'One message that comes from the heart concerns our hypocrisy that has remained unbridled since the beginning, the plague of dual personalities'.
Social revolutionaries Uncle Sargum, Haiga and Masi Musibatey are alive and well and their originator, Farooq Qaiser, is working on all cylinders spreading the message of good governance both at home and in the public domain.
"I am serving the field of entertainment to reduce tension amongst people affected by the volatile world around them. It's a duty," he says. "Very early on Sargum said that the.
Urdu word dou is very dominant in our culture - 'rok dou, maar dou, toke dou, imdad dou'! The central message is the need for justice in every field." Sargum also says that there are three Urdu beys that need correcting - baap, boss aur baadshah.
If the baap is good, the home is good; if the boss is good, then the work environment is good; and if the baadshah is good, then the entire society is good.
Fundamental and indisputable logic of an earthy kind is Farooq Qaiser's stock-in-trade. Born in Sialkot, he graduated from the National College of the Arts, Lahore in 1969. Despite topping in college, Farooq failed to get a job. In 1971 he got his first break with Shoaib and Muneeza Hashmi's play Akkar Bakkar, writing and making puppets.
Bei Battakh was invented and became popular. Akkar Bakkar received an award from Japan. In 1973, Farooq went to Romania on a scholarship to do his Masters in Graphic.
Arts, and subsequent to that he found work with the National Council of Arts in Islamabad. Thus Kaliyan was born, and ran from Rawalpindi station for a continuous four-and-a-half years. Since 1976, Kaliyan has been going strong in some form or the other till today.
Commitment to passion exacts a price and requires courage. Leaving secure government employment as a grade 18 deputy director in Lok Virsa was seen by many as the act of a nutty professor!
"With my wife teaching in college and my own work with Faiz Ahmad Faiz at the NCA, Islamabad was the ideal place to be in. We got too settled in our ways. In retrospect, however, I could have doubled, even tripled my output had I been in Lahore or Karachi."
Farooq helped Alice Faiz put together the Folk Art Museum, touring the length and breadth of Pakistan collecting exhibits, alongside doing a weekly programme for PTV that involved writing the script, making puppets, and recording the show. "They were both very demanding jobs, and I clearly had to choose one."
"There is no concept of leaving a secure job in Pakistan," says Farooq who, assisted by his wife's encouragement to have confidence in himself, decided in favour of Haiga and Sargum. Contracts with UNICEF and UNESCO followed, which kept him financially solvent.
Farooq does the lead character of Uncle Sargum himself. It is styled and caricatured after his professor in Bucharest University, Professor Molnar.
"He liked me very much and taunted me that once I left I'd forget him like all his other students. So I promised him that I'd remember him in some form or the other.
When this programme started, I designed the Sargum puppet to resemble him, and the voice that I use resembles his as well since he spoke with a nasal accent." Understandably, Molnar was extremely thrilled upon receiving a visual of the puppet.
The characters in Kaliyan have kept evolving. Sharmili arrived, played by Bushra Ansari. Then came Haiga, performed by Rashid Khan of Attock who, unknown to Farooq, was the brother of the producer.
"In those days I was writing a song on a particular composition, and the words were not fitting the music. The words were mausum sohana hai, and there was a space left after hai.
So I used the word haiga to fill the space! Then Rashid arrived, and we decided to make a new puppet called Haiga that he would perform. Rashid was extremely talented and devised a number of accents and tones, including Masi Musibatey, Mr Connection, Nonipa and of course Haiga."
In 1978, the programme became extremely popular with cut-outs being made and featuring on a detergent TV advertisement.
"We did the first stage show in Karachi called Haiga-Sargum at the Adamjee Auditorium. We had no clue about stage shows! Shoaib Hashmi designed the stage and backdrops and taught us how to go about on stage. It was a great learning experience and since that day I have notched up some 2,500 shows, a number of them in remote areas."
In Thatta two years ago doing work for UNICEF, Farooq was surprised when the kids recognized the group.
"The effectiveness with which those messages were delivered surprised us, and we realized the power of this medium in affecting public opinion and perceptions. It's sad that it hasn't been used as such more often, and is restricted to pure entertainment."
Doing a show in Rajanpur, Farooq was approached by the community elders with a request to help pave the local dirt road.
"I had noticed a brick kiln just down the road and advised them that if each one of them had put one single brick, their road would have been paved by now! Seven months later I received a thank you postcard with a photograph inside of the town elders standing on the brick paved road!"
Farooq's communication skills have paid dividends.
"We have used the sound systems of mosques to stage our plays, and the local maulvi sahibs have compered the proceedings. We have done two shows for a large religious organization and played to an audience of 500,000 people.
It was an extraordinary experience that I cannot describe. We will be pleasantly surprised at the responses if we shed our preconceived notions and prejudices and become proactive in communicating across the board."
Farooq was in India training Doordarshan producers in 1989 through a UNESCO education programme. They wanted to see the work that he had already done in television education, considering him an expert in the field!
"I kept deferring their requests since we had not done any work in television education in Pakistan at the time!" While the Doordarshan staffers greeted him with reluctance in the beginning, Farooq won their grudging admiration, and after four contract renewals he was given a warm send-off.
"My students have done very well and are running successful theatres in Delhi," says Farooq, who has since been back twice for seminars. "They say that I taught them everything except scriptwriting! Scriptwriting, I told them, could not be taught for it had a divine dimension to it."
In 1997 UNICEF awarded Farooq Qaiser the title of 'Master Puppeteer of the Region' in Malaysia. A fellowship with the University of California followed, with him being compared to Jim Henson, originator of Sesame Street and the Muppet Show.
"There they taught me how to use this powerful medium to achieve communication for development. While in LA, I made a startling discovery when a fellow student's thesis research revealed that only two countries had invented original puppets - the USA and Pakistan! All the other puppets were borrowed from folklore or local characters.
These days Farooq Qaiser is a very busy man doing Khwab Sitarey, a weekly programme on PTV for kids that teaches them how to make a puppet, write a song, compose music, and how to listen to music.
For grownups, he's working with various channels. His Hu ba Hu on Indus TV had 100 episodes. In addition, Farooq does daily cartoons for two newspapers focused on social satire through Masi Sargum.
What is the philosophy and message that he tries to convey through these efforts?
"One message that comes from the heart concerns our hypocrisy that has remained unbridled since the beginning, the plague of dual personalities. We haven't managed to create and maintain institutions.
On the other hand we have proved very good at destroying institutions. There is no justice in any department. We've led our lives the best way we could, but the concern is for the coming generations. These are the concerns that we communicate through skits in a lighter vein."
Farooq wants to make good puppet theatre. Unfortunately his initiatives have fallen victim to bureaucratic rigmarole.
"I wanted to hand over my skills to a new generation so they could take it forward. Babar Niazi has proved to be a good understudy. But not many have come into puppet making or scriptwriting. There is no platform.
There is no place to learn for those willing to enter. The Peerzada brothers have done a great job on their own in Lahore. I am based in Islamabad and would like to see it flourish here." Faizaan Peerzada is the President of the United Nations International Marionettes Association, and Farooq is its Vice President.
Farooq Qaiser's great lament is that we're not producing classics any more, and the attention span has gone from six months to six days.
"There is no new Iqbal, Ghalib or Sadeqain. The new generation should focus on producing work that will be remembered for 50 years at least."