The plight of `function artistes`
By Peerzada Salman
KARACHI: The artiste community in Pakistan has always been a fragmented one. When making films was not as frivolous and vapid an exercise as it is today (by and large), performing artistes were divided into categories that belonged to the realms of film, radio, theatre and later on television.
Then television became a potent force and cinema for various reasons started taking a backseat (and then lagged far behind).
Nothing radically changed for artistes. Like always, a handful of them acquired recognition and fame at the highest level and a majority kept struggling to earn a name for themselves. In the 1980s, when television was at the acme of its popularity, many actors and singers in Karachi sought to get into the PTV building with an eye to making it big on television and then graduate to the next level, the film business.
At the time a certain spot at Hasan Square in Gulshan-i-Iqbal was frequented mostly by struggling or budding performers, honing their public relation skills (networking in modern parlance). Occasionally they’d be accompanied by faces which had already become ‘known’. This writer still remembers (as a schoolboy) proudly shaking hands with comedians from the classic Fifty/Fifty.
An alley behind Radio Pakistan also served more or less the same purpose. It was fondly, perhaps philosophically, known as Fankar Gali. To a great extent, members of the artiste fraternity were not materially complacent and could barely eke out a living.
With the advent of satellite television, all of a sudden, things began to look up for the performing artistes. Actors had more opportunities to partaking in plays (soaps, sitcoms, tele-films, etc) and singers were regularly invited to variety musical shows arranged for different TV channels. While most of these performers became busy and reasonably well-off (a bunch of them are now producing projects), there were a considerable number that didn’t find showbiz an easy ride. They are generally known as ‘stage artistes’ who earn their living through ‘variety shows’ and ‘functions’. As the law and order situation in the country deteriorated, things got more toilsome for them. There was neither that spot at Hasan Square nor Fankar Gali that at least provided psychological support to them. As for television channels, they have their fixations.
Shahzad Allahditta hails from a family of musicians and is a fine composer. He says: “Business for artistes is almost non-existent. In the past performers used to get shows by virtue of personal connections. No different is the case in 2010. To boot, variety programmes are few and far between mainly because of the poor law and order situation. Social events like marriage ceremonies would help artistes earn a fair bit, but even that has been reduced since at such events lights are switched off after a couple of hours.”
“Radio Pakistan has become a desolate place. Fankar Gali existed a long time back. Things only went from bad to worse forcing the C and D category artistes to first shift to Hasan Square (from where they were pushed out by area residents) and then to a corner in Purani Sabzi Mandi in Gulshan. Be it event companies or corporate organisations, no one is arranging shows any longer. An artiste like me sometimes finds it difficult to buy a day’s petrol for his transport. It was during Gen Zia’s rule that the culture of art began to suffer and a lot of performers left the field. No education, no culture. We have Ustad Raees Khan in Pakistan. How many people attend his concerts or are willing to listen to him? Gone are the days of educated artistes (Waheed Murad, Nisar Bazmi, A. Hameed, etc).”
Comedian Kashif Khan, who became a household name after doing a TV show in India, says, “The concept of Fankar Gali came into being when there were meagre sources of communication, that is, actors and singers didn’t have telephone (landline) connections. The Hasan Square site became infamous for reasons that can’t be attributed to our community, yet we had to leave that place.”
“Today things are different. There are three kinds of performers: (1) the ones who do corporate shows because of their good PR skills, they usually get one or two gigs a month, (2) those that only rely on PR, (3) the talented lot. All of them require contacts. The ones who are at the bottom of the rung are the real sufferers. They are called ‘function artistes’. I started my career as one of them. They are invited to private gatherings. They (comperes, set designer, musicians, comedians, etc) do a function for between Rs25,000 and Rs30,000, distribute the money among themselves and go back home. It’s this group which doesn’t have any work now. They need to be protected and their needs must be understood.”
Actor/singer Khaled Anam says: “If you study history, you’ll know that someone like Ghalib needed patronage of the people at the helm of affairs. The less fortunate artistes of this country who cannot become part of the corporate culture should be taken care of, otherwise they will perish. We have so many TV channels, they should help these people.”
Tea kiosks and pushcarts laden with fresh fruit have occupied Fankar Gali, both at Radio Pakistan and Hasan Square. And their customers’ list does not include artistes.