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To community spaces

A well-attended concert at the Gujranwala Arts Council last week raises questions about culture-related public spaces in the country

To community spaces

It was a positive sign that an artiste of the caliber of Ustad Hamid Ali Khan performed at the Gujranwala Arts Council to a full house last week. His concert was hugely appreciated and the audience left with a desire to be invited to more such programmes in the future.

According to the Punjab Arts Council Act, each divisional headquarter is to have an arts council. Called the divisional arts council, its infrastructure has been built in all the divisions – the problem has been to fund these arts councils. In most cases the budgetary requirements are just sufficient to pay salaries and the utility bills, leaving almost nothing for programming. It should not come as a surprise because most government departments, particularly those set up to promote culture, just end up being employment exchanges for the powers that be for their own constituencies.

The arts councils in their best practice should be places where people just gather, for this will then generate an exchange or interaction that will be creative in its essence.

Usually in small towns the opportunities for entertainment are rather limited, though in Pakistan it would actually be a misnomer to call these places towns because their population exceeds the two or three million mark. For example, according to the latest census, Gujranwala is probably the fifth largest urban settlement in the country with its population spiralling over the two-million mark. But the venues for entertainment have been rather limited, though it may be said in the same breath that because of the internet and other satellite technology, people are now more exposed to whatever is happening in the world. It has broadened their ideas of entertainment as well.

But still it cannot offer a satisfactory parallel to people getting together in one place and indulging in an exchange of ideas and cultural acts. The melas which afforded entertainment to people of rural areas have been on the decline or their character has changed significantly, and the standards too have suffered because of that.

The arts councils in their best practice should be places where people just gather, for this will then generate an exchange or interaction that is creative in essence. Usually when such places are set up, mostly in the public sector, there is an overwhelming desire to regulate or to direct the activities there. This can be seen as a form of censorship that is not very healthy. If one looks at the activities of the arts councils of Gujranwala, for example, it is always that either there is some function to celebrate the national days which just peter out into condemnation of how we are failing the country by not being honest and sincere Muslims. These brash advisories dished out on a regular basis are not needed at all.

Then there are a number of calligraphic exhibitions, usually too on days that have religious significance, while occasional exhibitions of paintings are also organised, but ever so rarely. These arts councils are also venues for poetry mushairas, naat competitions and moral instructions packaged as speeches.

It is rare that a play is held in these arts councils. But plays are held regularly in the private theatres in the city or on its outskirts. One wonders what the quality of plays is but the news of actors or plays being banned quite often emanates from there. Theatre must be reasonable business that continuous bans and censorship fail to break the resolve of those who run it more like a commercial enterprise than a creative indulgence. This theatre with its dance numbers bounce back and challenge the version of authorities on matters of public decency and morality. There is also news of actresses being attacked and even killed mostly in and around these theatres. The bans are usually counterproductive and only increase the scale of corruption, or the activity is driven underground for a few days or weeks. It would be far better if the arts councils staged their own plays and provided an alternative to commercial theatre by offering people a choice.

But funding has always been a problem and the infrastructure of the Arts Council in Gujranwala needs to be upgraded and expanded. At times the programmes organised by the arts council are outsourced to other theatres/halls. The plans which have been approved are still awaiting the release of funds or regular release of funds. With every release some developmental work starts and then has to be halted. It increases the cost and also robs the people of the time they otherwise would have spent in its premises.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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