In keeping with its tradition to raise issues of social relevance, Ajoka recently held a theatre festival focusing on Saadat Hassan Manto in Lahore. Manto is known for combining psychoanalysis with human behaviour and is arguably one of the best short storytellers of the 20th century. The four-day drama festival coincided with the centennial celebrations of the illustrious writer.
A Tribute to Manto (1912–2012) was organised in collaboration with the Information and Culture Department, Government of Punjab and the Lahore Arts Council, and held at the Alhamra Arts Centre.
Speaking on the occasion, Shahid Nadeem and Madeeha Gauhar lamented the fact that Manto’s works were banned for a long time, and that he was demonised by Pakistan’s conservative and authoritarian establishment. “Even now his works are not given due importance in the curriculum or the media,” Shahid noted.
Madeeha Gauhar said that a significant aspect of the festival is that Manto lived in Lahore from 1948 until his death in 1955.
He left his beloved Bombay (Mumbai) after Partition in January 1948, and landed in Lahore where his family had already relocated from Amritsar.
According to Madeeha Gauhar, Manto’s most prolific period as a writer was the time he spent in Lahore: he wrote his masterpiece Toba Tek Singh along with other Partition-related stories such as Khol Do, Thanda Gosht, Aakhri Salute, and the bitterly ironic sketches, Siyah Hashyeh. It was in Lahore, too, that Manto stood trial for the many cases brought against him by the state on allegations of vulgarity and obscenity. “His scathing and often prescient writing on what he observed as he walked about on the streets of Lahore soon after Partition in essays such as Saveray Jo Meri Aankh Khuli and Dekh Kabira Roya are literary masterpieces,” she said.
Ajoka is planning an Indo-Pak festival on Manto in either November or December and some four to five groups are expected to participate in the festival from India. The festival will also present a new play by Ajoka on Manto, Yeh Gustakh, written by Shahid Nadeem.
Madeeha Gauhar said that round the year Ajoka would hold different activities on the great visionary writer both in Pakistan and India, and that the kind of recognition Manto deserves has not been given to him. “As a matter of fact he is yet to be rediscovered. Manto’s short stories should be included in the syllabus of our colleges and universities,” she added.
The theatre festival was presented as a colourful bouquet of Manto’s stories and dramatised readings of his lesser known stories and essays which showed his unwavering commitment to humanism and his abhorrence of war and bigotry. It was a celebration of his courage, creativity and sensitivity.
The inaugural day of the festival on May 14 carried a great deal of activity and the venue was swarmed with serious theatre fanciers. The performances opened on a thought-provoking note with the dramatised reading of Manto’s short story, Saveray Jo Meri Aankah Khuli, by Furqan Majeed whose style was both impressive and lucid.
The reading followed the inaugural play, Toba Tek Singh, and the pain and anguish that Manto personally experienced as a result of the events of 1947 were poignantly depicted in it. The play is set in the Lahore Mental Hospital, a metaphor for the insanity unleashed by the partitioning of India. It was adapted by Shahid Nadeem and directed by Madeeha Gauhar. Footage featuring scenes from Partition were screened with a recorded narration from Manto’s story, Siyah Hashiyay.
The set was simple but impressive; a barbed wire was reflective of the Partition between the two countries. The play also included a mime performance to a jam-packed hall, and prominent among the artistes were Furqan Majeed, Naseem Abbas, Mubashar Hussain and Sohail Tariq. Toba Tek Singh was staged on May 14 and 15.
The play Naya Qanoon was premiered on May 16-17. The story revolves around a tonga driver, Mangu, who despises the British colonisers and cannot wait for the New Act which he mistakenly believes would end their rule. The major cast of Naya Qanoon was almost the same as that of Toba Tek Singh.
Dramatised readings of Manto’s two short stories Do Garhey (read by Naveed Shehzad) and Dekh Kabira Roya (read by Furqan Majeed and Naseem Abbas) were also part of the festival on the third day. On May 18, while celebrating 28 years of Ajoka, Dekh Tamasha Chalta Ban was staged. The theme of the play was the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan.