street of a million dreams
from the street
By Ammar Shahbazi
When power returns after two hours, the blaring generators are switched off. The fluorescent bulbs at paan shops, juice-carts and the kabab houses come to life in unison. A Bollywood song, that had stopped mid-way, starts on its own at the hair salon nearby. Motor bikes scuttle past. Cars with bad silencers wobble and scamper on the patchy road. At a corner, an adolescent crowd gathers to test their hands in patti (table-soccer) and dabboo (Carom-board). And the staff at the teashop is limbering up: setting chairs out on the pavement in front; washing sink full of cups; making rows of dough for parathas. It is 1 am in the morning at Liaquatabad Daak Khana. Life here is about to begin.
The teashop across the famous Sheeshmahal hotel at Daak Khana is, to borrow a highbrow word, a Commune for Karachi’s performing artists. Singers, stand-up comedians, mimicry artists, presenters, qawwals and playwrights come here after midnight to have heart-to-hearts with friends ‘in business’ with the primary aim of finding work. They socialise and drink an impossible amount of tea the whole night.
Comedians with comedians, singers with singers, writers with writers. The place lights up with discussion as the artists don’t waste the meet-up on casual small talk but on serious work-related ideas and criticism. The comedians share their material with colleagues to receive insightful criticism on honing and sharpening their jokes and gestures; singers talk on the intricacies of singing and get incisive tips from other singers. Likewise, writers are found indulging in monologues or exchanging couplets.
But that’s only surface information. The artists here work on daily wages. Their life hinges upon a daily flow of work. As Danish Maqsood, a comedian, explains, “Most of us come here for work. Basically, it’s the organisers who made this teashop a rendezvous spot. They book shows and come here looking for talent. So this place is now known as a hub for a talent-hunt for weddings, birthday parties, aqeeqas etc”.
The performing artists here claim to track their history from Radio Pakistan. “It started in the ‘50s, when aspiring artists used to sit at the canteen of Radio Pakistan and get small roles from producers who used to hire them whenever they were required. Most of the great names of Pakistani showbiz got their career breakthroughs from such cafes. First it was in the canteens and outside Radio Pakistan, then a place near Al-Karam, then Hassan Square, and now here at Liaquatabad,” said Tanveer Khan, a senior stand-up comedian and organiser.
After radio came television. And aspiring artists who wanted to make it big one day, continued to stick together, changing locations owing to ethnic violence and the general insecurity of the city. But the circle is pretty much well-knit since the days of Radio Pakistan.
“The idea is to be available. To make your face known to people who give work,” said Ahmed Siddiqi, a singer and set designer. “Sometimes, artists who are booked for a certain show, say for tomorrow, may not make it for some reason; if you are available you can just replace him and make some money.”
Some of the aspiring artists, who are still struggling to make their faces known, are found all dressed up having tea, sitting for hours waiting for a random opportunity to come their way.
“They all want to make it big one day. Like Omer Sharif and Moin Akhtar. Some have spent their life trying and haven’t really made it beyond weddings. But they know nothing else. They don’t have the temperament to work in a nine-to-five job. They are broke like anything. I know some artists, whom I won’t name, who’d go and perform in an event just for dinner. It’s sad but that’s how they are,” said a shopkeeper in the area.
“Showbiz is an expensive business,” says a man named Moiz, who introduced himself as an actor, director, playwright and lyricist in the world of media for the past 25 years. “It’s all about pretending. It’s all acting. You have to be proper wherever you go. Nobody peeps inside your pocket; it’s all in the exterior. You have to dress well, smoke expensive cigarette, no matter if you have paid for it or not. You have to show - that’s why it’s called showbiz.”
In their company, it is not hard to fathom why the sting of white-collar poverty, nagging family members, along with the uncertainty of attaining fame, fails to deter these struggling artists from pursuing a far-fetched dream of trotting the globe and earning millions. “Many great names in the performing arts, who made it big here and in India and go on tours around the world, began from here. This is how it happens. You show your work, you get recognised and one day you hit the jackpot!” said one comedian.
“Like that kebab wala,” said Danish, pointing at one across the road, “He sells kebabs, we sell our talent to entertain people. We seek work, network with people. So this is our shop’
It is the familiarity of Soltan Sheikh’s face that first strikes a bystander, but one can never recall where one has seen him. He belongs to that genre of artists who faithfully stand with comedians like Omer Sharif and the late Moin Akhtar during stage shows.
They may be the messengers who bring news to the king, or one of the guests at a birthday party. If they are lucky and it is their day, the director will give them a dialogue or two. People in general term them as extras, yet they significantly contribute to art, and the passion with which they long for that ‘one dialogue’ stands unparalleled.
Soltan Sheikh is one such artist. He sits at the underlit cafeteria of the Arts Council and talks in a laid back manner. It has been 35 years since he has been in the profession. Despite that, he does not know if he will have enough to sustain himself for the next month. Yet, he is hopeful.
“Jo Allah pay bharosa karay uska kaam chalay- whoever believes in Allah stays in business,” he says with determination.
It is his spirituality that strikes a person. He talks about ‘faqeeri’ and miracles, and claims that an artist has no religious barriers. He is a strong believer in the power of prayers. “If He does not give me something in this world, He is saving it for the world hereafter,” he says.
Soltan hails from Hyderabad and the journey through this profession was never easy. As a child when he would stay out at nights for acting, his parents would lock the doors of the house. When his brother would leave for his morning prayers he would quietly sneak in, and act as if he had been asleep all this while. Sometimes he was lucky, at others he was not-so-lucky. When caught red-handed in his discreet plans he would get told off. “My parents branded me as a meerasi,” he shrugs and smiles.
He came to Karachi in search of better acting opportunities with his teacher, the late Salahuddin Tufani, who he holds in high regard. Once here, he acted as a messenger in one of Kazim Pasha’s serials on Pakistan Television. “It was a small role, but the joy it brought me was tremendous. Back in those days everyone watched PTV. When I passed market places, people would point fingers at me and say ‘you come on television’,” he recalls those memories with immense pride.
After that he got opportunities to act with Omer Sharif, Anwar Maqsood and the late Moin Akhtar. He holds Omer Sharif in high regard and claims that he is the sun and they are ‘the rays spread out by him’. He adds that such artists are born, they can never be created.
Perhaps the finest feather in his cap is the title he won in 2007 in the Indian show ‘Comedy ka Badshah’ and he proudly carries a picture he has with Rakhi Sawant, in his ‘memorandum of credentials’, a leather-bound diary in which he carries pictures from some priceless moments of his life.
He is pushing 60 now, and he thinks it is time to share his talent with younger aspiring artists. In his free time, he runs what he calls ‘a Chalta Phirta academy’, which basically is a gathering with willing students. Students may gather at a chai hotel or ‘this very table we are sitting at,’ he says.
As he talks about how he has seen artists run and give money for charity or feed a beggar to compensate for a sin they have committed, he claims that artists are very sensitive. As a rule of thumb, he mentions that for every 40 rupees that a person earns he should give away a rupee in God’s way.
“If even after that you do not achieve internal bliss, or get sleepless nights, then you have probably committed a grave sin. Repent and ask forgiveness from your Lord, He is merciful,” he ends passionately.
You can see them in their brightly coloured traditional clothes at many city roundabouts, waiting for passing motorists who can hire their services for a fee. They are the dhol walas (drum beaters) from rural Punjab, a group of entertainers adding colour to the city scene.
Like many relatively unskilled workers, these entertainers’ trade is seasonal. The dhol wala community usually leaves the city before Ramazan, when trade is slow, and returns after Eid-ul-Fitr to start searching for work again. This is also the kind of job where people return to their homes when there is no work during off-seasons.
The drummers usually agree to perform for as little as Rs 500 to Rs 700 per programme during off-seasons, which is distributed among the ustaad (master) and the performers. However, during the peak period, a performer can earn as much as Rs 5,000 per function.
Usually the season begins after Eid-ul-Fitr but after a gap of a couple of months it’s Eid-ul-Azha and the start of the month of Moharram, when their activities come to a standstill.
This trade is not learnt at any institutes but the art continues to be transferred from person to person over the generations. After spending at least a couple of years with a recognised instructor, a performer is allowed to work separately or establish a small group if he is not willing to perform under his teacher.
A person interested in learning the art visits an ustaad and requests him to accept him as a student. If the master agrees to teach the student, he presents some cash or sweets or both before starting to learn the trade. This is called ‘Gurr Shakar’ an old tradition and part of the dhol wala community for many years.
Forty-year-old Iftikhar Ahmed is associated with a group of drum beaters for the past 25 years. He plays a pair of rattles, what he calls chan-chan - a local percussion instrument played along with the dhol, and lives near Essa Nagri with other members of his group in a rented house.
The group consists of a master, two drum beaters and a youngster, who is learning the art, Ahmed told Kolachi. In case there is a demand, the whole group performs during a function. Otherwise, one drum and a chan-chan is enough to entertain the gathering, he said.
The yellow kurta with a turban and a dhoti or a loose shalwar - has become a trademark sign for the community. The elaborate costume not only adds a touch of festivity but also helps people to easily recognise them, who can be found at roadsides. They are mostly requested to play Balochi beat during wedding functions such as Mehndi and Mayoon.
Meanwhile, the drummers also carry out dhamaal at shrines. Often the beat builds to a frenzy inducing some people to enter a trance-like state, wajd. “We receive money from people who engage us to play during a dhamaal and do not argue over or bargain for money on such occasions,” Ahmed claimed.
A father of four children, Ahmed narrated that he started his career at an early age as he wanted to help out his family. At that time, the cost of living was much lower and his wages helped out his father. After his marriage, he continued with the same job but now he has to earn his living for his wife and children.
“I belong to district Jhang in Punjab, and visit my native town during Ramazan and the first 10-15 days of Muharram. We do not play music during this period and spend time with the family, friends and relatives,” he further said.
Before coming back to the city, these drummers temporarily work at other jobs such as a cement block factory or on agricultural lands to earn a little amount so that they do not have to pay from their pockets for a return ticket to Karachi.
Owing to the law and order situation in the city, this community is also facing a hard time. Often functions are called off at the last minute and people do not make payment to them and they have to return empty-handed.
“Sometimes families give the full or half payment if the programme is cancelled. We also prefer to go back home as soon as possible and pay taxi or rickshaw drivers whatever they demand,” Ahmed added.
According to him, many function organisers offer one-way fare or pick up them up from the spot but they often have to return home on their own.
Whenever there is no business, the ustaad of the group is responsible for arranging food for his team. However, when the entertainers get engaged by a party and receive payment for the performance, the master gets double his share in return.