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Funding the arts

The government and the private sector need to make a concerted effort to provide artistes with financial stability

Funding the arts

Despite all the announcements made in the media over the past decades by respective governments the issue of artiste welfare is far from resolved. Last week a group of them gathered outside the Lahore Press Club to protest the suspension of the allowance being given to them by the Punjab Government. Blocking of roads and suffering the elements has become a standard manner of protest, for it is seen to at least be successful in catching the attention of the media.

Usually those artistes suffer the most who are not practitioners of the forms that have a ready audience or a quick draw. A work or a song that may sell like hot cakes is well and good but conditions cannot be laid on what cannot sell or what has no ready takers, because the case of the arts is a little more complicated than that of the forces of the market and the advertising mechanisms put in place to facilitate it. No conditions can be laid down as to what the artiste should create; the absence of censorship in its most ideal sense should be its most desirable outcome. And then there are many forms that are considered worthy of being saved, and should be saved, but with no audience or readership enough to make them financially viable a recourse has to be made to external support.

BCCI Foundation did a lot for the welfare of the artistes, writers and poets, even footing the bills of their medical treatment abroad, but since then one hears of individual cases.

Actually from time to time announcements are made about the various steps or initiatives that are being taken for the welfare of artistes, especially those from the performing arts, but the end result is that still a whole lot of artistes remain wanting to be saved from the ignominy of seeking dole or charity. One way to avoid all this could be that instead of spreading the handouts as charity to those seeking individual redemption or goodwill or both, it is better if it is institutionalized so that the artistes do not have to beg but are camouflaged by the fact that it is the responsibility of the state to look after those who have not really been able to toe the line or pander to popular taste.

There is likely a lot of funding available and the fault lies in the way the artistes in need are identified or the way the disbursement mechanism works. Every prime minister, chief minister or a minister announces his own founding of a fund that is over and above the various funds or allocations that are in circulation from the information/culture departments, the arts councils and organizations like Lok Virsa and Pakistan Television. Then there may be other types of funding operating at the level of the division, the district and the local governments. All this either becomes too difficult to manage and process or it whittles to puny amounts that do not cater to any substantial alleviation. It would be much better to consolidate all these initiatives by collapsing heads together to both identify and deliver. It would be much better if there is a centralized source of funding and its subsequent disbursement because there would be less overlapping or oversights and the amount disbursed would also be not as puny as now when split under various heads.

It is important to identify an artiste in a manner where it does not hurt the dignity of the person. The identification usually takes place at some dramatic turn of events such as when the artiste is lying in hospital with tubes stuck in his body and just cannot pay the medical bills. This is when an appeal is made to the authorities to provide instant relief. This can only be to redress the crisis and defuse it but is no solution to the overall problem.

The other solution is that the artiste has access to someone among the powers-that-be through art or personal connections. As a gesture of individual benevolence some immediate need is redressed or action taken to take the edge off the criticality of the moment. Many writers, poets and artists have another list of grievances or demands when they go to the podium to receive some national honour that are then handed over to the authorities. It is a throwback to the medieval times when the poets/ artists/ musicians were totally at the mercy of the grants that they received from the court. In return they had to prove their loyalty and sing praises to the person and rule of the monarch. In totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century the same label stuck and only those artists or writers were rewarded who threw in their lot with the policies or initiates of the state. The rest were left to wither on the vine if not physically hounded.

The present state though still embeds to a great deal the inequality that rests between the ruler and the ruled, like the monarch or the ruler being the merciful giver, and the ruled being the grateful receiver, it should liberate itself from those trappings and seek the welfare of its people not as an exercise in examples of individual benevolence or charity but as a right of the deserving living in that land.

Perhaps there is also a case for the private sector to come forth and play its role in some substantial way. In the past it appears that the BCCI Foundation did a lot for the welfare of the artistes, writers and poets, even footing the bills of their medical treatment abroad, but since then one hears of individual cases and instances but no consolidated effort of such initiatives emanating from the private sector.

One is sure that lot is still being done to alleviate the condition of the artistes but somehow the impression that this is a society that does not care for its artistes has persisted.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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