Starving artistry

July 03, 2022

The theatre industry in Karachi is a difficult line of work when it comes to survival

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atima Imran has been overseeing the business her late husband left behind: taking care of their three dependent children and making a living at his canteen at National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA). “Within days of the untimely demise of my husband, I got a call from the NAPA,” says Fatima. “They asked if I wanted to take over the contract,” she says. Following some consultation with friends and family, she decided to take over the canteen.

Her teenage son is eligible for free tuition at the institute and has been studying theatre. However, Fatima has other concerns. “I have seen many artists looking for work and not getting any,” she says.

Muhammad Raza, 29, is one of the people living the uncertainty that parents like Fatima dread for their children. Raza is married. Completing his diploma requires relinquishing his day job at Karachi Arts Council.

“It’s the same everywhere. You can’t deny the fact that stage artists are like ghosts. No one knows them before or after the performance, unless of course some of them storm past the threshold where people begin to see them as stars,” says Junaid Zuberi, the NAPA CEO.

Zuberi says theatre schools produce artists and actors, not superstars. “Working for theatre, our artists cannot become overnight media sensations or engender clout.” Even so, Zuberi says that while Pakistani society is generally hostile toward the arts, theatre schools have faced less resistance than some other facilities. “We are changing things around here,” said Zuberi.

“We [NAPA] and Ahmed Shah of the ACP can collaborate to put on a great show spread out across MR Kiyani Road,” he says referring to the Nuit Blanche festival of Toronto, where once a year an area is pedestrianised for artistic events.

There was a proposal once for this stretch of road to become an educational and cultural hub (koocha i-saqafat in Urdu), where various events would be held round the year. The plan was shelved soon after it was conceived. The plan to turn Burns Road into a pedestrianised food street, by comparison, did not take very long to materialise. “We used to hold these festivals back in the day. We would bar the road for motorists every Sunday to set up our Koocha-i-Saqafat but then the security situation in this city changed and that jinxed all the cultural movements,” says Ahmed Shah.

“Sale of tickets, insufficient funding from the Culture Department and a lack of rapport with corporate entities for sponsorship will leave you broke and unable to pay proper remuneration to your artists and crew

Shah seconds Zuberi’s suggestion and is game for all kinds of collaboration to revive art and literature in the city.

Zuberi says several writers have suggested setting up street theatres to reach out to the audiences and show the people that art and literature are alive in the city, even if they be dormant.

“We are planning to do it all to ramp up our activity,” says Zuberi. However, it all boils down to what an artist will take home to live another day when all the glitter and hype fizzles out. To this day, the theatre tickets that sell well are ones featuring established directors.

“Anwar Maqsood scripts and Zia Mohyeddin’s direction are the recipe to bring in audiences. Most other theatre activity goes unnoticed for lack of established names,” says Zuberi.

“Sale of tickets, insufficient funding from the Culture Department and a lack of rapport with corporate entities for sponsorship will leave you broke and unable to pay proper remuneration to your artists and crew,” he says.

He recalls that once a senior artist visited the NAPA with his daughter, who happens to be an acting icon. She said that she loved performing in theatre plays but then joked that she cannot obviously afford to do that for a living.

“I work in theatre plays whenever I feel like I need a refresher on acting,” he quoted her as saying.

According to Raza, his life as a theatre student and his dream of theatre acting are fast becoming insurmountable struggles. “It’s not like things were always at their best, but my patience and resilience are running out,” he laments.

Raza’s last role was a mid-range part in a local play that paid Rs 5,000 per day. It ran for only five days. “It was a rare opportunity,” he says.

It is important to note that the federal government has earmarked Rs 563 million for the administration of Information, Recreation & Culture under whose ambit come a number of domains, including libraries, cultural and literary events, recreational festivals and theatres. It remains to be seen what part of this will be available for the revival of the theatrical tradition.

Culture Minister Sardar Shah tells The News on Sunday that theatre is alive in Sindh. “It is an essential component of our culture and our ministry has made sure we put together as many theatre festivals as we can across the province”, he says. Regarding the artists’ wellbeing and livelihoods, he says, “It cannot be predetermined how much an artist would be paid. It’s just like you cannot decide that with the TV, radio and film industries. That said, we have given raises to theatre workers and this should help.”

Zuberi says that better access to assured funds and collaboration with other academies can help them schedule more frequent walk-in theatres and festivals to support culture, literature and artists.


The writer is a journalist who covers human rights and social issues. He can be reached on Twitter at mhunainameen



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