Although the subtitle of the book places its subject squarely within Pakistan, I should like to start with two events, separated by nearly two decades, which took place in India. In 1989, the Sangeet Natak Akademi organized a theatre festival in New Delhi to celebrate Nehru’s Birth Centenary. The uniqueness of the event lay in the fact that it was designed as a ‘Retrospective’ of Post-Independence theatre: personalities whom the Akademi had identified as builders of modern Indian theatre –most of whom were alive at that time—were invited to revive (where necessary) and present their most favourite or influential creation. The participants ranged from Utpal Dutt and Habib Tanveer to the young Ratan Thiyam. I was then the Chairman of the Akademi and half-way through the festival a bright young couple, Madeeha Gauhar and Shahid Nadeem, came to meet me. Political relations between India and Pakistan were pretty fraught at the time, so I was surprised to discover they were Pakistanis who had come all the way from Lahore to witness the entire festival.
I can’t remember the exact words Madeeha used to express her elation at being able to see the landmark productions but I can vividly remember the glow on her face. That was also when I first heard of Ajoka, the radical theatre group the couple had founded in Lahore.
The second event took place only a few months ago, on 27 November 2005 to be precise. A Pakistani group called Tehrik-i-Niswan from Karachi, led by the theatre person and dancer, Sheema Kirmani, was in Lucknow at the invitation of an Indian NGO called the Women’s Initiative for Peace in South Asia (WIPSA). The group was to present a play directed by an Indian director, Prasanna Ramaswamy, at a series of events organized across the country by the WIPSA, called ‘Staging Peace’ with the subtitle (that soon developed ironic undertones), ‘A Dialogue in Theatre: Women’s Endeavour to Create a Culture of Peace’.
Things took a nasty turn when the Tehrik-e-Niswan bowed to a request from the Coalition for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace, which was also meeting in Lucknow at that time, to present a short excerpt from their play. The officials of the WIPSA were displeased. They started off by accusing the Tehrik of breaching their contract by playing for another audience without their prior permission, but it soon transpired that deeper anxieties were at work. The play attacked American atrocities in My Lai and other places and the WIPSA was concerned lest this offend their funders, the Ford Foundation, India. They demanded that the content of the play be changed so as to make it less objectionable to the Americans. When the Tehrik rightly refused to oblige, they were threatened with the revocation of their ‘visas’ and alteration of their progrmame by changing the dates of their air tickets. Their hotel accommodation in Lucknow was cancelled and the group returned to Delhi only to find that they had even been turfed out of the guest house they were lodged in. They chose to return to Karachi. The Ford Foundation, caught in a glare they could have done without, declared censorship contrary to their policy of cultural sponsorship and demanded that the WIPSA apologize to the guests they had insulted. Several human rights groups and women’s organizations have protested against this—to use the words of Praful Bidwai— ‘repulsive episode’. It is significant that the demand for censorship came not from politicians or bureaucrats but from the NGO hosting the visit.
These two events in a way illustrate the passion for theatre that drives the ‘Alternative’ theatre in Pakistan, and the hazards it faces as well the courage it has to draw upon to stand by its often unpopular stances, even in a supposedly liberal society such as ours. And the two groups that figure in these incidents, Ajoka (‘Dawn of a New Day’ in Punjabi) and Tehrik-e-Niswan (‘Movement for Women’s Rights’), are major protagonists in the saga of the community theatre in Pakistan narrated by Fawzia Afzhal-Khan in this fascinating book.
Although the generation of leaders responsible for the creation of Pakistan was liberal and influenced by modern western notions , it wasn’t too long before the state government started exhibiting ‘ideological hostility to the performing arts’. Legislation inherited from the colonial masters, such as the Dramatic Acts Ordinance of 1857, began to be invoked to discourage new theatre groups. The problem was further exacerbated by considerations of language: Urdu, the national language, remained the language of the elite while the mother-tongues of the various regions remained undeveloped till recently. The position of women became particularly problematic in the new context. There was an unwritten code, going back to the court of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow—a pioneer not merely of Urdu theatre but of modern Indian theatre itself— ‘ prohibiting Muslim women of “respectable” status from participating in song and dance.’ (I am quoting Afzal-Khan here but this was equally true of Hindu society till a bare half century ago. One has only to remember that it was only in the mid-1930’s that the first Brahmin woman, Pottammal, dared to sing in public in Madras to realize how grateful one should be to the extremely liberal attittude of the Congress Party , under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, towards women’s participation in the public sphere.) The situation became particularly horrendous with the coming to power of General Zia-ul-Haque, the military dictator from 1975 to 1988, who handed over virtually all jurisdiction in cultural and educational matters to the mullahs—‘a vilified class prior to the 1970s and 80s, but since Zia’s time, an increasing power to contend with’. In 1983, an Islamic Shari’a code of law was instituted ‘as a parallel system to the existing code’, severely downgrading the position of women and religious minorities. A ‘commercial’ theatre –condemned by many for its vulgarity and double entendres—continued to flourish in Lahore. But the Islamicist ideologues were never comfortable with theatre and Afzhal-Khan spells out the reasons this distaste. First, theatre has this potential to raise embarrassing questions, to rouse its audience at least to thinking about problems. Then there is the all too easy association of performing arts with ‘ Hindu’ culture. And worst of all, performance foregrounds the body—and could entail the ‘exposure’ of the female body. ‘According to strict Quranic interpretation, men and women should observe modesty and …women, of course, should be veiled. Thus, what we saw as a princely custom for screening of elite women belonging to the ruling patriarch, has today become an obsession with all female bodies that ironically demands their negation in the public arena—and what arena could be more public than that of performance?’ It was no coincidence then that 1983 also proved the year when the parallel theatre made its appearance in Pakistan. Ajoka was started in Lahore by Gauhar who had been beaten up and jailed by the police for protesting the new laws. Parallelly, Kirmani who had continued to dance on stage throughout Zia’s regime facing the displeasure of the military-clerical junta, founded Tehrik-i-Niswan in Karachi. Thus from its inception the alternative theatre movement grew hand-in-hand with the movement for women’s rights and, drawing upon the Sufi legacy, has aspired to develop into an instrument of resistance against the repression unleashed against other defenceless groups like religious minorities and industrial and agricultural workers by the state. One need hardly add that the struggle continues even today although apparently General Musharraf occasionally attends Ajoka productions and has even decorated Gauhar with a Sitara-i-Imtiaz. The fight has been courageous, relentless and on several fronts, forcing the groups to present their work in various venues –from proscenium stages to street corners and backyards—and to deal with a range of topics deemed inflammatory. For instance, Ajoka’s Dukhini , written by Nadeem and directed by Gauhar, deals with the Bangla Deshi women ‘sold’ off by their families into prostitution in Pakistan under the guise of marriage. Their Aik Thee Nani, on the other hand, is a much more charming piece dealing with the lives of two sisters, both performing artists. One has chosen to stow away her art in the suffocating atmosphere of Pakistan while the other has been able to develop hers in India. (The play has the sisters, Zohra Sehgal and Uzra Butt—once the stars of Prithvi Theatres— in the lead roles and has proved a major success on both sides of the border.)
While exploiting the potential of the theatre to create political awareness at the grassroots, Ajoka and Tehrik-i-Niswan have nevertheless insisted on shaping their plays as aesthetic projects . This has led some members to rebel and break away, insisting on a more fluid approach to form and on a more actively revolutionary agenda. Splintering from Ajoka, Lok Rehas of Punjab, for instance, chose to focus entirely on Punjabi language and audiences and explored problems of purely Punjabi identity.
Afzhal-Khan not only details the public history of these groups but brings out the more human dimensions of their project by lending a respectful ear even to the gossip and backbiting endemic to theatre groups everywhere and by delving into the internal bickerings that infest them. Both Gauhar and Kirmani are from the urban middle class, educated in convent schools, which predictably has helped create its own resentments and complaints. The author, also from the same background, is aware of the further ambiguities introduced by her position in the American academia. Her anxieties of being a ‘native informant’ haunts this book but also enriches it. For she is able to place the social and political issues dealt with by this theatre in the larger context of global economic and political forces that shape them from far. Her analysis of the layers of meanings that gather around a woman’s body in the ever widening circles of social, cultural and political crises is particularly moving.
I have only one complaint. It is true that all of us in theatre have, at one time or another, been exposed to Brecht or Boals or Laura Mulvey. But surely there is no need to examine every effort made by a local group against these international—and to that extent globalized—theories. Whatever the received theory a group starts with, the actual problems of production, organization, presentation and interaction with its own specific audience shape its operative philosophy . The continual appeal to international theoritical models—–perhaps an academic inheritance—to judge or characterize a show gives the book a needless ambience of intellectual condescension.
That said, one can only congratulate Afzal-Khan and her publishers, Seagull Books, on an illuminating, passionate and moving treatment of a subject that could have been so easily trivialized.
Girish Karnad is playwright, actor and film-maker.