The NSA-level talks between India and Pakistan may have collapsed, but a slew of artistes on the other side of the border aren’t ready for the curtain call just yet. In the hope of starting track II diplomacy via cultural dialogue, Lahore-based Ajoka Theatre will stage four Pakistani productions in the capital later this month.
Being held in collaboration with a Delhi-based NGO, Routes2Roots, all four plays — Dara, Bulla, Kaun Hai Ye Gustakh (Manto) and Lo Phir Basant Aayi — will be staged as a part of a theatre festival titled “Humsaya”. They have been handpicked for their social relevance and common heritage with India.
“We may be different countries, culturally, politically, socially. We may have the baggage of Partition. But the reality of it all is that we are bound by history, culture, language and geography. We cannot negate that. So, for us, coming to India is as good as a pilgrimage,” said playwright and director of Ajoka theatre, Shahid Nadeem.
He added that all four plays have common heroes, ambitions and issues. While Bulla is the story of Bulleshah, a peace campaigner whose message was against exploitation in the name of religion, Dara is a struggle between Dara and Aurangzeb — not just for power but also over interpretations of Islam.
“As for Manto, Indian audiences love him. Sometimes even more than us,” said Nadeem. “The questions of identity are hurled at me often. I moved to Pakistan at a very young age but my father was a pucca Kashmiri and always wanted to come back to his country,” he said.
It is notable that Ajoka Theatre has always been known for its “theatre of defiance”. It was founded in Lahore in 1983, at the brim of political tensions and censorship under the regime of General Zia-ul-Haq.
“We call ourselves hurdle specialists. In Pakistan, we’ve dealt with all kinds of hurdles — cultural, political and religious. In such a situation, one of our talents has been to maintain our regular contact with India. Both governments were uncertain about us carrying on our obsession with cultural dialogues despite our political situation. But now, they have either begun to believe that we want peace or they have just given up because we did get our visas without much issue,” said Nadeem, who was also a political prisoner during the Zia regime.
Talking of the current state of artistic expression in Pakistan, Nadeem said, “There is a large section of society that is becoming more liberal. At the same time, there is another section which is becoming more fundamentalist and violent.”
On Ajoka’s last visit to India in 2013, their play was dropped from the 15th Bharat Rang Mahotsav due to Indo-Pak tensions at the Line of Control. However, an effort was made by theatre-lovers and other members of civil society to find a replacement venue and hold the performance there.
“A huge fiasco had turned into a moving experience back then. We are hoping that this experience too will at least bridge, if not break, these barriers,” said Nadeem.