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Imran Khan and Uzma Mazhar in a scene from Amna Nazli's play Doshala. – White Star

KARACHI: The first day of the conference celebrating 31 years of theatre group Tehrik-i-Niswan witnessed some thought-provoking presentations, insightful research papers, theatrical performances and a poetry recital on the Oxford University Press premises on Saturday.

The programme started off with an exhilarating dance act by Mohsin Baqar and Huma Naz. It set the tone for the rest of the day's proceedings.

The first paper of the session, moderated by Kamran Asdar, was read out by Sheema Kermani, whose topic was 'Politics of class and gender in the work of Tehrik-i-Niswan'. Before her paper, a brief visual presentation glimpsed through the many plays that the group over a period of three decades has produced.

Sheema argued that the Tehrik had always kept a certain ideology before it while doing plays and even subverted certain texts written by known playwrights if it felt it wasn't serving its purpose.

Asma Mundrawala's subject was 'Bertolt Brecht's stylistic and theoretical approaches in the work of Tehrik-i-Niswan'. Discussing the German playwright in detail, she pointed out he wanted spectators to take charge of the action in a play, something that could be traced in the tehrik's dramas.

The most talked-about presentation of the event was made by Dr Syed Jamil Ahmed, professor of the Department of Theatre at the University of Dhaka. His paper was titled 'Raising the dead in a prison by the light of lanterns: an examination of a fragment of political theatre in East Pakistan.' Kabar Kabar

He corrected the notion that no political theatre happened in Pakistan before the 1970s and introduced the Bengali playwright Munier Chowdhry and his play that he wrote in the 1950s. Leading off from the point that described the bone of contention between East and West Pakistan (Urdu as the language of the state etc), and the student agitation that took place on Feb 21, 1952 at Dhaka University, he came to Munier Chowdhry who was a member of the Communist Party and was arrested on quite a few occasions because of his ideals. It was during one of his imprisonments that was written and performed in the Dhaka Central Jail in 1952. The play set in a graveyard is a story of a political leader and a few characters that gather in the cemetery and get hallucinated (about ghosts etc). Munier Chowdhry was killed on Dec 14, 1971. Dr Jamil's presentation was a fascinating one, supported by pictures of pre-1971 East Pakistan.

Noted theatre person Madiha Gohar then spoke on her group Ajoka Theatre and said it was more or less formed for the same reason as Tehrik-i-Niswan, that is, in response to the draconian laws introduced by General Ziaul Haq. She made a chilling remark that today the situation was worse than it was in the 1970s as not just Talibanisation but Talibanisation of history was taking root. Doshala

The second session, moderated by Madhu Kishwar, began with the enactment of a short play written by Amna Nazli. The play pivots around the character of an old lady who washes bodies of women before they are buried. Actors Uzma Mazhar and Imran Khan acted as the protagonists and did justice to their characters.

Asif Farrukhi read out a paper on Amna Nazli and suggested that not too long before she was quite known in the relevant circles, but then disappeared into oblivion. The playwright (who was born in the first half of the 20th century and died in the '90s) challenged stereotypes and used wonderful diction in her plays. Asif Farrukhi read out excerpts from her plays which were appreciated by the audience.

Kamran Asdar's topic was 'Perverts and puritans: how Manto and Sara Shagufta question the moral order'. He debated the morality of discourse particularly of the progressive critics vis-Ã -vis the two writers.

The last session, moderated by Rakhshanda Jalil, began with an interesting presentation made by Claire Pamment on 'Recasting the bad girl: the female performer on Lahore stage 2002-03'.

With stage dancer Nargis as her focal point, she brought to light the duality that existed during General Musharraf's rule when, on the one hand, a ban was imposed on stage dancers for being 'vulgar' and, on the other, liberals representing the upper-middle class stratum of society were allowed to do 'English dramas' and were dubbed people hailing from 'good cultural backgrounds'.

She said Nargis had threatened to expose some officials who used to privately see her dance at their homes. After that she was attacked by the police and she sustained 39 wounds and eventually migrated to Canada.

She said the English plays which were subsequently staged and lavishly sponsored by MNCs (Chicago, Moulin Rouge, The Phantom of the Opera etc) had sexual content and went completely unnoticed. She concluded repression could not be solved by reformist acts. Naik Parveen aur aathwan sawal Naik Parveen

Claire Pamment's presentation was followed by distinguished writer Intizar Husain's paper on . In his typically eloquent manner, he first traced the reasons for the lack of original playwrights and then told the story of the genesis of his play (which was originally a character of Agha Hashr).

Finally noted poetess and writer Atiya Dawood recited her poetry.

Each session was followed by a question-answer spell, leading to a lively debate.