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
different ball-game.

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.

Does Ajoka strive to have a meaningful dialogue with all  sections of society or is it restricted to the elite,
educated Pakistan?

Ajoka’s audiences are quite a mixture and varied. There are students, the elite, the common man and workers since we are linked to trade unions, women’s organisations and other such groups. Since we have a well-defined form as well as content, we reach out to a large section of society. With form we attract the elite and with ideology or what we cal its content, we link with the common man very easily.

Ajoka, in a larger sense, is spearheading a political theatre movement. What is its relationship with cultural activists in India, Pakistan and elsewhere?

Pakistan has very few cultural activists because political protests has been stunted for years together. We link artistically with filmmakers and musicians but not necessarily politically. Largely, it’s a lonely pursuit but among the younger generation there is more awareness. We have influenced amateur theatre in universities and colleges. We share strong links with cultural activists both in India and Bangladesh and have done collaborative productions.

Keeping in mind your experience with the NSD this time, do you think the progressive secular cultural space is shrinking in India?

I do not think so. I will take everything in comparison with how it is in Pakistan. Maybe looking at the momentum of political theatre in the 1980s, which is no longer there, one can talk about a decline. Obviously, the new trend is more towards the form and the technique rather than content. They are doing interesting things, but a lot of it may be quite devoid of any meaning. A lot of it is also imitation of contemporary western theatre, which fits into western situations, but not here. Some of the directors have been totally non-political and their vision absolutely devoid of artistic imagination. The trend is towards art for art’s sake and theatre for theatre’s sake. But then there are still people like Usha Ganguly, MK Raina and Nadira Zaheer, who are committed political activists as well.

Do you think institutional spaces like the NSD are now playing into the hands of communal politics? Do you think the refusal from the NSD was a result of direct State intervention?

This is not a matter of communal politics, but a matter of cowardice. The NSD is a huge institution and security should not have been the issue. We performed safely outside despite the fact that information was well-circulated. Certainly, I think it is partially State intervention because these things happen as a ripple effect. When I spoke to Salman Khurshid, he refuted government involvement. But then visa restriction was certainly a State decision and so was the sending back of hockey players. Maybe the State did not give direct instructions, but then people take a cue.  

Do you think that theatre and other forms of art and culture can strengthen the peace process between the two countries?

From the past 65 years, Indian music, theatre and films are part of Pakistani culture. TV serials, music shows, videos, art shows, and so on from India are available in Pakistan, unlike in India where no content from Pakistan is shown. But then there is a vociferous anti-India lobby in Pakistan. They have strong objections to such exchanges because they believe that Pakistani culture will be submerged by Indian culture. Till now the cultural exchanges have strengthened the relations from time to time and have not been the target of the two governments. Art has the power to invoke change.  

After the recent incident at the  LoC the Indian media carried a nationalistic, jingoist tone. How do you locate a peace  dialogue in such an aggressive atmosphere?

One just has to continue in a positive manner. You have to set the tone in your favour, in the favour of the masses. I felt dejected but not once did I feel that I should not come back. I was pointedly asked this question by certain mediapersons, Will you come back after this terrible setback? I replied, of course, I will. I believe this has to continue. There have been ups and downs between the two nations and there have been victims like we were this time.  Earlier also we have been stopped and faced protest from Rightwing parties in Jammu and Trichur but we continued and could change the views towards us. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2013