‘Lala’ land

Published November 17, 2021
The writer is a poet and analyst.
The writer is a poet and analyst.

LALA was a door-to-door salesman. Yes! this breed of salespeople is not restricted to the Hollywood movies of yore; our neck of the woods had them too. The smuggled-goods markets, generically called ‘bara’ and somewhat disingenuously ‘chor bazar’ preceded the advent of the malls and the online shopping options. The payment methods at the marketplace were also mostly restricted to cash.

For the cash-strapped, the pheriwalla (a mobile shop of sorts) offered the best of both worlds, ie goods and services at the doorstep with the option of buy-now, pay later. His wares ranged from Japanese ‘jorjet’ (georgette) and flat crepe, to ‘unbreakable’ glassware. He kept meticulous records in a tattered notebook in digits that you had never seen before nor will again. Being completely unlettered, he invented his own symbols denoting numbers. His line of business demanded that he be financially literate.

Less than half of the population in our country can read and write their names. Slightly over 20 per cent of adults in Pakistan have transaction accounts including mobile banking. The numbers get even more depressing when you focus on more than half of the country’s population; the women. Despite all the talk by the banking sector and development practitioners, opening a bank account for a woman not employed in the formal sector is next to impossible. Financial inclusion, however, calls for a separate piece, so let us keep our focus on financial literacy here.

Financial literacy may rescue our artists from an impecunious state.

Recently, a very famous stand-up comedian and actor passed away. He was as successful at the box office as he was funny on the stage. His fame and following transcended geographical borders. As sad as his demise was the fact that he had to appeal to the government and anyone who cared to listen to bankroll his treatment abroad. His was not an exceptional case. This is unfortunately the norm over here. A ghazal singer, the likes of whom the world had not seen before he emerged on the horizon and would most likely never see again left this world in worse circumstances. Only, in his case, the illness was protracted, and his family members would appeal for donations a couple of times a year at the fag end of his illustrious life.

Some performing artists are good only during live performances. Others are good in the recording studios alone. Only true geniuses are mesmerising regardless of the medium.

One such giant was the maestro of qawwali. So extensive was his repertoire of recordings that it is difficult to ascertain whether more of his albums were released in his life or posthumously. The most beloved proponent of this very public genre of music should have been among the top commercially successful artists at least in the subcontinent and perhaps he was. However, when he passed away, his mortal remains had to be flown back from abroad by a charitable organisation. Painful and embarrassing as it is to narrate these incidents, the point one wants to drive home is that these artists who reached the summit of their respective fields had one thing in common: they were not financially literate.

How many more stories of so-called managers defrauding these virtuosos or well-meaning but equally uninitiated family members and friends bungling up the book-keeping must we all endure before every arts council and schools of arts and crafts make financial literacy a compulsory subject? True, that few if any great artists have the opportunity of such formal education. Equally applicable is the fact that not all graduates of these specialised institutions will make it as professional artists, but they can be an excellent resource as they know the specifics of the respective art form at least in theory. A little innovation in the curriculum and awareness raising by the media can be a win-win for everyone.

For the governments, instead of reaching out to individual artists in their hour of need — and turning it into a cheap publicity stunt — it would be so much better, and dare one say graceful, if they encouraged the big players in the insurance business, the arts councils and the private sector under their corporate social responsibility liabilities to thrash out a way of ensuring some minimum coverage in case of health expenses beyond the average out-of-pocket range. The artists can be given tax breaks for contributing to these insurance schemes.

With the imminent wave of rising fundamentalism staring us in the face, matters of art and culture may be flung by the wayside sooner than we know or one can say ‘insurance’. To make it acceptable to all, give it a neutral sounding name — call it ‘falafel’ for all one cares, so long as these icons are not reduced to living and dying in penury. Imparting financial literacy to a few thousand practitioners of arts and crafts should not be as onerous as educating a populace of 200 million plus.

The writer is a poet and analyst.

shahzadsharjeel1@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2021

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