Face to Face: ‘I felt dejected...’
The recent violation of the ceasefire along the India-Pakistan Line of Control (LoC), smothered flames of jingoist sentiments and produced its own victims. This time, it was the turn of two Pakistani theatre groups to face the music. Invited to participate in the annual festival of the National School of Drama (NSD), ‘Rangmahotsav’, the two groups were refused permission to perform. NAPA (National Academy of Performing Arts), Pakistan, went back but Madiha Gauhar’s ‘Ajoka Theatre’ stayed on to register its protest. On the initiative of some progressive individuals and organisations, Ajoka performed in the capital its biographical play on legendary writer Sadat Hasan Manto, ‘Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh’. The shows were held on the day earlier scheduled for the NSD festival and at two venues, overcrowded with enthusiastic people. The overwhelming response of ordinary people set out new contours of the peace process and reinforced emotional ties. Ajoka will be back with its ‘Panch Paani Festival’ in Amritsar on the birth anniversary of Manto. Madiha Gauhar dwells upon the struggle and dilemmas of a political theatre group in conversation with Ritu Sinha in Delhi.
Since 1983, Ajoka has evolved as a political theatre and struggled for a secular, egalitarian Pakistan. Your comments on the relation between art, culture and politics.
Art, culture and politics are inter-related and there is nothing called art for art’s sake. Art has to reflect on the reality around and comment on reality from the point of view of society. We believe all art is political. Ajoka started with a clear political vision of anti-fundamentalism, anti-dictatorship and has been working for a secular Pakistan. Ajoka was different from Jan Natya Manch as it not only worked for political space and freedom of expression and art, but also fought to create aesthetics in theatre. Its focus is both on content, which has to do with ideology, and form, and the aesthetics of theatre.
Against all odds, apathy and amid constant threats, Ajoka as a political theatre is now internationally acclaimed. How has its journey been since inception?
The journey has been extremely difficult. During General Zia’s time, performances were banned. We started using private spaces like the courtyard of my mother’s house but soon residential areas were put out of bounds too. That time, Pakistan was a cultural wasteland since all forms of art were prohibited.
I was influenced by street theatre and interacted with the progressive theatre in Delhi and even in Kolkata with Badal Sarkar in the early 1980s but we struggled to do something new. Our idea of theatre evolved as we introduced aesthetics along with political theatre. Until then, what was happening in Pakistan was amateur theatre and there was no movement, though some plays were definitely being written. Our concern was both for the form as well as the content right from the beginning, and therefore, we took up plays like Julus by Badal Sarkar where the form was interesting and the message was strong.
We created a genre of theatre which cannot be called just Pakistani; our form is influenced by traditional Punjabi folk theatre. We started 30 years ago to create an identity for ourselves and to bring in elements of our traditional folk theatre which we were fast losing.
Pakistan has had a democratically elected government for the past few years. What is the state of Pakistani theatre today?
Well, there is not the kind of restriction from the government any longer as it was during Zia’s time and even later. Earlier, using the Dramatic Performance Act of 1876, our plays were censored and scripts banned.
But, now, the dangerous thing is that there is pressure from outside. The elected government is held hostage not just by the Taliban but also by the media and judiciary. A skewed view of history textbooks and the presence of the blasphemy law have destroyed the democratic structure. Just proposing the abandonment of the blasphemy law is considered blasphemy. We have a play condemning blasphemy laws, Dekh Tamasha Chalta Ban, which we have been performing for the last 20 years and on that also we face equal danger. Our plays on Bulleshah, the great Sufi, and on Darashikoh are on similar issues. Another play Burqavaganza was banned during Pervez Musharraf’s time.
There is very little theatre in Pakistan. There is another group which is Karachi-based, Tehrike-Niswan, which has performed in India and also NAPA which has no political vision and is a semi-autonomous government training school. There is no mainstream theatre in Pakistan and commercial theatre is a
In contemporary times, do you think theatre remains a powerful medium to bring in social transformation in Pakistan?
Social transformation in the sense that it can change people’s mindset and make people question. The survival of performing arts due to increased fundamentalism and talibanisation itself is a big issue faced by us. Civil society is very weak in Pakistan. For instance, people will not come out the way they came out in India. People are killed in areas dominated by the Taliban — Swat, the frontier regions of Peshwar, and so on. Musicians, artists and cultural activists had to flee these areas.
Recently, the ANP’s Bachha Khan had invited us to perform in Peshawar and we performed our play Rang de Basanti Chola amidst bomb blasts and arson. Changes will happen gradually.