We are, in fact, living in times foretold by the esteemed story writer Ghulam Abbas in his short story ‘Hotel Mohenjodaro’. Ajoka Theatre did well to start its silver jubilee celebrations with the performance of this prophetic story-turned-play on the stage of the Lahore Art Council.
Ajoka has completed 25 years of hectic theatre activity. This is not a small feat; I say this keeping in view the chequered history of serious theatre in post-Partition Lahore.
At least from the early 1950s I have been a witness to theA sporadic rise and fall of theatre groups in quick succession. It was at the behest of such a group that I had ventured to write a stage play entitled ‘Khwabon Kay Musafir.’
But the day I completed my play, the group, which had taken its start with high hopes, fell apart. Such has been the fate of a number of theatre groups starting with enthusiasm and ending in frustration.
Even more precarious was the start of Ajoka Theatre. It was born in the days of Ziaul Haq’s martial law.
And to add to its misfortune, it had dared to make a start as a resistance theatre. In such a situation few expected it to survive; preceding groups could muster a few facilities from the Arts Council and felt fortunate if they got permission to present their play on the Council’s stage.
Ajoka could hardly hope to get any such facility from the Art Council; instead it faced hurdles and harassments from official quarters. But the group faced every such situation with courage and determination; resolutely presenting plays which contained a note of protest against what was happening in the country.
What essentially went in favour of Ajoka was the fact that it enjoyed the active participation of a playwright.
This was an advantage that the predecessor groups did not have. Instead, they depended on adaptations from western plays for their presentations.
They for long years had not the good luck to stage an original play. By the time one or two playwrights appeared on the scene, the television was launched in Pakistan. Very Both the playwrights and the actors made haste to try their luck in this newly emerged medium.
It was during this period that Ajoka made its start with Madeeha Gauhar as producer and director, and Shahid Nadeem as playwright. In spite of their connection to PTV, they both stuck to their guns and refused to succumb to the temptations of the new medium.
Shahid Nadeem is a bilingual writer. He has the advantage of being fluent in both Punjabi and Urdu. However, in his Punjabi plays the social reality finds its expression in a more vigorous form, carrying with it a note of protest against
social tyranny and religious obscurantism.
For instance, in the play ‘Bullah’, while portraying obscurantism in our society, he draws inspiration from the liberal mystic tradition of Punjabi poetry. Here Bulleh Shah stands as a symbol of enlightenment resisting the obscurantist behaviour of the mullahs.
Ajoka’s silver jubilee has come at a time when the age-long tussle between the liberal tradition of Islamic culture and the ultra conservatives has turned into an open battle.
Ajoka seems determined to play its role in this fight therefore it chose to start its celebrations with the presentation of the play ‘Hotel Mohenjodaro’.
This play has a history of its own: it was during the late 1970s that the above mentioned tussle which had taken the shape of a struggle between two newly emerged rival forces inspired Ghulam Abbas to write a short story.
He was so serious about his work that he came to Lahore from Karachi just for the purpose of reading the story in the meeting of Halqa-i-Arbab-i-Zauq.
After he had read it there were loud protests from the conservatives in the audience.
The plot was conceived by a story writer as something fantastic at the time.
One could hardly imagine that a fatwa issued by an unknown village maulvi against all scientific progress in Pakistan could lead to a movement resulting in the fall of the government.
Today the story appears to be something of a prophecy. When presented on stage — as dramatised by Shahid Nadeem and directed by Madeeha Gauhar — it
appears to be an accurate portrayal of what we are now fated to witness.