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COLUMN: Modern theatre in Urdu

SARMAD Sehbai’s play, “Uss Gali Na Jawin”, enacted by Shakeel at the Lahore Arts Council, reminds me of the sporadic induction of modernism in Urdu literature. Confining myself to our prose genres — novel, short story and drama — I may well claim that our short story was foremost in getting introduced to the modern mode of expression such as free association, interior dialogue and flow of consciousness.

This mode of expression came in the wake of those European novelists who, appearing at the start of the 20th century, broke away from the 19th century tradition of fiction and evolved an expression in accordance with their new experiences. This mode of expression stood in contrast to realism, which was the hallmark of 19th century fiction.

Early specimens of this kind of expression in Urdu can be found in the famous collection of short stories, Angaray. Two of the stories where this technique has been employed are written by Sajjad Zaheer. However, the progressives soon rejected this ‘decadent’ style of writing, giving preference to social realism instead.

But soon after leading progressive Krishan Chander came out with his story “Dau Farlang Lumbi Sarak” which had been written in the technique rejected by the progressives. Let me quote here Mohammad Hasan Askari who wrote, “The whole expression was amazingly new. Had I not read this story, I would have not cared to read Marcel Proust and Joyce”.

This was the way Urdu short story was introduced to modern expression and assimilated it in its tradition. But as for novel, it was left for Qurratulain Hyder, who made her appearance in the late 1940s, to employ this technique.

But Urdu drama was still lagging far behind. It had extricated itself from the grip of the Agha Hashr tradition and was trying to grow familiar to western theatre by bowing before such great masters as Ibsen and Moliere. The modern play was still far from its reach. But in the western tradition, too, the modern drama took time in staging its appearance.

And when it did the traditional concept of a play stood condemned. The basic requirements for a play, such as a well-knit plot, a well-conceived story developing gradually to reach a climax and ending in a logical way were all flouted. In fact, the very form of the drama seemed annihilated at the hands of rebel playwrights. Perhaps they questioned whether a play should have any form.

Rejecting all the norms of drama, they brought out a kind of play where the viewers, including the critics, found themselves left in a lurch groping for meaning. Such plays came to be labelled as the “Theatre of the Abused”.

But perhaps that certain period of extremism has elapsed. Now a modernist playwright may or may not go to that extent. As for Sarmad Sehbai he is primarily known to us as a poet in the modernist tradition. Possessed with modern sensibility cultivated through verse writing, he made his entry at the stage of modern theatre.

We had in Lahore intellectuals who nurtured such ambitions. But they lacked the courage to experiment. Sarmad stands distinguished from them because of his courage to take the risk of facing a hostile audience.

But what a surprise that the viewers were spell-bound, listening with rapt attention to the mutterings of an aged man on stage. The character was played by Shakeel, the TV star with a number of popular serials to his credit.

But those serials were of a different kind, delicious food meant for entertainment seekers. But on stage this popular star appeared in a very different kind of role, deeply serious in nature. An aged man clad in crumpled clothes with a bowl in hand. This bowl had in it some food for his pigeons.

Shakeel stands for a full 55 minutes under the glare of the camera, speaking with anguish, addressing from time to time his pigeons or some other the audience cannot see. He rose to the occasion and acted superbly. No plot, no story, no interaction between characters.

The play was a long monologue, during which he kept the audience under a spell. His utterances, seemingly lacking coherence, were packed with deep meanings. Stray statements sarcastically pointed towards what is happening in the times we are living in. Sarmad was perhaps more communicative in this play than he is in his verses. Here was a modern play which communicated well with the audience.