Pakistan: Farooq Qaiser of Uncle Sargam fame passes away at 75

Farooq Qaiser was the creator of Muppet-like puppets including the legendary Uncle Sargam and other characters Maasi Museebatay, Rolla and Sharmeeli that became household names in Pakistan. Image Credit: Supplied

Islamabad: Pakistanis are mourning the loss of acclaimed artist Farooq Qaiser, better known as Uncle Sargam – a puppet character he created- who pioneered the concept of education through entertainment in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s beloved puppeteer breathed his last on Friday at the age of 75 in Islamabad on Friday after a cardiac arrest, his family confirmed. He is survived by three children, one son and two daughters as well as grandchildren, according to local media.

Qaiser was one of the most remarkable Pakistani puppeteer, cartoonist, author, scriptwriter, voice-over artist and TV personality. He is the creator of Muppet-like puppets including the legendary Uncle Sargam and other characters Maasi Museebatay, Rolla and Sharmeeli that became household names in Pakistan.

Uncle Sargam was first introduced in a television show for kids, Kaliyan first aired in 1976 on Pakistan Television (PTV) to foster learning through entertainment among both children and their parents. Other popular TV shows were Putli Tamasha, Sargam Time and Daak Time. Kaliyan was revived in 2010 as a political satire show named ‘Siyasi Kaliyan’.

Born in Sialkot in 1945, Qaiser initially studied at the National College of Arts. He also attained two postgraduate degrees in art and communication from Romania (1976) and the University of Southern California, USA, (1999). Few Pakistanis are aware of the fact that Uncle Sargam’s appearance was heavily inspired by Qaiser’s Professor Molnar at the University of Bucharest. He was awarded Pakistan’s Presidential Pride of Performance award and numerous national and international honours for his contribution to puppetry, entertainment and education.

Qaiser’s characters were popular among both young and adults because of his creative and skilful combination of humour and satire to address social and political issues of the country. “Be a puppeteer, not a puppet” was his advice to the young people in the field.

Farooq Qaiser was also the co-founder and vice president of Pakistan’s branch of UNIMA, the world’s oldest theatrical organization focused on puppetry.

Remembering the legend

Extending condolences on Qaiser’s demise, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that he was saddened to learn about his death. “He was not just a performer but would constantly raise awareness about social injustices and issues,” the premier said.

Federal Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry said Qaiser will always be remembered for reviving the “centuries-old craft” of puppetry through his “unforgettable character” of Uncle Sargam. “Uncle Sargam was popular with people of all ages because of his art and personality” said Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed, adding that Qaiser has left a void in Pakistan’s TV industry that can never be filled.

Paying tribute to the artist, Pakistan National Council of Arts director Dr Fozia Saeed said, Qaiser “wrote and spoke to highlight evil characters and pointed out the weaknesses in our social life. His unmatchable, remarkable, undeniable and universal characters have played a vital role in educating people.”

Many Pakistan who grew up watching Qaiser’s puppet shows recalled that “Uncle Sargam made their childhood awesome”. Maheen Hassan posted on Twitter that “We lost a legend today”, saying that Uncle Sargam was one of the first television characters she was familiar with. Farooq Qaisar was the pioneer, the best of his time and irreplaceable, she said.

“You educated us and inspired us throughout our childhoods” wrote columnist Ali Moeen Nawazish, praying that may his soul rest in peace.

“Uncle Sargam will always remain in our hearts,” said Sabika Irfan, who used to devotedly watch every episode. “As a 90s kid, I learned a great deal about social issues simply by watching those shows.” Regretting that there are no such informative shows on Pakistani media for kids today, she said: “Gone are the days when TV would entertain and educate kids at the same time. Now it’s just news and politics on TV which is pretty depressing.”