State of kings and queens By Asha’ar Rehman - Tuesday 26th April 2011

AYUB Akhtar and Murtaza Husain hogged the limelight for many years. They won fame, made money, changed rules and dethroned kings. The unfortunate circumstances of their deaths earlier this month indicate that, like so many others before them, they failed to fully understand the working of the times they were a product of.
Ayub Akhtar regarded himself a born hero — the one who was destined to succeed. He worked his way through theatre in Gujranwala and finally shone on the bigger Lahore stage as Babu Baral. Crowned in the tradition of our own King Amanullah, he died a broken and bruised man in a Lahore hospital on April 15.
Relatively less has come to light about the life of Murtaza Husain. But while his rise may have been gradual, we know that his exit was sudden and extremely dramatic. He passed away in Bahawalpur in the second week of April, beset with disease and a harrowing shadow of his former self.
For many of his admirers, though, Mastana the theatre star, as he was known, had drifted away the night he was humiliated by a policeman in Lahore many years ago. The law-enforcer had been sufficiently provoked by the ‘vulgar’ women dancers to indulge in a bit of slap and stick of his own.
The deaths of the two stage kings a few days apart had stage artists in tears. They mourned the passing away of their colleagues and from their isolated kingdom they inevitably bemoaned the absence of a state that could come to the rescue of those who had provided its citizens with so much to laugh at. Repetitive and somewhat stale, they were in no mood to acknowledge that it was the departure of the control-freak state from the stage that had created room for the Mastanas and Babu Barals to flourish.
The state is too occupied facilitating the market to intervene, if its modern version ever had the will and the resources to do so, and there are far too many to cater to even if it wanted to play a benevolent role. The private sector can and does help if it has the funds and a desire to help and, for some, get publicity. Yet, the sorry sponsored scene of a paralysed, legendary singer making a stage appearance with his moist eyes cannot be repeated too often for fear of it losing appeal.
The formula stories of a celebrated showbiz personality dying in misery are too many to be prevented by the worthy visible and invisible philanthropists, or by television which is looked upon as a more organised and reliable alternative to the stage and has adopted some of the stage and film actors for its own business. The frequency of these stories can perhaps be decreased by the creation of organisations on the pattern of the ones the professionals in other fields are in the process of forming.
Mastana and Babu Baral were among the highest paid professionals in their prime and as such they epitomised the struggle of the hidden millions who share their concerns and their fate and are not as universally lamented. They badly missed an opportunity to learn even when they were the pace-setters at the centre of a competition that elicited ever bolder responses from the players and which discarded what it considered stale with unprecedented haste.
Theirs was an audience that desperately craved a tickle. Used to the quick shots they had been administered their souls could no more be stirred by the nimble-fingered actors prone to passing off their dull fare as subtle or mature comedy. They wanted action, live and graphic action, and they got plenty of what they were looking for. In the process, they replaced the old performers with slowing reflexes with new, energetic ones at a speed that defied old rules of satiation.
Babu Baral and Mastana were skilful artists who perfected their art to suit the times. Theirs was undoubtedly a very popular theatre that took the old art of jugat to a new level, but they failed to realise that the pace they were helping set was certain to cast them in the all-too-familiar role of heartbroken former heroes much quicker than had been the case with their predecessors. As we grieve over their passing, will it be imprudent to say that others who are following the same course should be prepared for the future?
In one of his last interviews, Babu Baral appeared to be a man angry at a state law that disallowed kidney donations outside family. And he was angry at the ‘state-backed’ preference of the market for those who could be more direct in their supply of entertainment to the audience than he was ever capable of. With old-school subtlety he complained about the openness allowed by Gen Musharraf’s regime for the adulteration of theatre with sensational, not so much sensuous, dances by women artists.
These women were earlier reduced to acting as decked up objects whose silent presence on stage added to the meaningfulness of the jokes the men cracked at their expense. But in their reincarnation as dancing queens they were out to perform a dethroning of their own, a dethroning of the male artist per se. To borrow Babu Baral’s argument, they did so under the patronage of the state, under Gen Musharraf.
This is just how complicated the reference to the state can be. It is no laughing matter that the sensitive professional actors cannot understand the changes in its character according to the demands.
The artists — the people at large — want to but cannot have the best of both worlds. They can either cling on to the illusion of the old state patronage or they can have the market. Like all others, they must learn to use their most productive years to ensure for themselves a more respectful living later on and a happier ending.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

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