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Artists are not beggars

At face value, an initiative offering state support to artists fallen on bad times; should be applauded. However, it appears to be executed crudely and insensitively

Artists are not beggars

Last week, nearly half a page was dedicated to advertisements by the Punjab government announcing that an Artist Support Fund had been established, and prospective beneficiaries should file a petition each. At face value, an initiative offering state support to artists fallen on bad times; should be applauded. However, it appears to be executed crudely and insensitively.

Over the years various provincial and federal governments have launched such initiatives. Their purpose has been to help artists in need and those aged and unable to work. While the intention behind the action is not lost, its manner of implementation reduces the dignity of artists; who should not be seen as begging for help and support.

There should be other ways of identifying artistes in need and then helping them out. Making them apply or petition for help is like offering charity to one yearning for it. Like ventures where the poor are being lifted out of extreme poverty and impoverishment. It appears that this fund has been launched in the same spirit as panahgahs and langars; where shelter and free food are doled out to those hungry or on the streets; abandoned by their families.

But then the artists have to be treated differently from these wretched of the earth. They have contributed significantly to society and it is due to some quirk of circumstance that they have fallen on bad times and cannot support themselves or find work. This is partly due to changes in the industry, mass production or simply that their art has ceased to resonate with audiences.

The various government bodies performing the same function should be entrusted with the task of identifying those in need and then disbursing aid to them quietly. But these days the entire effort or thrust is actually about optics and the blowing of one’s own trumpet. If done on the quiet such acts or gestures bypass the drumbeat of self-advertisement.

Many government agencies already have lists or addresses of those in need because some dole has been dished out to them in the past. Usually a pittance, that doesn’t even cover basic needs – just a gesture; but there are enough of such small gestures running parallel. If calculated; the amount of money spent on optics is worth more than the execution of the initiative in itself.

Traditionally the world of arts is extremely disorganized and does not follow any rules of a structured order. These outfits do not work, like well-run units that have hierarchies to support its own system but rather as hit-and-run affairs, relying heavily on chance. The reasons to succeed and be popular have not been calibrated as yet, anywhere in the world, where the arts are concerned.

It is often contented that when doing well artistes should save for the future and invests in programmes and schemes which should provide for them when the going gets tough. Quite often artistes have been heartthrobs and highly acclaimed by the connoisseurs in their heyday, are also found by the end of their journey, in conditions which are far from satisfactory, spending their days in misery, neglect and poverty.

But then there are other artistes who have done well and are particular about their finances and assets; as was Noor Jehan. They are also looked down upon by many for being too greedy and careful about their dues. They are accused of charging disproportionate fees and in most cases in advance because through experience they have learnt that sponsors, promoters and patrons are not wholly trustworthy.

This is not corroborated by the public image of the artiste, who is not supposed to care about the worldly possessions and is generous to a fault. Impulsive and willing to blow money in the manner of Hafiz who boosted willingness to sacrifice fiercely fought for cities like Samarkand and Bokhara for his lover’s beauty spot, is the cherished prototype of the artiste that is cherished.

This is the stuff that artistes are made of. If they begin to accumulate and sacrifice their present for the future they will not be artistes, but run-of-the-mill mortals. It is society’s responsibility to cater to the whims, fancies and tantrums of mortals who help them transcend their linear mundane lives. It is un-rational to expect an artist to embark on artistic endeavours focused on beauty and meaning, to simultaneously act like bankers, investors and property agents. There may be some who can accomplish such a feat; but generally they do not and should not have to.

Perhaps the option of employing these artists/artistes in various ventures should also be looked into. Their services can be engaged in projects and institutions that are established for the promotion of art forms and expressions. For this, the state will have to set its sight firmly on the promotion of creativity rather than profiteering from investments in human resources. Only then can this endeavor reflect a dignified platform deserving of our most talented, rather than a charity doing the rounds. The self-respect of an artist should not be taken for granted or violated just because one is in need.

Just as pensions are the right of civil servants, who devote the best years of their lives to the work at hand and are paid with respect; so should monetary help to artists. Officials should discreetly scout, present the names to a decision making committee which includes artists in its membership, and without a fanfare help those in need.


Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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