Delhi celebrates Pakistani play ‘Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh’ (2013)

First posted January 19, 2013

Once again art pushed the boundaries of diplomacy, just that much further. Pakistani theatre group Ajoka, who many believed had packed their bags and gone home, performed Saadat Hasan Manto’s Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh to a packed auditorium on Saturday. At the end of the play, audience and members of the crew broke into tears, overwhelmed by the memories of Partition and the emotions which still bind the two countries. The clapping resonated for a long time. Following a directive by the government after the LoC beheading faceoff last week, Ajoka’s play was scrapped from National School of Drama’s Bharat Rang Mahotsav. 

They were told that the current diplomatic discord between the countries could lead to retaliation against the play. But, supported by liberal theatre and civil society groups, the group stayed put. In a symbolic gesture against the diktat by the government, the group performed at Akshara theatre at 6pm. Though Akshara’s seating capacity is far less than Kamani Auditorium where the play was to be performed, the group said that it had achieved its objective. The play is an assortment of many of Manto’s popular works, including Thanda Gosht, Toba Tek Singh and Khol Do. It also offers glimpses of Manto’s life and his chronicling of the pangs of Partition.

The cast members said they were very “depressed and disappointed” with the sudden cancellation of their performance at BRM and that it was even more shameful because the play was meant to celebrate Manto’s centenary. “Manto is shared heritage. He is as much of Pakistan as of India. Instead of celebrating him, theatre’s voice is being silenced. It is even more disappointing because we expect a lot from a secular democracy like India. They could have given us security cover if they were worried that some fringe lunatic elements would stop a theatre performance,” said Madeeha Gauhar, director of the play.

Interestingly, the group has performed earlier in Mumbai right after the 26/11 attacks. “I think we are one of the few groups who performed in Srinagar, which is a very sensitive area. We also performed in Mumbai after 26/11. Why is our voice silenced now? I think with every such diplomatic discord, we regress at least a few decades. Our peace talks have completely derailed again,” said Madeeha.

When theatre groups approached actress Jalabala Vaidya and playwright Gopal Sharman, who own Akshara theatre, they agreed to stage the performance immediately. “We are not funded by governments, corporations or foreign embassies so nothing stops us from letting them perform here. We welcome them. We stand for free speech & free theatre. Institutions like theatre should be free,” said Vaidya. She recollected that another performance by Pakistani actor Zia Mohyeddin at Akshara theatre in 1999 had drawn similar criticism initially but its success prompted closer ties between the two countries. “Then PM Atal Behari Vajpayee had taken a bus ride to the Wagah border soon after that,” she added.

The cast described how they were asked to pack up on the day their play was scheduled in Jaipur. “Our show was at 6pm on January 16. Around 2pm, they told us that our play was cancelled. They also said that our play in Delhi at Kamani Auditorium scheduled for January 19 was called off. Our hearts broke. We were asked to pack our bags immediately. In no time, we were put on a bus to Delhi. They told everyone that we had left the country but we were very much here watching every play at BRM,” said Tipu Sultan, who acted in the play and managed the lights and stage.

Naseem Abbas, who plays Manto, felt that repression of theatre because of diplomatic concerns was exactly what happened to Manto. “Manto always told the truth. His writings were considered controversial because he called a spade a spade and his depiction of the violence during Partition was ruthless. It all rings true today. Especially to me as I have rehearsed his character so many times,” said Abbas. 

The play too had several emotional scenes related to the Partition and a video from the time was projected on the screen as a background to the performance. A person from the audience who was also in tears said Manto’s centenary celebrations in India would have been incomplete with out the staging of this play. Spokespersons from National School of Drama (NSD) were not available for comment. 

Ajoka performed the play again on Saturday at 10 pm at Jawaharlal Nehru University where hundreds of students enjoyed it:

See also: Pakistani group stages play despite cancellation by NSD
Veteran theatre personality Gopal Sharman, who along with his wife Jalabala Vaidya manages the affairs of Akshara Theatre, said once Pakistani actor Zia Moinuddin staged a solo-act play based on the literary works of Manto and other Pakistani writers at Akshara Theatre. “His performance got such an overwhelming response from the public that the then Indian Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, took a clue from it and went on a bus journey to Lahore.” Noting that her theatre group stood for independence of institutions, Jalabala Vaidya said: “Art and sports should never be dragged in whenever there is war mongering on either side.” All-India Student Association national president Sandeep Singh said the NSD must explain why it insulted the Ajoka group by cancelling its show. “The State and the NSD have surrendered to pressures from those indulging in war mongering, but democratic-minded people will still go ahead fostering people-to-people contact. Ajoka group will stage its play at JNU at 10 p.m. today,” he added.

In search of Sa’adat Hasan Manto

NB: I was sorry to miss the play, and still remember the trip Madeeha and Shahid made to DU campus and Ramjas College in the late 1980’s. I hope we find occasion to welcome them many times more. Here’s a note on Indo Pak militarism, from a FB thread to which I added it a few days ago. I place it here as a contribution to the ongoing debate

A Final Warning by George Orwell: (see the video-recording in the link below)

‘In our world their will be no emotions except fear, rage and triumph: the sex instinct will be eradicated we shall abolish the orgasm, there will be no loyalty except to the party.. but always there will be the intoxication of power always at every moment there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless… If you want to imagine the future; imagine a boot stepping on a human face forever. The moral of this story is.. don’t let it happen.’

On one estimate, the past five thousand six hundred years of written history have recorded fourteen thousand six hundred wars. This works out to between two and three wars per year. “All wars are the same war because war is always going on.” (James Hillman, A Terrible Love of War). War is built into the very structure of modern life (yes, more so than other epochs, because of the advent of total war in 1939-45), which did away with the distinction between soldiers and non-combatants.

My father was a soldier, many of my schoolmates are or were soldiers. I was brought up with stories of war and conflict (esp the Calcutta killing of 1946), lived through the 1965 war as a schoolchild, and through 1971 as a comrade enrolled in a ‘People’s War’. I saw Calcutta (and the countryside of West Bengal) at war in 1971 though a Maoist prism. I was in Delhi in 1984, and Bombay-Surat in January 1993. Most of life has gone by preoccupied with the politics and the human dimensions of war and communal conflict. Not to mention the revolutionary thirst for a war to end all war; the ultimate death penalty to end all death penalties..

Let me put it bluntly, militarism (structure + ideas) is the dominant mode of existence of modern society; and communalism is our South Asian contribution to this fine state of affairs. The mutual love-hate relationship that characterizes Hindu-Muslim conflict is the default mode of doublethink & thought control whereby the respective elites govern this region. Yes, India has a more democratic constitution than other states in the region, but this is under threat from vested interests, demented political ideas and the overall nihilism that tends to overtake all public spaces.

War has become eternal, because that’s the way we choose to see ourselves, as warriors. Martyrdom is the greatest enemy of truth. EP Thompson once said of the Cold War, that it was ‘about itself’. It served no purpose other than rendering itself permanent. That’s what Orwell says in this incisive essay; and that’s the reality of Indo-Pak and Hindu-Muslim conflict. 

It’s an eternal and ruthless bullshit machine for periodical bloodletting, and will continue till we get sick of it and throw it aside.. Till then, happy war-mongering to all.