For art’s sake —Sarah Humayun

The idea that plays or performances or concerts can counteract the image (euphemism for truth) that there are groups in Pakistan which support fanatical religious ideas and can use shocking forms and degrees of violence to achieve them, is mystifying
Two interesting stories have appeared in the press recently regarding ‘art and entertainment’, broadly speaking. Both, unsurprisingly, involve questions of money, and the rise and fall of projects that kicked off under the government led by President Pervez Musharraf. One is about the fate of the IMAX Theatre to be built at Doongi Ground Lahore, and the other about the slashing of government funds to the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi.

The IMAX theatre project is has been something of a scandal. Everything about it is controversial — the site of the project, the way in which funds were disbursed, the constitution of the board of governors and the alleged beneficiaries.

The current status of the project is that the former provincial government has paid in full for the theatre equipment, and it must now justify its existence. It has been suggested that it be sold. But reports in the press indicate the present government is thinking of continuing with the project in an altered form and proposals for this are being hammered out.

The original planners of the project wanted to include a shopping mall in the theatre complex to meet the costs. This, the present government maintains, is illegal; the idea now is to supplant it with a public library. And where would the money for the theatre come from?

It has been suggested — these are not quite official proposals yet — that the government can meet the shortfall with its own funds and by heavy-duty ticketing. The cost of the equipment is Rs 150 million. The per annum running cost of the project is reportedly Rs 200 million. Does the government have that kind of money to spare?

One report that I read mentioned that the government doles out a Rs 35-million grant to the Alhamra Arts council, of which only Rs 8 million is used. The implication is that there is money to be had, even in a sector like art and entertainment, which by customary distinction falls right under the proverbial belt when it has to be tightened.

No such questions surround the founding of NAPA, by all accounts a financially chaste and highbrow conservatoire of the performing arts based in Karachi. It does not project itself as being in the money making business. The website warns prospective students that ‘NAPA is not a get-rich-quick outfit’. The emphasis is on practice, on aesthetics and craft, and respected professionals have put their time and energies into it.

Zia Mohyeddin heads it. Its establishment in Karachi at the premises of the Hindu Gymkhana itself symbolised continuity with Karachi’s cosmopolitan past. A city which is the acknowledged media hub of Pakistan should not in any case be oblivious of arts and crafts. NAPA was a gesture towards revival. It also featured a repertory theatre, which has reportedly given acclaimed performances in Karachi. Musharraf gave it Rs 37 million. The new government means to cut it by nearly half.

Though the relative fortune of these two enterprises under the two governments is an important subject, it is only one aspect of the whole affair. Clearly the former seems to be faring better than the latter in the democratic transition. IMAX hardware is a reality of a higher order than an arts academy where money spent can only be realised in the ambiguous form of performers and performances. But let’s ask this, at least: if we grant that there is a legitimate expectation that the government will provide funds for the arts, what are the criteria for their allocation? Is there an index of public need for the arts? Or is it to be justified on some other basis, such as the autonomous value of each different art?

President Musharraf, let us admit it, is unusual in having a personal interest in the arts. Generally our political classes are perceived to be indifferent or hostile to them. The bureaucracy has been depleted of the cultured types that once populated it, or so the story goes. But leaving aside personalities, we can discern two sorts of motives behind putting money in the arts in the last few years.

One is, quite simply, their profitability. The commercial theatre that Shah Sharabeel has successfully found corporate sponsors for may be mentioned here. It has provided to the so-called English-speaking and family audiences an equivalent of the Punjabi and Urdu commercial theatre. The sermonising on theatre etiquettes that sometimes precedes these plays can be annoying, but they’ve caught on, and count as good entertainment, despite their snob-appeal.

But the profitability motive makes sense in relation to only a limited spectrum of the arts. It might apply to the cinema but not to classical music. It’s probably a prejudice that no good art can pay its own way, but it’s certainly true that a range of art activities would never get started or persevere without intelligent financial support, whether from government or philanthropists or foundations.

The other motive is to make of the arts a flagship for a soft image. The idea that plays or performances or concerts can counteract the image (euphemism for truth) that there are groups in Pakistan which support fanatical religious ideas and can use shocking forms and degrees of violence to achieve them, is mystifying. Art and violence have been known to co-exist quite happily, Nazi Germany being one famous example.

Of course you don’t expect suicide bombers to go to plays; but then, how many people go to them? What are they like? Do they have anything in common besides the play they are faced with? A better prelude for a discussion of public spending on art would be to take a more searching look at the reasons why people seek it out, or why it seeks out them.

The writer is former Assistant Op-Ed Editor of Daily Times and loves to find affinities in objects where no brotherhood exists to common minds

Source: Daily Times, 10/7/2008

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