Punjabi is the language of love, activism and art, believes Huma Safdar, a Lahore-based artist, activist and theatre director, here in Chandigarh with students and young actors of Lahore Grammar School.
Invited by the Society for Promotion of Peace to stage Birha Tu Sultan, a play on the life and kalams of Baba Sheikh Farid, Safdar has directed the play and also done a role in it. A graduate in fine arts from the National College of Art, Lahore, it was theatre, reflects Safdar, which gave her a ‘stage’ to explore, express and emote. As a student of Punjabi, Safdar chose to do theatre in Punjabi, looking at Punjabi literature with a new passion and perspective.
“It’s a language that was untouched by the elite, as Punjabi is not taught in schools. The Lahore Grammar School, where I have been teaching for three decades, has taken an initiative of not only teaching Punjabi, but also doing theatre productions in it,’’ she says. “I chose to do a Punjabi play for the dramatic society of the school, and stage Heer-Ranjha by Damodar Das.”
After initial hesitation, her students began to love the production, which received critical acclaim. “There was no looking back, and we staged Heer-Ranjha again, this time by Waris Shah. I love working with children and theatre gives me the space to think, do and speak,’’ says Safdar, who has also staged Sassi Punnu. “Love in itself is an identity.”
Punjabi literature, says Safdar, became the basis of her theatre work, as it made political, social, ideological statements against established rules and order and confines of religion. During the dictatorial regime of Zia ul-Haq, Safdar, then a student, became a part of women’s groups and movements.
“It was so progressive; we through discussions and play readings, discovered the texts, and began staging the love legends and Sufi poetry,’’ recalls Safdar. In these legends, adds the director, she found that the story was from the woman’s point of view, and society was critically examined by the power of the outsider. “The essence of Punjabi literature was feminist, and in those tough times, women found theatre as a voice of protest; it gave them space to express their anguish and demand rights. This literature addressed the very basics of society, and its many aspects of family, education, caste, class, marriage,’’ reflects Safdar, who says her training as a painter helps her create and establish different aesthetics and connections.
Another play that’s close to her heart is Ik Raat Ravi Di by poet Najm Husain Syed who, says Safdar, has given many theatre people in Pakistan a new journey in Punjabi tradition.