hall once again echoed with music and festivity.
Unfortunately, the culture policy draft prepared by the ANP government in KP during its tenure (2009-13) couldn’t see the light of day. It was meant to ensure social and financial security to artists and the literati. But to date, the long-standing promise by the KP culture directorate of establishing an art academy in Peshawar remains merely a dream, even as artists visit the directorate on a daily basis in the hope that the files bearing their applications for financial assistance have been forwarded to the concerned personnel for approval. Sadly, ‘lack of funds’ is the bureaucratic excuse that waives off any such requests.
Noted TV artists Zulfiqar Qureshi and Mohammad Ilyas, who lead the artists’ welfare organisation ‘Muttahida Fankaar’, tell Icon that the KP artists’ community finds no place in the priorities of the authorities concerned due to a lack of vision. “The so-called cultural policy has proved to be nothing but mere eyewash,” says Ilyas. “Not a single literary or cultural event has been held in Nishtar Hall since the sitting Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government came to power. The culture directorate officials continue to play a game of cat-and-mouse with us. And despite court orders, monthly stipends are not being paid to the artists.”
Hoping for ‘change’?
The expectations and hopes for a ‘tabdeeli’ (positive change) in the lives of the artists’ community found a place in many hearts when the PTI-led government won the general elections in 2013 with the slogan of ‘change’.
Literary and cultural activities picked up and efforts were initiated to compile a new comprehensive cultural policy draft. Several schemes were announced, including a project titled ‘Living Human Treasure’, through which about 500 deserving artists, musicians and writers were to be awarded a monthly stipend of 30,000 rupees and an endowment fund of 50 million rupees would be set aside for artists’ welfare.
But the final draft of the cultural policy got the cabinet’s nod of approval just three days before of the end of PTI government in KP and before this the finance department had already disapproved the endowment fund. Disheartened, the artists are looking to the PTI’s second term in power in KP as well as to the Centre this time, expecting it to revisit its policy towards art and culture.
When this writer met up with senior Peshawar TV artist Naushaba, she came up with a woeful tale, narrating an ordeal of how her elder son had been struck down by renal failure two years ago and she had to run from pillar to post to seek help, but to no avail. With no other option, Naushaba had to sell off her only home in Peshawar. But the delay in treatment could not help her son survive, and he died shortly afterwards.
“Now I live in a dingy rented house,” she tells me. “I do a radio show from which I get 5,000 rupees. We artists cannot pursue any other line of work. The doors of the state-run TV channels have remained closed for us since many years. Recently, I got a role in a 25-minute play on PTV Peshawar centre after a gap of nearly 10 years. Most of my fellow senior artists are either bedridden or have been forced to beg. There is no work for KP artists when it comes to film, stage, radio or television and it seems like the previous MMA government has returned. I see no future for artists, at least in the KP region. The PTI government doesn’t seem to heed the cries of dying art and culture,” Naushaba laments.
"I know a senior female artist who begs on the streets of Peshawar with her face covered so that nobody recognises her," says senior artist Shazma Haleem
Syed Mumtaz Ali Shah, a household name in KP, has been bedridden since long after he developed severe back pain during a Pashto drama shoot for a private TV channel some three years ago. “To expect government aid is an exercise in futility,” he says, his eyes welling up. “Probably, artists are born to suffer in this part of the world where senior artists have always led a miserable life. We have nobody to look up to, neither society nor the government. Every artist is a tragedy and a casualty in KP.”
Another senior artist Shazma Haleem holds no different opinion regarding their endless woes. She says that whether they be male or female, no other threat to artists is bigger than their dire financial situation. She says she has now left acting and mostly conducts private radio and TV shows. Sharing her views, she says artists and musicians in KP are passing through the worst of times. “I know a senior female artist who begs on the streets of Peshawar with her face covered so that nobody recognises her. My only advice to artists in such dire times is that they should accept some responsibility and not be totally dependent on government assistance and support. On the other hand, the KP culture department must also recognise the services of all such artists.”
Meanwhile, Naeemullah Turi, a folk singer from the Kurram tribal district, says that, although he hails from a well-off family, his other more unfortunate colleagues have suffered terribly at the hands of the worsening law and order situation in their areas, coupled with repeated military operations. “I strongly suggest that artists and musicians from the newly merged tribal districts be given their due share, and a special aid cell be set up to address their issues,” he says.
The decline of Pashto cinema
The Pashto film industry — once the most robust in Pakistan’s cinema —has also been taking its dying breaths due to lack of sponsorship, outdated infrastructure and a slump in viewer interest.
Noted film actor, director and producer Ajab Gul is of the view that cinema culture can be revived but investment, upgradation of infrastructure and official care are the prerequisites. “The release of new Pashto movies is limited to the two Eids each year compared to more than 50 films a few years ago,” he points out.
“The KP government, under a public-private partnership, should set up multiplexes. Only this way will its many artists, performers and musicians find better employment opportunities and financial well-being.” Gul says he is willing to offer his expertise in this regard to the government, if asked.
“Pashto cinema cannot stand on its own feet unless the KP government becomes serious. Bureaucrats should be kept away from all matters related to arts and culture,” he advises.
Unsafe in KP
Another sensitive issue in KP is that of transgender people, many of whom are traditionally associated with cultural activities in the province.
According to Taimur Kamal, a rights’ activist, there is no safe place for transgender persons. His figures reveal that around 62 transgender persons have been killed in Peshawar, Nowshera, Mardan and Swat and about 300 acts of violence, including eight gang rape cases, have also been reported since their organisation ‘TransAction’ was formed in 2015.
“Transgender [persons] are mostly involved with the performing arts and become victims of sexual harassment. They are being killed on different pretexts. KP has become an unsafe place for this marginalised community and, only last year, six transgender persons have been murdered.”
He laments that the local administration is not taking concrete steps to secure the lives of the transgender and, even if arrests are made, a fair investigation is not conducted to punish the culprits. As a result of this, perpetrators of crimes often go scot-free from the courts due to faulty investigative processes.
“We appreciate the fact that a complaint cell has been set up in Peshawar on the directives of Prime Minister Imran Khan,” says Kamal. “But we further suggest that the reach of the recently introduced federal protective law for transgender persons also be extended to KP with the hope that this will help in bringing down crimes against them.”
The other side
When Icon approached an official at the KP culture directorate, he told this writer that “the KP government, during PTI’s first tenure in power, had spent billions on the revival of indigenous arts and culture and on the strengthening of the culture directorate.”
He goes on to say that, “Under a public-private partnership, over 1,500 different kinds of cultural events were conducted in almost all districts and around 20 mega events were held at Nishtar Hall for which senior artists and writers were engaged. A database of about 2,500 artists, performers and musicians was prepared, an online magazine in 10 languages was launched and a writers’ club had also been registered with around 150 poets and writers.”
"The KP government, during PTI’s first tenure in power, had spent billions on the revival of indigenous arts and culture," claims an official of the KP cultural directorate
He says the issue of monthly stipends for artists would be resolved in April while a big event has been planned titled the ‘CPEC Cultural Festival’ in which artists from Iran, Afghanistan, China and India would also be invited in an effort to strengthen culture diplomacy in the region. He adds that the establishment of an art gallery and an artisans-at-work bazaar also has been approved in the pursuance of the KP cultural policy. The official also insisted that funds have been released to ailing artists and no ‘file’ for financial aid is pending with the culture directorate.
If the bureaucrat is correct, there seems to be a big disconnect between the official perspective and the general perception on the ground. Is it simply a matter of government’s strenuous efforts not being publicised properly?
The way forward
The Culture Journalists’ Forum (CJF) in Peshawar, a body working for the welfare of the artists’ community, feels that rhetoric needs to be translated into concrete action. They feel official claims are limited to being on paper and that serious action is lacking. It suggests that the KP government should set up an endowment fund and establish state-of-the-art academies and arts councils at every district. It also believes that the provincial culture directorate, Nishtar Hall and arts councils should be handed over to the most experienced, qualified and genuine artists.
Ihtisham Toru, the CJF chief, is of the opinion that affairs of the artists and performers should be handed over to senior artists on the pattern of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. “Adequate funds should be allocated to run the arts councils and, while awarding stipends is not a good idea [he says this would lead to financial dependency], artists should be trained to generate funds through their own projects. We don’t question the intention of the incumbent KP government but we understand that concrete steps are required for the sustainable improvement of both the arts and artists,” he says.
Until those steps are taken, it seems KP’s artist community will continue to suffer in its misery.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, January 27th, 2019