THE open-air theatre at Lawrence Garden was packed with people enjoying a balmy Sunday last month dedicated to commemorating poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz on the occasion of his 107th birthday. Towards the end of the back row, pressed against the wall, was a group of students dressed in black.
At the announcement of a theatre performance, the audience fell silent and the students standing at the back began to clap. The play was titled Aaj Bazaar Mein Pa-Ba Joulaan Chalo, based on Faiz’s poem by the same name.
The performers began weaving through the audience, depicting the lives of young people on the verge of entering their college years. But as the performers, initially overjoyed with getting admitted to prestigious institutions, entered the grind of the education system, the setting on stage began to increasingly look like a mental asylum. The scene that followed showed a teacher holding a card with grades written on it and the students were told that their job was only to focus on getting good grades. Devoid of emotions and the feeling of being human, the students dragged themselves back into the audience, all the while pushing and shoving others, trying to catch the elusive card with grades written on it. They had become zombies — the perfect students created by an education system that stopped them from learning anything about the world around them and that criminalised any form of politics they could be a part of. The play ended with a powerful singing performance by Nida, a troupe member from the University of Punjab, who sang Faiz’s beautiful poem that encapsulates the spirit of defiance.
The audience gave them a standing ovation, and many later approached the student actors asking how they, too, could join their troupe — Azad Funkar. “We wrote the play to show how educational institutions don’t really focus on encouraging students to be good humans or members of a society. Instead, we are made to chase grades, get good jobs and raise our institution’s profile,” says Takreema Aurooj, a student of third year at the Government College University, Lahore, and one of the founders of the theatre group.
She, along with Ubaid Afzal, one of the co-founders of the troupe, spent the last week of February visiting campuses, looking for students who would be interested in non-commercial independent theatre that focused on raising awareness about social issues.
The auditions were held at the office of a students’ organisation in a neighbourhood behind Barkat Market. One of the ‘non-students’ who auditioned to be a member of troupe was Amna, a housewife who had left her studies halfway to get married. The shy young woman, wearing a hijab, walked into the audition nervously and told Aurooj that she only wanted to learn. “But she gave the perfect audition. And we decided that we would keep our troupe open to anyone who wanted to join,” said the young director excitedly.
Joining a theatre troupe is a fantastic way to make friends, said Mohsin Ahmed, a student of intermediate studies. “I think of it as doing social work, raising awareness and working as a team to creatively connect our experiences and lives with larger questions of politics.”
Mr Afzal wanted to create a platform that wasn’t commercial and raised important questions that resonated with all members of society. Unlike others in the troupe, Mr Afzal has had some training in acting; however, he believes that his grounding comes from working in the Sangat theatre troupe led by Huma Safdar, who has influenced and trained hundreds of young people from various backgrounds in the art of theatre.
Sangat and Lok Rehas belong to a vibrant tradition of theatre that has entertained and left audiences with thought-provoking messages for over two decades. “I was in my second year of intermediate studies when I first saw Huma’s theatre troupe perform at Diyal Singh College,” said Umer Zimran, who has been working with the troupe since 2013. “She told us that she was trying to raise social consciousness and awareness.”
Shafiq Butt, a journalist who has been working with Lok Rehas since 1996, explained that there are three guiding principles: actors perform in their mother tongue, work with youth volunteers, and do not work with the state or use its platforms for performances.
One of the most talented singers at Azad Funkar, Nida, recently gathered some female students from the sociology department at Punjab University to put up an all-women’s performance in connection with Women’s Day on March 8. “We’re looking at themes of empowerment, but also of domestic violence, child abuse and trauma,” she shared. She was joined by her friend Zamon Saleem, who recently became part of Azad Funkar after auditioning for them. “I hope to blend art with political messages and hope for social change through my work,” he said.
Akbar Pasha of Lok Rehas says he is proud of these young students. “If you believe in your politics and you present it to people in a way that resonates with them, you will be successful in your artistic endeavours.”
Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2018