There was once a time when an indigenous Pashto artist with a modest following could make a decent living through music. They would release a music volume to the market and sell a few thousand copies and then go on to rural areas where they would perform at functions.
Performances at such functions would help them drive additional sale of copies as well as earning from the actual live performance.
This approach would pay dividends for a long time for singers, musicians, distributors, promoters and production houses. All involved in the creative process would earn a handsome living. Of course it did not produce vast riches. However it was sufficient to support many careers and promoted the creation of Pashto music.
Time, however, has changed. It is now impossible for folk Pashto singers to generate revenue taking this approach. Now, even experienced singers are facing financial constraints, thus forcing the KP government to introduce a monthly stipend for the last two years.
Even experienced singers are facing financial constraints, thus forcing the KP government to introduce a monthly stipend for the last two years
“Our music and musicians are not free like other parts of the world,” Rashid Khan, a famous Pashto singer tells me. “We spend a huge amount of money on music production but in return cannot even earn back what had been spent on it.” Khan laments.
Unfortunately, the music and production houses that used to exist in the past have disappeared. These production houses, like Audien Music Center and Musafar Music Center, would bring in singers, record albums and pay a handsome amount. “The disappearance of these production houses, due to terrorist militancy and an absence of copyrights laws, has left a huge gap. It has left the musician to run from post to pillar in search of a living,” Khan says. He explains that whole albums are now uploaded on YouTube, from where they are downloaded easily. “Most of the singers don’t know how to report this to YouTube due to a lack of education,” he says.
In any case, the decade-long campaign by religious-fundamentalist terrorists has devastated the already troubled music market. The armed ultra-conservative militancy led to the closure of remaining avenues, including Nishtar Hall, where music programmes would be organized.
To help artists as a relief measure, the KP government has started monthly stipends of Rs30,000 that help them keep their stoves burning. Yet the artists believe that it would not help revive the dying music industry.
“There are government departments set up for the promotion of culture, but the people hired for it have no knowledge of the music industry,” Rashid Khan opines. “These officials consider musicians a liability and even funds allocated for promotion of culture and music have been embezzled,” Rashid claims. He adds that no artist wants to raise their voice against them due to fear that they will not be allowed to perform at any government events.
Ahmad Gul Ustad, who is known as a legend of Pashto folk music, emphasizes the other aspect mentioned above – that of a lack of copyright protection.
“Nowadays my musical performances at village concerts have come came to end,” laments Ahmad Gul Ustad. Gul, now 78, passes his life in despair.
Artists also state that national television, which was one of the main sources of music promotion and income, has also stopped producing music. Gul says that he was invited after 8 years to perform by a TV channel. “I went there and performed but at the end, the producer told me that I will be paid next year, as the organization is facing a financial crisis!”
He also insists that there is a need for at least a music academy to train singers to produce quality work. The artist believes that they should be encouraged to arrange their own music concerts from which they could also manage to earn a living. Without urgent action, those remaining are at risk of disappearing from the creative process within a generation or two.
The artists have demanded that the KP government allow them to organize cultural programs at Peshawar’s Nishtar Hall.
“Apart from the prayer mat and a gun, the Rabab or the Sitar were also considered the most essential items in our Hujras,” says Dr Abasin Yousafzai, a cultural critic and poet. He talks at length about Pakhtuns’ love for music. Unfortunately, he continues, musical instruments have been made controversial by society’s conservative turn – and this, for him, is what creates the current predicament for artists.
A time came when they were even forced to hide their Tabla or Rabab in a corner due to fear of persecution by religious-fundamentalist militants. Active conflict may have ended, but few avenues remain open for artists.
Yousafzai maintains that Pakhtun indigenous music stands for unity, peaceful coexistence and a love for humanity – and that is why there is an urgent need for state-backed efforts aimed at its revival.