The legacy of Farooq Qaiser

May 30, 2021

Most millennials remember Uncle Sargam and his team of trouble-makers, aspiring poets and musicians — sometimes lost, but well-meaning characters — as reflections of real life

The nation’s beloved Uncle Sargam, Farooq Qaiser’s passing opened the floodgates of nostalgia-inducing remembrances of a time when TV-makers realised the importance of well-crafted entertainment for children. With fewer than ever dedicated children’s programmes on local channels, Qaiser’s ingenuity is sorely missed. Conscious, relevant and thoroughly entertaining is how anyone who ever watched any of Qaiser’s shows and his many avatars would describe the humorist’s creations. The puppeteer was well-aware of all things pertinent and knew that the entertaining and the educational did not have to be mutually exclusive.

Farooq Qaiser may have passed away, but his legacy of creativity and conscious entertainment will live on in the form of clips for years. It is upon the industry stakeholders to preserve and curate Qaiser’s genius for the future generations. A real tribute would be to bring Uncle Sargam back to the television screen and online platforms.

Most millennials remember Uncle Sargam and his team of trouble-makers, aspiring poets and musicians – sometimes lost, but well-meaning characters – as reflections of real life, often grappling with and commenting on matters concerning the lives of ordinary Pakistanis. Decades ago, television programming was radically different. A single state-run channel catered to all age groups, and there was something for all to watch in a day’s stretch. In recent years, the mushroom growth of privately-owned channels and prolific online platforms has somewhat diluted the concept of focused programming.

In the bygone years, the PTV would regularly dedicate slots to children’s programmes. Today, there are several platforms and TV channels to watch for the younger lot; however, the lack of indigenous content is truly troubling. The current generation of Pakistani children is deprived of local narratives and contextualised media content, tailor-made for their viewership. The golden-age of the PTV, a period of thirty-some years from the late ’60s onwards, is often remembered with much fondness. The country witnessed an incredible boom in locally produced content during this period. It was a time of high creativity, and some of the most famous shows of all time were produced during these decades.

Farooq Qaiser first appeared on PTV in the early ’70s as Bee-Batakh, Pakistan’s version of Sesame Street‘s famous Big Bird in Shoaib Hashmi’s Akkar Bakkar. This was an appropriate adaptation, but, in 1976, Kaliyaan introduced Uncle Sargam – the musician/teacher, with a knack for comedic reflection – and his band of googly-eyed puppets to the viewers. The characters from the hit children’s show became household names and, to this day, remain pop-culture icons.

Qaiser managed to create a brand unlike any other. No one could have predicted the appreciation and country-wide recognition a few music-loving puppets would receive. It was a bold move that paid off well, and shot Qaiser and all those who appeared with him in Kaliyaan (and later on in shows such as Daak Time, Putli Tamasha and the Siyassi Kaliyaan in the 2010s) to unprecedented fame.

There is very little dedicated content for children now. Today, channels like Cartoon Network and platforms such as YouTube and Netflix dominate children’s programming streams. Although there is some quality content out there, it lacks the cultural roots of shows like Kaliyaan and Ainak Wala Jin. Children’s media, same as all others, can generate a two-way influence. It has the power to impact young minds and influence behaviour patterns. Watching excessively aggressive characters and violence can leave a lasting impact on developing minds. A problem arises when violence is trivialised in comedic cartoons and other programmes.

Qaiser’s work combined wit, wisdom, entertainment and education seamlessly. Uncle Sargam and his puppet friends entertained Pakistani children even during Gen Zia’s regime, a time of true turmoil and heavy-handed censorship. In one of his Adbi Mehfils - Rola, with all his poetic flair, lamented the fate of those who refrain from corruption.

Qaiser’s satirical poetry, recited simply by a puppet, managed to provide more food for thought than many of today’s serious shows. In a few lines, concerns of integrity, social pressure, financial strain and corruption were explicated eloquently. In the midst of laughter, one would find oneself thinking of profound realities and social concerns. As content creators, Farooq Qaiser and his team realised their social responsibility. They understood that to leave an indelible mark on the social conscience, they had many tools at their disposal. Humour was just a diversion – a way to get the message across to all, especially children.

There is no doubt that children today have far more to choose from, and their content preferences have evolved. A PTV show from over three decades ago may not be able to engage their attention, but that is not reason enough to discount the impact of Qaiser’s creations. Today’s creators must understand that no matter the expanse and diversity of content at children’s disposal, indigenous stories told in local languages will always have more potential to entertain and educate. Creating stories and characters for children is never an easy task. It requires the creators to shift their vantage point and suspend age-old, embedded perceptions and scepticism. It is possible. Qaiser proved this over his long career.

The current generation of content creators should watch the works of those who understood what value-added entertainment was all about. Perhaps, they will end up finding a way to unleash the growth of local content. For someone who grew up watching Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, discovering Qaiser’s work now has been a true delight, personally. Qaiser’s writing and his lyrics embody the sweet poignancy and sharp wit of Urdu storytelling. Uncle Sargam, Rola, Lashkara and the ever-troubled Massi Museebtay are all relatable and relevant.

Farooq Qaiser’s creations and his ability to engage children are legendary. When examples like his are available close to home, there is no need for the current generation of content creators to look too far for inspiration. Creating a child-friendly programme requires diligent effort and investment, but it can have a far-reaching impact over generations, if done right.

The writer is a   staff member

The legacy of Farooq Qaiser