On a sleepy afternoon, downstairs in a basement, practice is being held. Four actors hold their pose, take a step, and hold their pose again. Behind them is a tall man with a rather young face that doesnít seem to age. The man instructs each one, his voice at once clear and like a whisper, as if some secret is being shared. The actors follow.

Ten minutes later, the practice ends and the tall man with ruffled hair and stubble asks,Ē where do you want to do this?Ē and smiles.

Omair Rana is an oddity, divided in halves. He is an actor, the one with the face, the dialogues, the voice. Ever-present. But the other half is the actor who doesnít really believe in self-promotion, and doesnít even have a publicist.

But here is the odd bit, anyone and everyone who has seen an English play in Pakistan knows Omair Rana and thatís the mark of a good actor, always divided in halves, the personal and the private, on stage and off it.

Itís been 11 years since Rana started his acting career in earnest with Call me Ishmael and he has never looked back. From acting, assisting and directing plays, Rana has also done his bit in television and played his part in an upcoming film. But theatre, it seems, remains very close to his heart as Rana is also one of its most vocal supporter and a valued teacher around.

The News on Sunday: When did the acting bug hit you?

Omair Rana: Acting was something we were doing since Kindergarten. Then early school life in UAE had also a strong theatre culture. Then in Lahore, I did theatre when I was in class 8. The director of the play was Rubina Saigol. And because I had some experience, the other children would filter their ideas through me, so I became like a liaison between Ms Saigol and the actors. She, I think, saw something in me, and made me assistant director which was shocking, humbling and most of all encouraging and then I never stopped.  

TNS: The first major breakthrough for you was Call Me Ishmael. How did that happen?

OR: Some friends and I went to see a play. This was in the late 1990s, where there was a culture of private companies staging play. At that time there was also the culture of selling tickets, which was really helpful. So we went to see a play and it was extremely bad. We got really angry, because these people were having fun at the behest of our ticket money and on top of that they were wasting our time. One of my friends suggested of us doing a play. So five of us, Anvaar M Malik, Arsalan J Badar, Junaid S Babri,  Sheraz K Niazi and myself  got together and made a company and called it Real Entertainment Productions.  Call Me Ishmael ran for three nights at Alhamra in 2000, and then we put it up in Extravaganza 2001 regional Theatre Festival where it won the award for best actor, best playwright (Sheraz K Niazi) and best play.  I realised then that there were still people out there who wanted to watch theatre. So we kept on doing it. When the others, however, left for jobs etc. I kept on doing theatre. My goal was taking the theatre to the youth, so I kept teaching theatre at institutions and doing private plays. Now we have 45 plays under our belt.

TNS: Why have plays taken away tickets?

OR: When you take the ticket culture away, the only source of producing a play is sponsorship and advertising. Otherwise itís too risky, and the risk has been proved by the recent economic slump. I also hate the word sponsor, because it seems like you are going to a company and begging them to give you some funds so you can stage a play. If you take a play as a commercial venture, you should think of it as a business partnership. We, the theatre company, are giving you something that is a platform and an opportunity to advertise, which is fair enough. Itís not difficult. What is the audience? The youth. And the producers of the plays are the youth as well. My point is that these companies will give away insane amounts of cash to do a concert but they are apprehensive about plays; they donít understand and they donít care. Sadly, they give out funds mostly to connections, contacts. Itís not very professional. Yes, if I take a play to Karachi, for example, they just might understand provided they think the venture is important enough.

TNS: You had a fruitful collaboration with Shah Sharabeel. But you then parted ways, and recently on a social networking site you regretted being part of Moulin Rouge. What was all that about?

OR: I worked with him on many productions like Phantom of the Opera, Noises Off and Moulin Rouge. Moulin Rouge was unusual, it was very ugly for him and for me as well and Iím sure it was for a lot of other people who invested their feelings in it.

Itís not easy when you are doing theatre, you need to get a team which is evolved and brought together creatively. Sharabeel was unable to do that; a lot of people had hang-ups which they couldnít deal with. Why I say itís not easy is because in Pakistan teamwork is unimaginable and creative people are already sensitive.

And, most importantly, you need to give a creative environment ó that couldnít happen ó it all became so political, full of gimmickry and backbiting and it all exploded. Thatís why, I say it is the ugliest experience that I have gone through. Creatively, we couldnít see eye to eye after that. Though, commercially it was one of the most successful plays. 

TNS: Do you think NAPA and other such institutions have benefited theatre?

OR: Partially, I appreciate all institutions that have played a part in promoting theatre academically, but I think itís a little shortsighted. I am not criticising what NAPA does. Donít they do a very good job at what they are doing? I met some entry-level students who had never seen theatre. And then I saw their final year production, which was fantastic. However, I believe that theatre education should penetrate primary and secondary education and then it will automatically be in your bones. I have taught in Kinnaird, BNU etc. and itís pretty frustrating because they donít know the basics, the concepts or even have the mindset. If you canít mould a mind towards theatre in say Intermediate or O Levels, then bringing somebody towards theatre in their Bachelors doesnít really work. Students then just want to come, complete their credits and go. No one really comes to learn. You canít really blame them because youíve thrown them into something they have no clue about. You bring in A level students for theatre and then let them flow into their Bachelors and then see what happens. We have introduced Theatre Studies in O Levels in Lahore Grammar School and it has started to kick off, and now parents and students have started opening up to the concept.

TNS: You have had a very active role in teaching theatre in private institutions but what about public schools?

OR: I would love to teach in public schools but there is a lot of bureaucratic red tape there. I donít agree with the notion that it would be very hard because these kids would not have the mindset, the intellect or the exposure or there will be a lot of censorship. I think these are pretty smart kids you are talking about. Drama, you see, is all about exploration, so wherever it takes you, you go. By the way, we are not going to be taking about ďFahaashĒ things in any case. We are going to talk about things that reflect on who they are. What I want them to do is to think, to raise questions and find the answers themselves, in their own reflections. And, that scares people.

TNS: Why is there a death of the playwright?

OR: There are a lot of people who have a tried a hand at it, but the problem is that they donít understand theatre or the difference between film and theatre. Some write, thinking of scenes and visuals, and that isnít very practical. Theatre is much more about relationships, characters, movement, dialogue; itís not purely scene changes. Another problem is many people donít write very well and the ones who do say that theatre has a very limited audience,  try their hand at television but to get into that crowd is also pretty difficult. Good writers are the ones who express themselves and the age-old problem is that they get their vision raped by capitalist demand, and the system says to write in a certain way, and if they donít, the system hires someone else. At the end of the day, there isnít much difference between a commercial writer and a tailor. Like a loyal tailor you succumb to the wishes of your customer ó Yeh iska gala round bana dain, nahin isko square kar dain ó now I can empathise with the tailor.

However, young people have started writing now and the best thing about them is the attitude: To hell with this. I will do it myself!

TNS: You have also tried your hand at television. How did that happen?

OR: Adeel Hashmi had just got back from the States and he wanted to restart Teen Bata Teen and persuaded me to join in. I had the opportunity to work with some wonderful people. Then I did some sitcoms and some weird roles of which the most enjoyable was playing a gay cricket coach in Rubber Band. I have recently done a serial with director Ali Tahir, which has been the best experience in television so far.

TNS: From theatre to TV and now film. Letís talk about Tamanna.

OR: Itís an adaptation of an English movie called Sleuth. Sarah Tareen (producer) and Steve Moore (director) both loved the movie, and they wanted to adapt it. Surprisingly, the production kept evolving and what started as a small-scale creative venture eventually became a full-fledged, professional film.

TNS: You werenít part of the original cast. What made you agree to take up Tamanna?

OR: I was there in the very beginning but things didnít work out. Later when the other gentleman backed out, they approached me again and I agreed.

TNS: When we saw the first look of Tamanna it seemed somewhat like Ishqiya?

OR: Maybe because of Salman Shahid (he features in both). Tamanna isnít that raw. Ishqiya is off the soil, Tamanna isnít. It takes various segments of the society and brings them together.

 

Imagine a scenario. An artist gets hold of a gun, aims the loaded weapon at a passer-by, pulls the trigger and shoots the man. He is caught by the mob and, when questioned at the police station, accepts full responsibility for his action but declares it was part of his work ó art. Regardless of the fact that it claimed somebodyís life, the work was supposed to address some issues ó of life and death, permanence and temporality; it was meant to be a comment upon violence, external and inner (the longing of which resides deep in ourselves).

With these excuses and justifications, it is possible that the court, the jury or even an ordinary member of society pardons the person, who killed a human being for his artistic needs. Ordinarily, no one allows an artist to take the life of a man for the sake of art. Viewed from another perspective, some may think Art is more important than an ordinary human life since some works of art last longer than the average life span. Imagine a painting of Vincent Van Gogh or Rembrandt and the kind of attention and insurance value these fetch in contrast to a man who is performing the duty of a guard near these Ďmasterpiecesí. It may sound cruel but the world will mourn the destruction of one of those art works more than the demise of an ordinary person.

The idea deserves some consideration when an artist is dealing with entities, both tangible and conceptual, in order to create art. How much liberty can he take? Or when he is not abiding by the rules and norms of a society while creating art. For instance, creative personalities often tend to deviate from the normal path, not only in their art but in their lives too. Several of them lie, cheat, steal, bribe, to the extent that they face criminal charges as well. If one reads biographies of some artists, one comes across shocking events, such as leaving wives and children, having incestuous relationships, living as parasites on their families and deceiving others in matters of money. These are acts which are associated with ordinary people as well. If, however, itís a creative individual whose work of art surpasses a certain level of accomplishment, all these negative aspects are ignored. Like when we read the poetry of Pablo Neruda, we enjoy it to such an extent that we forgot that the poet did not live like a proletariat as one would have expected from his verses and position in politics; rather he enjoyed his wealth (earned through his literary works). Similarly when we admire the paintings of Paul Gauguin, we do not remember that he abandoned his helpless wife and children in Paris to pursue his art career in faraway islands in the Pacific Ocean. Or when a connoisseur appreciates the canvases of Caravaggio, he does not want to recall the incident in which the painter had killed a man.

However, it appears that after offering something grand to humanity, their grave errors are forgotten. In fact they are seriously studied in some cases, being the basis of those extraordinary works (for example the illicit relationship of Egon Schiele with his minor sister for which he was sent to prison is a key to comprehend his drawings and paintings) and how these may have shaped the works of genius. Hence, the perpetrators of acts of shames, if they happen to be artists, are not judged on the same level as other people (except when a model and actor tries to transport two bottles of alcohol on a domestic flight).

This division or split of aesthetics and ethics is not confined to the celebrities in the past; it is relevant to present times and familiar situations. For instance, if an artist or writer is employed as a teacher or works in some office and fails to fulfil his duties due to his engagement in writing, painting or composing a tune, how are his superiors supposed to react? Do they take disciplinary action for his disappearance or disinterest in his work or do they show a sympathetic side towards his negligence? It is a dilemma because if one presses a person to perform his menial job, he may be hindering the creation of a masterpiece. But if one lets the creative person have the luxury of time, there is no guarantee that this freedom would be used to create the masterpiece.

Likewise, it needs to be discussed how much moral freedom an artist has. Is he allowed to borrow objects and entities without the consent of the owners, considering that what is required at the end is the art work which surpasses other banal issues? Similarly, is it permissible to assimilate or copy works of others in order to create something new? A process that is considered closer to piracy unless the artist reinvents his resources and converts them into original, authentic and personal pieces; this may seem like a paradoxical task but is a usual occurrence in the art making of our post-modern times.

The debate about artistís responsibility ó in terms of using his materials, no matter if these are paints, paper, wood, stone or any other substance ó is crucial because one is destroying natural resources for oneís aesthetic needs and artistic pleasure. Innumerable trees have been cut to provide paper for pen pushers who may perceive themselves as great writers but fail to make a mark in the realm of literature. Similarly unimaginable amount of wood, stone, cotton, oil and other materials have been spent on making art works, majority of which do not last more than a few years after their creation.

In our contemporary art, it is not only the organic substances that have been utilised to fabricate art but, sometimes, living beings are employed to construct art as was witnessed during the Mansion Residency in which Ehsan ul Haq tied a rooster in his installation. Many viewers seemed concerned about the confinement and immovability of the bird. The artistís reply was that we are only bothered about these issues when we view them in a work of art, but we hardly raise the question about the fate or state of animals when see them at the meat shop or even enjoy eating them(an artist is not allowed to kill but a soldier is, during the war, for which he is decorated with medals too!).

A pertinent observation by Haq which implies that we are not prepared to give total freedom to an artist, a licence that everyone else may enjoy. Is there an ethical element involved in this aesthetic restriction?

According to an announcement last week by the chief ministerís office, an Artistes Welfare Fund has been set up to look after the artistesí needs who are in dire straits and are thus entitled to help. Such announcements are made from time to time, both by the federal and provincial governments to show solidarity with the artistes and to show the caring and sensitive side of the government towards the suffering of that community.

It also happens, more often than not, that such an announcement is made when a well-known artiste, a painter or a poet is taken seriously ill. The release of a certain sum to meet with the medical needs and hospital charges is then followed by a minister, usually of culture or information, trooping down to the hospital or house of the ailing artist along with a bevy of media personnel. This act of generosity is splashed all over the print and electronic media.

Last year the office of the prime minister made an announcement that the government would be responsible for the medical care of the artistes. The artistes above 60, those very ill and not earning more than Rs10,000 per month, were to be entitled for medical attention in the government hospitals.

Such statements and initiatives have generally been welcomed across the board but the important question is why create new funds with new set-ups when funds and their managing bodies have existed these many years. With the announcement of the new initiative, the previous bodies are as if relegated to secondary positions and treated as dormant, whatever little funds then begin to dry out as they are diverted or partly diverted to the new funds as the bodies exist only in name not fulfilling their functions due to lack of resources and insufficient attention by those at the helm of affairs. The better option is to increase the funds of already existing bodies and their system streamlined for effective implementation.

The government has been carrying out such welfare activities on a regular basis. The arts councils at the national level and then in the provinces have been giving stipends to the artists most deserving of need. A writers welfare fund too was set up in the Punjab where the writers were paid monetary compensation to meet with emergency expenditure incurred like reimbursing hospital charges, cost of medicine and doctors fees.

A new situation may have arisen due to the devolution carried out under the eighteenth amendment. Culture,since the days of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was given the attention that is its due and a new ministry was created, separate from that of Education and many bodies under the state were placed under it. Similarly in the provinces where the leadership was more enlightened a similar pattern was followed. In Punjab, the Arts Council Act was passed and the functions at the centre were replicated at the provincial level.

Culture was never taken as a subject seriously by any government before Bhutto. It was either thought to be too frivolous or too volatile so nobody wanted to touch it even with a barge pole but then it was asserted that Pakistan does have a culture and is proud of it as the state and the government too were willing to share the responsibility of promoting it. As the state moves in to promote culture, there has always been the lurking suspicion that it also regulates, controls or atleast influences freedom of expression. It has happened in the countries with totalitarian systems so autonomous bodies were created. But this criticism can only be allayed if these bodies are allowed to work with relative autonomy.

Now with the devolution and the disappearance of culture from the federal radar screen the onus has once again shifted to the provincial governments. In Pakistan the welfare activities of the artistes suffered on two counts. One, there has never been a proper list of artistes who deserve legitimate care. The government organisations never have had the set up to prepare updated lists on a regular basis and then decisions taken on the basis of that data. The lists are outdated, incomplete and comprised names of only of those who put in an application. We all know that asking for help dampens self-respect and many artistes even in dire need have refused to seek help from the government. The second, the total funds available are not much and when distributed among even the most deserving whittles down to a piddling sum, which can take care of nothing.

In Pakistan, where the state is not rich, the question has always been how to part with money for welfare purposes after meeting with the expenditure of defence, debt servicing and general administration. In the absence of an adequate welfare cover usually individual cases are picked, especially of those very famous and then a lot of political capital is made out of it through the media that may not be very self-respecting for the person.

Other than the few very well-known, a whole body of artistes exists at a level which thrusts upwards the general level but most of them are not that well- known or recognised. It is these artistes who suffer the most in terms of emergencies. The announcement at the highest levels of the government is most appreciated with the hope that the mechanism too will be put in place for avoiding duplication and proper implementation.

The portraitist

Dear All,

The death of Lucian Freud last month ended the career of one of the 20th centuryís most impressive British painters. Impressive not because he pushed the boundaries of art or came up with outrageous concepts, but because he adhered so faithfully (and so well) to what was a deeply unfashionable genre of art in his time: realism and studio portraiture.

Freud was 88 when he died, and he spent more than six decades painting, painting and painting. His art was his passion and all else ó women, wives, children (at least a dozen), society, convention ó was secondary. Many of his studio portraits have a morbid, fleshly repugnant feel to them ó so consciously unidealised are they; so very human.

I am not sure if I Ďlikeí Freudís work (whatever like means), but I certainly find it memorable and thought-provoking. It makes you think about the riddle of being human, and muse over the dilemma of being a flesh and blood creature with aspirations rising above the merely corporeal. Freudís work both elevates and debases the state of being human: on the one hand it give you a glimpse into the lives of people who are just trying to cope ó often bravely ó with the hand life has dealt them; on the other hand you see them as a mass of unwieldy flesh, which will eventually decay ó a reminder that all in this life Ďis but vanityí.

Freudís death obviously resulted in a great many column inches being devoted to him and his work, which was good because one got to see so many of the paintings at the same time. The interesting thing about Freud is that in a time when portraiture had become mostly quite polite, he did not make any compromises about niceties or what the sitter might want. His portrait of the British queen is a small canvas in which the Queen looks like a slightly grotesque cartoon character wearing an expensive looking bejewelled crown. His ĎBenefits Supervisor asleepí is a portrait of Sue Tilley, an overweight civil servant asleep naked on a couch in his studio ó an astonishing work which a few years ago sold for the amazing price of 33 million dollars. Many people say that photographic reproductions cannot do justice to the subtle and nuanced tones he uses to paint the flesh and the original speaks to your senses differently ó true of course of all great originals.

But what struck me about Freudís life is how it was devoted to his art, and his studio was really the place where it all happened. The images of his studio remind me of the tantalising glimpses that Vermeer gave us of his workplace through what he allowed us to see in his paintings.

Sometimes I wish I could have been somebody like Freud or Vermeer: possessing genius, driven to create and existing for my creative work... But at other times I am immensely grateful for the mundane commitments of my everyday life. We need the Michelangelos and Caravaggios and Coleridges and Freuds of this world to enrich creative existence and hold a mirror up to human life, but we also need people who are able to just put up their feet and hug their children and get pleasure from the simple things of beauty in the comforting rhythms in everyday life...

 

Best wishes

Umber Khairi

 

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