Ajoka Theatre has for the last three decades, tirelessly and earnestly struggled to promote the message of social justice, highlighting pressing issues hounding our society. What began as a passion project, consisting of like-minded activists who wished to oppose the political repression at the time, continued to grow from strength to strength as a theatrical company that has acquired immense popularity.
Ajoka adapted renowned Indian playwright Badal Sarkar’s play Jaloos and performed for the first time on the 10th of May, 1984 in the lawn of a house in Lahore’s cantonment which is now Ajoka’s head office and rehearsal space.
The idea according to the group’s founding member and director Madiha Gauhar, was inspired by the group theatre movement which was gaining momentum in India in the early 80s. ‘‘This form of theatre did not require expensive sets or props and thus was inexpensive. I was already doing short skits with some friends for the Women’s Action Forum on women’s issues and even global themes including the apartheid, South Africa, Palestine and so forth.’’
Shahid Nadeem who has penned most of the plays penned by the group, in his university days along with Shehryar Rashid, Usman Peerzada, Sarmad Sehbai and Aetazaz Ahsan had thought of setting up a group and coined the name Ajoka in the 1970s. The group became active a decade later, though.
Its first performance did not have any sets and was done in basic costumes. It was based on the military-mullah nexus and the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq. The play got a lot of coverage, notably in the English press.
A string of plays followed, including Panjwa Chirag directed by Salman Shahid and written by Sarmad Sehbai.
It was only a matter of time that the movement that openly challenged the high handedness of the political regime presiding over the country, would be met with opposition from perturbed agencies. The group was warned not to perform in the cantonment, an act that was labeled illegal. An inquiry was launched against Madiha Gauhar who was accused of being embroiled in ‘anti-state’ activities. She soon set off for London to pursue her Masters in Theatre from Royal Holloway University, while her colleagues back home continued the initiative that had begun on a zealous note.
Ajoka thereafter performed its plays at the Goethe institute, now Chen One and made a foray into the venue with the plays of Bertolt Brecht. Audiences grew as it was more centrally located. “We somehow evaded censorship since it was wrongly assumed that the location enjoyed diplomatic immunity’’, laughs Gauhar.
In 1997 the institute closed to make way for the retail outlet and Ajoka found itself treading obstacles yet again.
Post 9/11 when authorities in Pakistan were embracing enlightened moderation; the environment was ripe for Ajoka to blossom sans opposition. It was then that the doors of the Alhamra Hall (Lahore Arts Council), where Ajoka productions are now regularly performed, opened up for the company.
The word Ajoka is a Punjabi word which means ‘Aaj Ka’ (contemporary). The name is befitting for the themes Ajoka chooses which always resonate the realities of the present times. Even Ajoka’s plays on historical figures such as Bulleh Shah, Dara Shiko, Manto, Faiz and Bhagat Singh have implications for contemporary society and its issues and contradictions. In that vein, Ajoka collaborated with teams which carried the legacy of the vibrant, indigenous forms of art Ajoka was inspired by. In plays like Raja Rasalu and Bullah, performers from Rajasthan were cast.
[quote]These plays have explored figures that the historical narrative of the country has not done justice to[/quote]
These plays have explored figures that the historical narrative of the country has not done justice to. For instance Dara Shiko and his message of enlightenment and tolerance is not generally touched upon in mainstream history books, while Aurangzeb, the autocratic ruler who banned cultural activity is generally glorified as a preacher of Islam.
“We felt the need to enlighten people about the fabrications and the retrogressive ideological slant in the conventional teaching of history and to familiarize people with reality. The historical figures we have portrayed in our plays usually have a lot in common: whether it’s a prince, a poet or a revolutionary, they have been misrepresented and have stood up to oppression and struggled for the change which people want to see in society”, asserts Madiha Gauhar.
Many of Ajoka Theatre’s plays have also been surreally prophetic, whether it was burqa bin baten (a personification of Osama Bin Laden) being discovered by the United States in Burqavaganza or the representation of modern day society and its stance on blasphemy laws in Dekh Tamasha Chalta Ban. When the latter was performed initially, people could not relate to the black humour and the portrayal of a rabbid mindset of extremism. However over the last 22 years the reaction of the audience to the play seems to be changing as the subjects outlined in it appear more explicit in society.
Brecht had a major influence on the theatrical form that Ajoka embodied; the two share the style of incorporating political themes in plays.
Ajoka has experimented with various theatrical techniques, linking traditional forms with contemporary reality. Their plays have not only been limited to political theatre but have also sought to tap on historical forms which have fizzled out over the years. Folk theatre which is embedded in the subcontinent’s cultural heritage like Swang, Nautankee and Rehas involving music and dance, which have been lost owing to a lack of patronage, has been revisited by Ajoka.
Ajoka has not only performed nationally, in major cities and villages but also in India, the United States, England, Nepal and Norway among others. The theatre company’s association with India has been a long standing and profound one. Ajoka plays are performed regularly across the border and troupes from India have also come to Pakistan to perform as part of collaborative festivals. A theatre for peace project is in the pipeline which will bring Lahore and Amritsar together, with teams working together in a production.
Ajoka continues to subscribe to creating art not just for the sake of art but for the purpose of meaningful entertainment. By presenting a mirror to society through drama, satire and revisiting history, it has sought to invoke introspection, debate and an awareness of the destructive demons that tend to be met with apathy. Its vivacious productions above all, have entertained in the true spirit of theatre while keeping the subcontinent’s native performing arts traditions alive.