December 03, 2017


I recently made a flying visit to Pakistan to attend a conference at the University of Sargodha, Mandi Bahauddin campus. Here, in provincial Punjab, I found the impressive Ali’s Theatre, circled with sandstone columns linked together with crenellated arches. In this serene outdoor setting, I was to discover Pakistani theatre’s flowering in recent years.

I was already acquainted with the work of Ajoka Theatre and its lead writer, Shahid Nadeem, from nascent research I did some years ago on cultural production and human rights. Nadeem was one of the guest speakers at the conference which encompassed Anglophone prose, poetry and drama. He spoke eloquently of the need to come into contact with theatre rather than simply reading scripts and lamented the few and declining opportunities in the land of the pure for that irreplaceably visceral experience offered by dramaturgy.

Unfortunately, I haven’t yet had the chance to watch an Ajoka production, though I hope to right this wrong when I next go to Lahore. Yet even emptied of sound, props, music and audience interaction as the pages of his Selected Plays are, the quality of Nadeem’s writing is easily apparent; small wonder, then, that he is in demand as a screenwriter for such acclaimed films as An Act of Terror and Manto.

Yet Nadeem’s roots are in radical theatre. In his preface to Selected Plays he writes: “My career as a part-time playwright began while I was fully engaged in throwing stones at the police and shouting slogans against the military dictators in [the] early 1970s.”

His commitment to social justice and antipathy to despotism is evident in his work. In Kala Meda Bhes [Black Is My Robe], Nadeem writes about inequitable access to water — an issue that Anatol Lieven described in his book Pakistan: A Hard Country, as “the greatest source of long-term danger” to the nation. In the Seraiki-speaking village in the Thar Desert that Nadeem vividly portrays in Black Is My Robe, a pir controls the water supply, charging locals for its use. One character protests: “Water is a gift of God, which has been given to all creatures, men, animals, trees, scorched earth. Like air, all creatures have a right to water. And giving someone his right is a good deed, but you want to profit from it?”

The corrupt pir ignores the villagers’ desperate pleas for water. When the character Ditta is successful in finding another, rival spring to the one being colonised, the pir claims that this is merely the original source which has “shift[ed] venue.” Laying claim to the precious liquid, he sends goons to beat up the altruistic water-diviner.

They also attempt to smear Ditta’s champion, a stranger to the village known as Opra, meaning outsider. In return, Opra excoriates the pir’s charlatanism, pointing out that if he fails to perform a promised miracle his disciples blame themselves for not having followed his instructions, but if something supernatural appears to occur they give him full credit. The sage has even raped one woman who sought his spiritual help for infertility: this is but one example of Nadeem’s outspoken advocacy of women’s rights. As Kavita Nagpal observes in her review of the play: “The aridity of the desert is juxtaposed against the barrenness of […] wives and water against fertility.”

Mandi Bahauddin’s bard and the founder of Ali’s Theatre, Usman Ali, exerts an almost cult-like hold over his young students, who revere his visionary teaching and supple creative imagination. However, in his turn the younger playwright is following in Nadeem’s footsteps, even if the former writes in English while the Ajoka activist works in Urdu, Punjabi and Seraiki. For instance, Ali dedicates all his work to the University of the Punjab professor, Shaista Sonnu Sirajuddin, who penned the laudatory introduction to Nadeem’s Selected Plays. And his play The Last Metaphor, performed at the conference, has striking similarities with Nadeem’s debut The Dead Dog. In his preface, Nadeem recounts this work’s conception: travelling from the old to the new campus of the University of the Punjab, the playwright’s bus swerved to avoid a dead dog in the middle of the road. Ali’s The Last Metaphor has almost the same creation myth: “I was travelling from Mandi Bahauddin to Gujrat when I heard the sound of some bones being crushed and the van came to a rest. I came out of the van and saw that a dog had been crushed by the van. The conductor called me in, but I was transfixed by the heap of crushed bones. […] The result was a […] drama […].”

As Nadeem pointed out in the conference, four decades later his dog has reappeared, still un-interred. This is a metaphor that is up to the audience to interpret.

Ali’s Beckettian three-act play The Last Metaphor features two men (played by Ali and Qaiser Mahmood) alone on the stage. Their passions and fears are recounted in a strange, disjointed dialogue amidst futile arguments. The play has a haunting, hallucinogenic quality, reinforced by the sound effect of a repetitive dripping that seems redolent of the Chinese water torture. Into this claustrophobic, absurdist world come all-too-real tales of police brutality; the audience is shown an intensely masculine world of violence and a lynching reminiscent of the Sialkot case of 2010.

This is juxtaposed with the touching male friendship of both the two protagonists and the dog and his former companion, set against the beauty of a Pakistani winter replete with crows, cobras and fireflies. The dead body one character has been carrying around is revealed at the denouement to be that of a canine. Ali, like Nadeem, shows his interest in rights that go beyond the human, even in a situation characterised by extreme violence.

Recalling the title of a novel by Nadeem’s sister -in-law Feryal Ali Gauhar, the actors spoke spontaneously: “Everyone in Pakistan is a spectator ... There is no space for further burials.” The Last Metaphor is a grim play that jolts its audience. Its last image is of candles lit by growing numbers of individuals. Just as light in darkness provides an image of hope, so too do these dramatic flickerings inspire optimism about Pakistani theatre.

The columnist teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of Britain Through Muslim Eyes: Literary Representations, 1780-1988

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 3rd, 2017