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Who’s running the show?

December 11, 2011

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LAST month, the director of the play Karachi, The Musical, approached the authorities in Lahore to stage it there.

The play was recently staged in Karachi amid generally positive reviews. The director, Nida Butt, is known amongst the English-speaking theatre-goer circles for having earlier successfully put up big-budget productions such as Chicago and Mama Mia. She was expecting little trouble. However, she was so unpleasantly surprised with the reception she met that she wrote an account of her experience in a newspaper. The first thing the gentleman in charge of bookings at the Alhamra theatre asked was, how many songs are there in the play? Butt saw no potential danger in saying that there were a dozen.

The man raised his eyebrows and pointed out that 12 songs meant 12 dances. He then delivered a lecture on the cultural differences between Karachi and Lahore, his point being that the latter was more conservative and what went down well with audiences in Karachi could be considered unsuitable for — not by — theatre-goers in Lahore.

It was not within this person’s ambit to make such a statement. It was not his job to screen or censor what can or cannot be staged, given that under the Dramatic Performances Act of 1876 (yes, that’s the correct year), the last dress rehearsal of every play is viewed by a censor board. Most certainly, it was not this gentleman’s job to lecture anyone on morality.

Here’s the kicker, though: he then went on to explain that the hall Butt wanted for her show was also being used for staging a so-called ‘commercial’ theatre show every day. The producers of Karachi could have the hall from 7pm and ensure that the hall was empty by 10pm.

Ensuring the hall was ready for the next performance would entail removing the set, something that is impossible in a running production. A set is not a matter of a few pictures or props that can be placed and then removed. Once constructed, it stays in place for the length of time the shows run.

Butt is not the only person to whom this has happened. Writer-director Vasay Chaudhry says that in 2009, when he booked the same venue for his play Inspector Khoji, he was asked to similarly vacate the hall.

On two of the days for which he had booked the hall, it had also been rented out during the afternoon for a school function. He had the hall for just three hours, meaning that it had to be cleaned and the stage prepared within half an hour for raising the curtain at 7:30. Chaudhry says that this left him with no option but to remove his set and use just props instead.

Similar experiences are reported by the few theatre directors who continue to brave the terrain of the Lahore stage. They complain that the authorities routinely place bureaucratic impediments in their way.

Meanwhile, the so-called ‘commercial’ theatre flourishes because it brings in money. This ‘commercial’ theatre (for all theatre is commercial in nature) is what other guardians of our morality, including the Lahore High Court, also turn their attention to from time to time for putting up what they refer to as ‘lewd’ or ‘obscene’ song and dance.

Two trends can be discerned from experiences such as those recounted by Butt. First, there is the tendency, common in Pakistan, of putting your nose where it has no business, particularly where the morals of others are concerned. The gentleman who told Butt off about her play had no business doing so. And the irony, of course, is that in the next breath he was placing further hurdles in her path over a sort of theatre that is regularly criticised on moral grounds.

More worrying, however, is what this says about the attitude of those in charge of cultural activities. The Lahore Arts Council is an important organisation for promoting culture, with the Alhamra at the Mall and the Cultural Complex at Gaddafi Stadium that have between them five halls, an open-air theatre and an art gallery. The Karachi Arts Council, by contrast, has just one hall.

Producers and directors who have booked at the venue say that the authorities responsible for running them have little interest in promoting either quality or progressive theatre, preferring instead to make money by indiscriminately renting out the venues to as many parties as possible.

Butt, for example, was expected to pay Rs36,000 per day for just three-hour access, rehearsal days included. Such terms are difficult to meet for the producers of plays that have shorter runs, usually three to five days, cater to a more niche audience (as compared to the commercial theatre) and are starved of sponsors and support in any case.

Are such practices not included under the head of corruption and malpractice?

It is worth recalling that in January, the deputy director of the Alhamra Arts Council was arrested by the anti-corruption authorities for allegedly taking a bribe for making an out-of-turn booking for a play.

While appointing unqualified persons is and always has been a problem with governments in Pakistan — portfolios being handed out for political reasons and favours rather than on merit — the practice is destroying arts and culture.

Organisations that have been set up to promote the arts need to be spearheaded by people who work in the field. Appointing mere advisers from time to time does not do the job. Punjab currently does not have a minister for culture, for example. The last one, Tanvirul Islam Rana, who retired earlier during the year, was a doctor by profession.

The Punjab Arts Council, which runs eight regional arts councils, is currently under additional charge to the secretary culture, its executive director Ghulam Mustafa, a painter by profession, having retired months ago.

The autonomous Lahore Arts Council’s executive director is Mohammad Ali Baloch, a career bureaucrat with reportedly a background in finance. The chairman of the Lahore Arts Council’s board of governors is PML-N affiliate Ataullah Qasmi.

Over the years, the handlers of culture in Lahore appear to have lost touch with the very community they are meant to support.

(The situation in Karachi and Islamabad is better. The National Academy of the Performing Arts is headed by arts and culture professionals including Zia Mohyeddin and Arshad Mahmud, and the director general of Islamabad’s Pakistan National Council of the Arts is actor Tauqir Nasir.)

Given this situation, it is hardly surprising that Lahore is fast losing its reputation as Pakistan’s hub of arts and culture.

With the demise of the international Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop Festival due to sponsorship and security reasons, and even the television industry moving mainly to Karachi, Lahore is being stripped of the very scene that once made it so vibrant.

The writer is a member of staff.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com