Pakistani theatre may be in the limelight, but that doesn't necessarily mean that quality is improving, finds Hajrah Mumtaz.
As in many other sectors, things are done differently in the north and south of Pakistan. For all the talk about a revival of theatre, delve into it a little and you find that this renewed interest refers mainly to Karachi. The city has money, it has the National Academy of the Performing Arts (Napa), the country’s only such institute, and of late, it has had some stars from film and television showing an interest in the stage.
Together, this has meant that in the city by the sea, there have been several occasions where theatre audiences have the luxury of choosing which play to go to on a particular night — just a few years ago, unlike Lahore, more than one play being put up at the same time was an aberration.
Just recently, the city saw television actors Sajjid Hasan and Mehwish Hayat come together on stage in Aap ki Soniya. Film star Shaan produced Dhaani, while Napa, in addition to the institution’s regular work, put up a nearly three-week-long performing arts festival that featured Peter Wiess’s Marat/Sade.
Other recent plays that stand out are Anwar Maqsood’s Aangan Tehra (which had an impressive 100-day run in Karachi), and last year, Ponay 14 August. Packed audiences have attended Javed Ahmed Saeedi’s Avanti, and Nida Butt’s Karachi: The Musical. Adding to the hype was the teaming-up of Nimra Buccha and Sarmad Khoosat for an adaptation of Mark Ravenhill’s Shoot/Get Treasure/ Repeat.
The upsurge in theatrical work can be gauged by the bookings at the Karachi Arts Council alone, a primary venue in the city. As Butt says, “Ten years ago when I booked the venue, it was pretty much free the year round. Now, one might easily have to wait a year before getting dates.”
While in terms of sheer numbers theatrical work in Lahore and Islamabad is not currently matching Karachi — for about every three performances in the latter there is just one in the north, and that includes plays on tour — theatre is nevertheless at the front of people’s attention here, too.
As Madiha Gauhar of Ajoka Theatre points out, this includes the participation of Pakistani groups in international theatre functions. Ajoka Theatre, for example, travelled to India to participate in the National School of Drama’s annual Bharat Rang Mahotsav theatre festival earlier during the year, as did a team Napa Repertory Theatre (NRT), (both shows were cancelled at the last moment by the NSD, but Ajoka managed to perform at another venue). And last year, seasoned Lahori actors and musicians teamed up for an Urdu version of The Taming of the Shrew for the World Shakespeare Festival in London. Meanwhile, groups such as Ajoka and the Karachi-based Tehrik- i-Niswan perform regularly on the international circuit.
With all this work, is quality improving as well? According to both Gauhar and NRT head Zain Ahmed, not necessarily. The former points out that “much more innovative and relevant work has and is being done in Pakistan over the past three decades,” In Ahmed’s view, “both audiences and the corporate entities that support independent productions steer clear of cutting-edge theatrical work. This is a dangerous trend towards plays that provide laugh-a-minute lines but lack strong content and technical cohesion. If that happens, we’ll simply have created another version of the so-called commercial theatre, but for a different audience.”
Create art or create what the patrons, the audience/sponsors, want? The tussle is as old as art itself. As Butt points out, “It has been appalling to see sponsors support some crass theatre in recent years,” although as she knows all too well, “theatre has developed in Pakistan despite a disabling environment.” The same problem is highlighted by Lahore-based director and actor Omair Rana: “theatre that is more of an expression and creation is not as ‘sellable’ and is thus left unaddressed.”
The problem, as put by Sheema Kermani of Tehrik-i-Niswan, is that “there is still little or no support for high-quality theatre. Such work will find smaller audiences,” she acknowledges, “but that should not deter serious theatre practitioners — and I am not saying practitioners of serious theatre but those practitioners that are serious about theatre.”
“Other countries have systems of sponsorships for high-quality theatre work,” says Gauhar. “In India, for example, there is a lot of government support and financial aid for innovative theatrical work. Other than Napa, that is missing here. Without that, you have to either play to the gallery of corporate sponsors with very limited imaginations, or — like Ajoka — put content over profitability.”
The need for state support is argued for across the board. “The government needs to provide systemised support,” emphasises Rana. “The greatest sponsor of theatre should not be a profit-maximising corporation but a welfare-maximising organisation such as the government. Kermani and Ahmed agree, both pointing towards Napa as an example. “Since we are financially supported by the federal government, we can afford to take risks and diversify our repertoire,” says Ahmed. “Groups that aren’t similarly placed are bound by the need to at least break even.”
Theatre is about technical aspects of production and content. In both areas, Pakistan needs improvements. But that appears difficult as long as the state keeps its own role marginalised, and sponsors and ticket-buyers shy away from what is intellectually challenging. The way out is simple, on paper. Getting there, however, will involve traditionally ponderous entities — the state, and the patrons — to bestir themselves.