Remember Zakoota Jin and Roohi Bano? They need us now.
Before we complain about the lack of national assets in Pakistan, let's support the ones we do have. They need help!
Reports circulated earlier this week about the dismal conditions Roohi Bano was currently living in. The former television actress was said to be residing without access to gas and power and there were widespread calls by television personalities and other members of the society, beseeching the government to interfere and provide adequate support.
This was identical to the reaction witnessed, in the aftermath of similar reports originating a couple of months ago, regarding Munna Lahori, popularly known as Zakoota Jin, also of television fame.
The bigger question that needs to be addressed here is that of state patronage for artists - who, when, why and should the government step in to support?
In the heydays:
State patronage of artists in South Asia is synonymous with the Mughals. Some of the greatest contributors to literature from South Asia were taken care of by the court. Thus freed from the chain of concepts such as working to survive or being responsible for dependents, these writers, poets and historians produced a rich literary collection that we proudly call our heritage. However, it should be noted if the court had not provided sustenance, these artists, poets and historians would not have been adequately compensated which would have left our heritage substantially lighter- the 15th to the 18th century South Asian society did not have sufficient disposable income to indulge the extravagances of these artists. Therefore, it can be argued that in retrospect, the state stepping in was more of a necessity than the luxury it so overtly seems.
Argument for state support:
Calls for such state patronage invoke much debate today- those in favour of the state’s patronage of artists argue the importance of arts and culture to a society. In the cases of Roohi and Munna, their contributions to the television history of Pakistan are irreplaceable. Roohi became associated with the fledgling industry in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s while Munna immortalised Zakoota Jin for an entire generation of Pakistani’s growing up in the 1990’s. The legacy of these two stars is not in question- the issue seems to be whether these achievements warrant government support?
Argument against state support:
Critics of state patronage of artists disagree- a popular objection is that artists today cannot be compared those of the yesteryears because of the role money has come to play. Modern day artists are extremely well compensated - media rights, sponsorships, product endorsements and personal ventures, to name a few- and have created more wealth than ever. Thus, the critics argue, the onus of managing one’s own finances lies with the artist. Careful planning and a modest lifestyle in the heyday would ensure provision of funds long after the acting/writing/composing days are over.
This is a sound, rational argument but contextualising it to Roohi and Munna does not do justice to either the argument or the actors. Both Roohi and Munna shot to fame due to their affiliation with shows on the Pakistan Television Corporation, a state run entity. Up until the early 2000’s, a career in the television industry was nowhere as lucrative as its bigger screen counterpart. Indeed, by all accounts, it was a mere pittance for the artists’ services. Thus, the compensation argument does not hold in this case. Would the argument still hold for artists launching their careers today? This question needs to be addressed separately.
Pandora’s Box: Who all can the state support?
Another important question that arises is the issue of whom to patron? So far, the case on our hands has been simplistic because both Roohi and Munna are popular, television stars. Increasing privatisation has resulted in a record number of productions starring Pakistanis, both home and abroad, in documentaries, television serials and movies. The news media has become an industry on its own while competitive sports has emerged as the country’s most popular form of entertainment. Our poetic and written traditions are still strong and have kept pace with the world whilst regularly compete for prestigious international awards. Defining patronage could be hazardous- over a long period of time, it has the ability to drive people to and from an industry. Patronage is often accompanied by inefficiency and while the artists from the days of the Mughals produced breathtaking works in different genres despite guaranteed sustenance, what they would have done under real competition remains speculative.
What is the alternative to state support?
A viable alternative often presented is that the state should recognise, and not necessarily patronise, artists. In theory, this presents the artists with a target to aspire towards without draining the resources of the state. However, as a nation, we have a poor track record of identifying our artists. N M Rashid, considered the father of progressive Urdu poetry, was laid to rest in England because he opted to be cremated rather than buried. His contributions were more than just literary - he served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Similarly, some of our most famous poets like Faiz and Jalib spent their better days in jail for voicing their opinions against the incumbent governments. While most of them went on to be recognised later on under different governments, questions can rightly be asked about whether such criticism would have reared its head under a system of state patronage?
The arguments for and against state patronage are plenty. However, extreme care should be taken to not be dismissive of the unique problems faced by both Roohi and Munna. Roohi’s only son was shot dead in 2005 and her living conditions indicate that she needs support regardless of where it’s coming from; Munna suffered paralysis and any support would be a welcome gesture.
The issue of state patronising artists is multi-faceted. Before we embroil ourselves in the debate, we must first address issues that plague us today. In a country where we constantly bemoan the lack of national assets, let us start by supporting the ones we already have.