The year that ended with the coming of Eid has been the sorriest ever for the performing arts in the country. The artistes are at the brink of starvation in the absence of any activity.
The first lockdown was ordered in mid-March last year. When everything was forced to come to a halt, it appeared to be an experience that one had not gone through, not even at the time of Partition.
It has been more than a year if the count starts from that day. However, in terms of the performing arts, the most important date in the calendar is Eid. It is the occasion when new films are released, new plays are staged and other activities like music shows are held. Considered to be the most auspicious time due to the fact that the public is in a mood for indulgence with cash. That is why it is considered propitious to launch such initiatives.
So, the year from Eid to Eid is really the scale that is a truer indicator of the way things have progressed or not progressed. The last year was thus the most barren period since the country emerged on the political map of the world.
The output of movies has been dwindling for as far as one can remember. Despite frequent vows and intentions to revive the cinema, not much has been achieved over the last couple of decades. This time round, it was not that the films made were classed below the standard or that the number was ridiculously small, or that the people did not want to dip into their pocket to buy a ticket when other options were available at home. It was that the display areas and arenas, the cinema houses, were closed down as ordered by the authorities to contain the spread of the virus soaring in its spread with people in such close proximity.
Other show business industries, like Hollywood and Bollywood, too are feeling the immense pressure. They tried to wait it out. However, the wait became really long: from weeks to months and then to an entire year with any relaxation leading to fresh lockdowns. There have been a variety of lock downs: smart, partial, micro, complete and total. It all added to the vocabulary. It did wrench one’s heart that creative expression was stifled and business opportunities blocked.
The bigger industries have waited and are still waiting thanks to their deep pockets. However, those already struggling have almost collapsed. Even award ceremonies were conducted online. Some had to grapple with the failed digital system: an ‘on and off’ affair. The cycle came to a grinding halt and everything was thrown out of the kilter.
This process is the bread and butter of the artistes and those involved in the making of art and the performances. Their pathetic conditions have been highlighted, but no solution has been advanced that is workable and is manageable. The remedial measures were all short term with the hope that the pandemic would go away after an initial surge. It was seen to be a one-time affair. However, it has proved that it is not so and can keep striking back with mutations. The waves, probably four so far, have stretched the medical facilities and knowledge to its limits and the artistes have suffered among others. The help that was doled out by the government agencies and some private offices was meant to address the issue as a one-time disaster. The help, too, is running out and it is not proper to expect that rich countries will be offering the dole forever, especially as they face their own demons.
One is at a loss to figure out what to do. Many art forms have switched over to the digital medium. Some have tried to fit into limitations while others have started disappearing.
Despite all this, the performing art and live performances have no real substitute and cannot be replicated with any modicum of artistic sincerity. At best, it is a reduced activity forced upon audiences and one has to do with the best within changed circumstances.
Perhaps, some scheme can be developed to meet the daily needs of the artistes. We all know that the arts are the most insecure and unstable of the sectors of the economy where one can hit the very top one day, and come crashing to the very bottom, the next. To bring some stability, some social security system has to be put in place to save artistes from falling flat on the hard floor.
The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore