With the publication of Theatre for Social Change: Ajoka’s Journey 1984–2014 (Lahore, Ajoka Publications, 2015), we now have a very readable text that sheds light on the origins, mission, philosophy, contribution and achievements of Pakistan’s celebrated theatre of resistance – Ajoka. Altogether, the group has staged 56 plays in the last 30 years, which means roughly two plays a year. The first play, Jaloos, was staged in a garden in May 1984. The latest, Rozan-e-Zindan Se, is based on the letters of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and his wife Alys during the poet’s incarceration in 1951–55 for alleged anti-state activities.
Down the ages, theatre has been a popular form of creative expression in which live performers collaboratively communicate an experience, real or imaginary, through speech, song, music, dance and movement before a live audience. However, as with other fields of artistic endeavour, theatre can also cater to hedonistic appetites, providing entertainment and relaxation within the given framework of society, which may be ridden with gross iniquities and inequities. Yet, it can serve as a medium through which daring men and women use their creative imagination to question the status quo.
Ajoka was founded by Madeeha Gauhar in 1984. She and Shahid Nadeem, her life-partner and collaborator in this movement, took up cudgels on behalf of common decency and humanism to challenge the reactionary culture and ideology fostered by the state during the Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship. The regime was not only ruthless and obscurantist in its social and political manifestations, but also morbidly hostile to cultural and intellectual freedoms. As veteran journalist and human rights campaigner I. A. Rehman says, Ajoka arrived on the cultural landscape at a time when “all non-religious associations had been dispersed, not only progressive thought but even the spirit of inquiry had been tabooed, performing and visual arts both had been suppressed and theatre and cinema had been reduced to vehicles of banal, escapist entertainment.” Ajoka, he adds, introduced people to “new theatrical values and gradually converted them to the idea of culture as a force of social change.”
Although both Madeeha Gauhar and Shahid Nadeem write and direct play, over the years Madeeha has distinguished herself as Ajoka’s key director while Shahid has taken responsibility for conceiving, researching and scripting their plays. Ajoka started as radical street theatre and has retained this character even when its plays are staged in mainstream theatres all over the world. Each time I have been to see one of their plays, most of the audience was admitted free of charge. Consequently, Ajoka’s message has been easily accessible to ordinary people.
Ajoka started as radical street theatre and has retained this characteristic over the years
In the introduction to their book, Madeeha and Shahid do not mince words when they declare that they and other members of the Ajoka team are committed to using art to advance a secular, humanist, peaceful and egalitarian perspective in opposition to the inherently discriminatory thrust of the national narrative which, in the domestic sphere, alienates and marginalizes religious minorities and atypical sects, and perpetuates a culture of militarism and confrontation with India. Such a national narrative thrives on irrational jingoism and hypocritical pietism while simultaneously obfuscating class contradictions and the abject poverty within.
It is always interesting to identify the central riddle or set of core concerns that creative labour seeks to probe and unravel. My understanding of Ajoka’s mission is that, while leftist humanism pervades its worldview, the Partition of India constitutes that particular moment in recent history when regressive ideas and values gained political currency and set in motion reactionary processes that have since bedevilled the politics of both countries. That more than a million people were killed during Partition and more than 15 million forced to flee their homes in search of safe havens has meant that such trauma forms the constant backdrop against which relations between India and Pakistan (and within them between majority and minority communities) are shaped. Many Ajoka plays examine, directly or indirectly, the legacy of Partition.
However, Shahid Nadeem notes an important difference between Indian and Pakistani perceptions of Partition: while, in India, it evokes essentially negative feelings about a great tragedy, in Pakistan the event is celebrated as an imperative surgical severance from the rest of India that was to enable Muslims to evolve freely as a separate nation with a distinct cultural identity and value system. Consequently, there is a very fine balance to maintain without compromising the harsh facts of Partition and the subsequent endemic confrontation between India and Pakistan, which has resulted in persistent hostility, wars and terrorism. Both sides have constantly generated negative stereotypical images of the “other”.
Under the circumstances, Ajoka’s steadfast commitment to peace and amity between the peoples of these two countries is laudable. Ajoka artistes have performed before eager (and curious) audiences in both Pakistan and India. On several occasions, Indian and Pakistani actors have collaborated in Ajoka plays. In the section “Friends of Ajoka: Impressions and Memories”, prominent cultural figures in both countries pay glowing tributes to such inputs from Madeeha and Shahid.
In fact, says Madeeha, the first Ajoka script was an Urdu adaptation of an Indian play. They sought inspiration eastwards, she adds, because “India had a vast and vibrant theatre movement and the issues confronting Indian playwrights and directors were similar to ours. The similarity of language, culture, socioeconomic problems and the worldview and, most importantly, the common heritage of the theatre and other performing arts, made it much easier for us to adapt and produce Indian scripts.”
Toba Tek Singh, Aik Thi Nani, Bulha, Letters to Uncle Sam, Mera Rang de Basanti Chola, Dara, Kon Hai Yay Ghustakh and Lo Phir Basant Ayee remain among Ajoka’s most memorable plays. Mera Rang de Basanti Chola, which moved me to tears, portrays the execution of Bhagat Singh in Lahore Jail on 23 March 1931 most movingly. I was particularly impressed by Bhagat Singh declaring his commitment to atheism as being essential to moral and political freedom from prejudices deriving from religion, race and nationalism. It takes a lot of gumption to say this before Pakistani audiences fed on religious fanaticism. Kon Hai Yay Ghustakh, meanwhile, highlights with great skill and imagination the predicament of Saadat Hasan Manto, who migrated to Pakistan soon after Partition. His infamous trial in Pakistan for alleged obscenity in his writings, and his friendship with actor Shyam – who died young in distant Bombay while Manto was being persecuted in Lahore by the “guardians” of morality – is one of Ajoka’s finest statements on Partition. Bulha and Dara made me wonder, respectively, what direction the history of the Subcontinent might have taken had the teachings of Bulleh Shah prevailed over those of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi, and had Aurangzeb’s elder brother, Dara Shikoh, succeeded to the Mughal throne instead.
I strongly admire Ajoka’s contribution to Punjabi theatre. Arvinder Kaur Dhaliwal aptly remarks that, with Shahid Nadeem, Punjabi drama has reached its zenith. I can happily concur with this observation even though my long absence from Lahore and from the Subcontinent in general has meant I have seen only Toba Tek Singh, Bulha, Mera Rang de Basanti Chola and Lo Phir Basant Ayee. For me, each play is a precious gem because in Pakistani Punjab, Punjabi language and culture are held in contempt and consequently subject to criminal neglect by the state. I therefore salute Madeeha Gauhar and Shahid Nadeem for opposing and exposing the politics of ethnocide committed ironically by the Pakistani ruling class and power elite, which is predominantly Punjabi.
The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org