Let there be Theatre – An Unpublished Interview

a)      What do you see as the major problems faced by theatre in Pakistan?

Well the greatest problem is the security situation in the current scenario. The violence

Safeer Ullah Khan

has spread far and wide. It has a very negative impact on cultural activities. Here in Islamabad, we are not celebrating the traditional urs of Bari Imam since 2005. Annual Folk Festival was not organized in the past two years (Luckily, we are having this festival going on in Islamabad these days).

Another important reason is the rise of religious fanaticism, and the state’s lenience in dealing with these fanatics. They have declared music and dance as something unacceptable in Islam. In this scenario, artists had to go into hiding. In Pakhtoonkhwa, artists had been killed. Gulzar Alam – a famous and respected Pashto singer – was beaten on stage for indulging in the sin of singing. Many Pakhtoon artists (singers as well as actors) made formal public announcements that they would go for preaching Islam, and would have nothing to do with acting/singing anymore. My own theater group (Bedari Theater) was stopped from performing a play by religious zealots in Khewra (District Jhelum). Later we were arrested by Jhelum Police for creating a law and order situation, and the team including three kids stayed at a police station for nearly 4 hours. Luckily, with democratic forces back at the helm after elections in 2008, the situation is improving. Gulzar Alam is singing again.

Another important issue is the disrespect we extend to our artists. They are looked down upon. When I started to take interest in music and theater, I was declared a mirasee (a derogatory term for artists) by my neighbors. This stigma often keeps good, intelligent and educated people away from joining theater as a profession, which has led to the decline in the quality of theater produced in Pakistan.

Another important aspect is the state policies and procedures, which keep educated and sensible people away from theater. For example, if I want to perform a play, I have to submit the script to the district administration, where somebody having no background in theater would be vetting my script, and asking for senseless changes in the script. There are too many topics which cannot be touched by our writers like security related policies, relations with India etc.

Then there are problems within the theater community. New people are not encouraged. They have to storm their way into it. The people working as actors, directors and producers need to be really professional in their attitude. They need to learn that it is a team effort. Nobody can make a successful play single-handedly. I describe the successful directors in theater and film industry as the feudal lords of this field. They behave like feudal lords. They need to learn that educated actors and actresses would not like to work with a feudal lord, but would love to work with a friendly director who treats everyone with respect.

2. We had very progressive and healthy traditional and local theatre which is on the verge of death now. Is our culture not supportive of theatre anymore? What went wrong?

I think I have given some of the reasons in my response to your earlier question. However, I can add a little bit here:

a)      The two-nation theory required the articulation of differences between Islam and Hinduism to provide some reasoning to the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan. This led to a cultural cleansing. All cultural activities including music, dance and theater were declared Hindu rituals. Basant and Besakhi were also sacrificed at the altar of two-nation theory. This led to the slow and unceremonious demise of local traditional theater. The proponents of two-nation theory need to learn that we did have religious differences with Hindus, but we shared the same culture and geographic conditions.

b)      State has not patronized any art form (except if we take sycophancy and conspiracy theories as art forms). Even National College of Arts is a legacy of the British Raj. It was only during Bhutto regime that we created National Council of the Arts, and Lok Virsa. Only recently, Rawalpindi Campus of the National College (which has become a University now) has started a bachelor’s course in theater, and we have NAPA in Karachi now. Thus the traditional theater had never been studied as a subject. No researches have been conducted on this important cultural aspect of our lives. Our young generation does not know anything about our traditional theater in the sub-continent. All our young generation knows about theater is Shakespeare and his plays – Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo Juliet.

3. It is often claimed that theater in Pakistan cannot establish itself as a viable business or industry hence can’t finance itself. Your comments?

Well, I personally am unable to agree. When we make such conclusions, we forget that

Tartuffe – A French Play in Urdu (April 2011)

ours is an entertainment starved nation. We have a commercially successful theater in Lahore, albeit some quality issues. We have commercially successful English theater here in Islamabad. People in Islamabad thought an Urdu play would not get as much crowd as the English plays do. However, recently we had an experiment and it was a great success. Alliance Francaise decided to do a French play Tartuffe in Urdu. It rocked the Capital. We had three consecutive house-full nights. In fact, the third and last night was literally “Khirki Tor”.  There was no ticket for that play, Alliance Francaise was giving out free passes, and people were shocked to know that they did not have to pay anything for watching such a beautiful play. I am sure if there was a ticket on that play, even then it would have been as much successful. I personally believe that somebody has to take the plunge. By the way, I do plan to do a Pashto play some time in future…

4. Many major alternative theater groups in Pakistan are dependent partially or totally on the international donor agencies for their finances. Does this effectively influence the content, message or the overall quality of theatre, in any way? If so, how?

Of course, it does. The one who pays the piper calls the tune…

Most of the alternative theater groups are registered as non-profit organizations or NGOs. There are many issues involved here. The play is usually one of the small activities under a big project. So the message has to be consistent with the project objective. Under Bedari Theater Group, I had only one chance to do a play independent of any project. That was titled “Mukhlisabad ki Ghumman Ghereyan”. We could manage to perform this play only once.  Though the play was a resounding success as over 300 young boys and girls remained spell bound for 45 minutes, we could not make another performance for lack of funds, as it did not fall in line with the objectives of any project.

One should not forget that decision makers in NGOs are also not aware of the power and dynamics of theater. They, too, are not fully aware of the significance of theater as a development tool. I and my group have often been treated as insignificant supporters in executing big projects as if they could achieve their goals without us quite comfortably, and we are a nuisance.

5. Theatre here has not come yet with any sustainable solution to finance their expenses. How do you think can the problem be solved?

Well, as far as commercial theater is concerned, I seriously believe that it can earn money and become self-sustained. All that we need is professional people who develop plays, have a good marketing plan, and target the right audience. People are willing to open up their pockets, but we must come up with a worthy product.

6. Are current parallel theatre groups playing any significant role in addressing the problems faced by a common person?

Keeping in mind their limitations, they are certainly playing an important role. Anyhow, there is a lot more to be done.

7. Is Pakistani theater still capable of carrying a healthy progressive message for masses?

 Of course, it is. If there is more activity, there will be more experiments. All it needs is a peaceful environment where artists are not threatened. At the moment, this is the most important precondition for theater’s growth. I am sure there would be many more amateur groups doing theater with progressive messages in spite of financial constraints if we manage to solve the security issues.

8. What are the elements present in public and private spheres which resist the presentation of conflicting themes through theatre?

Well, there is this notorious mullah military alliance. If we try to explore personal lives, and experiences, mullah would find out something repugnant to religion. If we try to explore the society and state affairs, we fear to tread the path declared forbidden by the security establishment. We cannot even dream of doing something like ‘Rang De Basanti’ in Pakistan. Quite recently, we have seen murders of Salman Taseer (former governor of Punjab) and Shahbaz Bhatti (former Minister for Minorities Affairs) on the one hand, the killing of Professor Saba Dashtiari (Baloch Intellectual) and Saleem Shahzad (a journalist) on the other hand.

9. What would you suggest for long-term organic progress of meaningful theater in Pakistan?

Let there be theater. I think I cannot simplify it any further. If we let it go on, we will definitely have thriving theater scene within a few years. We will make a lot of mistakes. Many would fall; some would go on producing more and better plays. And we have hope. As I said earlier, Gulzar Alam is signing again; Nishtar Hall in Peshawar is open again; Annual Folk Festival is happening again (offering some theater performances by traditional theater groups), and Ajoka, Punjab Lok Rahs and many other alternative theater practitioners are actively working especially in Sind and Punjab.


One thought on “Let there be Theatre – An Unpublished Interview

  1. Brilliant post, Safeer. As someone who shares the same passion as you in theatre arts — I couldn’t agree more with this post – yes, I do hope it becomes a PUBLISHED interview, for it has a class of its’ own! Cheers, mere dost.


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