Theatre for change

By Hajrah Mumtaz

Over the decades, Pakistani politics have become an ever more complex game. So it is hardly surprising that talking politics is something of a national pastime, the closest we have come to, perhaps, achieving a shared national obsession. What is surprising, however, is that political discourse is largely missing from the entertainment media. Although political satire and drama is a well-established genre in many parts of the world — consider the success of shows such as Yes Prime Minister or The West Wing — here this material is found mainly in the news media.

One could argue that a citizenry so directly affected by the power-players pacing the political corridors is unlikely to want the same thing for entertainment as well — that the subject hits a little too close to home, as it were. And, of course, the state’s policies over the years vis-à-vis the entertainment media — censor codes and state-ownership — had their effect in suppressing material that could be considered critical or mocking of the government of the day. Though the censor codes have relaxed somewhat over the years and there are now many more television channels and radio stations as compared to the PTV-Pakistan Radio hegemony of earlier decades, it could be that producers of entertainment have fallen into the habit of considering politics as unsuitable material. Or it could simply be that, as a citizenry, we’ve suffered a surfeit of politics and ended up on the apolitical side.

Whatever the case, in these politically charged and yet curiously neutral times, it is encouraging to remember that it is Pakistani theatre, in particular, that can boast of once having been intensely political, and of being used as a tool for changing the political climate of the country. What is known as the ‘parallel theatre movement’ of the 1980s constituted a self-avowed attempt to resist the Zia regime and lobby for a change in that government’s policies. And this was not an unprecedented movement: the subcontinent had always maintained a strong tradition of politically-motivated theatre. Pre-partition, the major group was the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA), which appeared in the late 1930s and staged plays that challenged British imperialism as well as the silence of native intellectuals. (IPTA ended in 1947 when most of its members — mainly Hindu Communists — moved to India. Here, meanwhile, the Pakistan Communist Party was banned in the 1950s and all its leaders were arrested.)

Political theatre subsequently raised its head in the guise of the parallel theatre in the 1980s. The highly repressive political situation of that time became a catalyst, and the parallel theatre became a platform for dissent against the Zia regime. The martial law government sought to counter the increasingly strident criticism by disallowing parallel theatre groups access to the state-run Municipal Arts Council theatres in Lahore and Karachi. So, the theatre activists made use of other venues such as the residences of various sympathisers and foreign cultural centres such as the Goethe Institut. Audiences were ‘invited’ and the proverbial hat passed around at the end of each performance for ‘voluntary membership fees’. This gave the performances the aura of being private affairs, and afforded some protection against police harassment. It also deflected the attention of censorship and taxation authorities.

Among the amateur theatre groups in Karachi, the most political were Dastak (formed in 1982) and Bang. Dastak forged extensive links with trade unions and performed regularly at various trade union functions. Bang was formed in 1989/1990 as an off-shoot of Dastak, and was primarily a street theatre group with strong political motivations. In Lahore, meanwhile, the important companies were Ajoka Theatre (formed in 1984), the Punjab Lok Rehas (an off-shoot of Ajoka Theatre), Sanjh and Naya Theatre. The parallel theatre movement remained active till the end of the decade, holding on the average three or four performances a year in Lahore and Karachi.

These groups used to perform a number of adapted western plays by Marxist playwrights such as Brecht and Ariel Dorfman, as well as original scripts by self-acknowledged Pakistani and Indian socialists such as Fakhar Zaman, Sarmad Sehbai and Badal Sircar. The performances challenged the political and social status quo, raised issues of dictatorship and social control and introduced ‘the masses’ to concepts of class exploitation. An example is the play Raagni, adapted by Shoaib Hashmi from Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. It presents a situation in which a former female student activist, who is tortured and raped while under the custody of an unnamed military government, comes face to face with her rapist who is now a doctor with a good reputation in the community. Another script, Kutay, is a postmodernist piece that tells the story of a common man who helps soldiers by letting them live in his house and share his food. Through his association with these ‘dogs’, he becomes a dehumanised caricature and is finally transformed into an actual dog.

Essential to the theatre of resistance, however, is the availability of something to resist. With the end of the Zia regime and the election of Benazir Bhutto in 1988, state opposition to political theatre gradually lessened. For the first time, parallel theatre groups were invited to perform in the bi-annual Alhamra theatre festival, while in the winter festival held in November 1993, the political theatre groups played to packed houses. During the various democratic governments of the 1990s, political theatre was gradually accepted by state and society alike.

What is interesting, though, is that this resulted gradually in the co-opting of the once fierce parallel theatre. The groups that had earlier fought hard against their marginalisation slowly shifted their focus from politics to social commentary. Some of the groups, such as Ajoka Theatre and the Punjab Lok Rehas, continue to do political work but can be said to have lost their teeth to a great extent. This is despite the fact that since the 80s, the country has been through yet another dictatorship and is now virtually at war with parts of itself. Socio-political issues have only grown in public concern.

Perhaps it’s time to dust off the traditions of theatre greats such as Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal, who recommended the use of theatre to promote political and social change. Brecht, in fact, maintained that useful theatre is more or less inseparable from politics. The example he used to illustrate this inseparability was that of a ruined family, the reasons for which do not lie in an ‘inexorable fate, in hereditary weaknesses or special characteristics’. Instead, Brecht searched for ‘how it could have been avoided by human action, how the external conditions could be altered; and that lands me back in politics again’. Theatre and other so-called ‘entertainment media’ can be used very effectively to show a people what they are, how they got there and where they’re heading. In terms of Pakistan in the here and now, this exercise could bear valuable fruit. To paraphrase Brecht again, the theatre ought to become an affair for philosophers, but only for such philosophers as wish not just to explain the world but also to change it. ‘Knowledge is just a commodity,’ he wrote. ‘It is acquired in order to be resold.’ It is time to ‘re-sell’ the knowledge of political processes and realities to the country at large. —

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