A former television actress, Roohi Bano, is said to be residing without access to gas and power. There have been widespread calls made by television personalities and other members of society beseeching the government to interfere and provide adequate support. This is identical to the reaction witnessed in the aftermath of reports originating a couple of months ago regarding Munna Lahori, popularly known as Zakoota Jin, also of television fame. The questions that need to be addressed here are these: who, when, why and should the government step in to support?
Some of the greatest contributors to literature from South Asia were taken care of by the Mughal court. Freed from the chains of concepts such as working to survive or being responsible for dependants, these writers, poets and historians produced a rich, literary collection that we proudly call our heritage.
Calls for such state patronage invoke much debate today. Those in favour of the state’s patronage of artistes argue the importance of arts and culture in a society. In the cases of Roohi and Munna, their contributions to Pakistan’s television history are irreplaceable. The legacy of these two stars is not in question. The issue seems to be whether these achievements warrant government support.
A popular objection is that artistes today cannot be compared with those of yesteryear because of the role money has come to play. Modern day artistes are extremely well compensated — media rights, sponsorships, product endorsements and personal ventures, to name a few. Thus, the onus of managing one’s own finances lies with the artiste.
This is a sound, rational argument but contextualising it to Roohi and Munna does not do justice. 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 2000s, a career in the television industry was nowhere as lucrative as its bigger screen counterpart.
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 in documentaries, television serials and movies. 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 artistes from the days of Mughals produced breathtaking works in different genres despite guaranteed sustenance, what they would have done under more competition remains speculative.
A viable alternative often presented is that the state should recognise, and not necessarily patronise, artistes. In theory, this presents the artistes with a target to aspire to without draining the resources of the state. However, as a nation, we have a poor track record of identifying our artistes. 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.
Extreme care should be taken not to be dismissive of the unique problems faced by both Roohi and Munna. In a country where we constantly bemoan the lack of national assets, let us start by supporting the ones we already have.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2013.
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