When will the curtain rise again?

July 26, 2020

Our artistes have always been financially vulnerable

Artistes are once again out on the streets in Lahore, demonstrating against the continued closure of theatres.

Theatre - once a flourishing business in the city - has been under a lockdown since March due to Covid-19. This has pushed artistes, staff and producers to the brink of financial ruin. With the resumption of some commercial activities, theatre and music artistes, too, have been demanding that they be allowed to stage plays and holds music shows as well.

Effort to switch over to the digital medium notwithstanding, the arts we are accustomed to have been in a state of paralysis. In Pakistan, artistes have always lived off the edge and are never sure where their next meal is going to come from. One of the rockiest of professions, show business does not run a smooth course. One day as the show, the film or the performance goes well one is at the top of the world. The next, as the ratings fall and the money dries up, it can result in ruin. These contrasts sum up the life of artistes and those who invest in the show business.

With the rise of the welfare state, artistes or their activities usually get some support from the state coffers for being a healthy form of entertainment. In the erstwhile socialist societies, the funding was over and above the resources that should have been generally allocated. However, it came with the tag of state interference and manipulation. With state funding, such questions are bound to arise as there is never a free lunch.

In the last couple of weeks, the British government, too, has announced some relief measures for the show business industry. The social distancing rules had stopped stage plays and public shows. In the corona crisis, the British theatre, music and industry have been so badly hit that the actors, directors, writers and other stage staff have been become unemployed.

The British government has announced support for the sector. Though it is not miniscule, people are already wondering how long it is going to last and whether more packages will follow the first. And if the pandemic lasts, how long can the funding continue? It will apparently dry out pretty soon because it is a temporary relief measure and not a permanent solution to the problem of no work, layoffs and furloughs in a shrinking economic scenario.

The economic impact of the pandemic is adversely affecting all sectors of the world economy, but cultural activities, education, travel, hospitality industry and sports sectors have been the worst hit.

It is very difficult for countries like Pakistan to set aside funds for the survival of the artists when its own economic outlook is bleak. As it is, the artistes are in an uncertain situation, but the welfare activities in the past have not amounted to more than token help.

In this doom and gloom, one wonders how effective such measures can be. The government, too, has been in a dilemma to allow the show business to resume for this does involve many risks. In Pakistan, as indeed elsewhere in the world, the standard operating procedures have rarely been followed after the resumption of activities.

The digital medium can be one way out, but then the switchover till now has been very slow. Any snap decision can only be seen as a poor alternative or at a best a knee-jerk reaction. The most critical aspect is that every medium comes with its own set of aesthetic limitations and artistic rules and one has to learn to get around them.

It is not only a matter of a mechanical switchover for things to be effective as ever. Mastering the technical requirements of the new medium will obviously be time-consuming.

But the artistes have to feed their families and that cannot wait. The children can possibly skip one meal, but no more. The government has taken the risk of opening businesses with some restrictions; they can also allow the theatres and the music programmes to resume. Of course, this will come with the promise that the standard operating procedures will be followed. Otherwise, shows will not be allowed to be held and performances will cease by decree.

Limited and supervised opening seems to be the only way out for the artistes to stave off starvation.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.

Coronavirus: When will the curtain rise again?