December 31 at the Ali Auditorium in Lahore completed 30 years of Zia Mohyeddin’s readings to a devoted audience waiting for him an hour ahead of time. This evening he sprang a surprise. He re-enacted Shakespeare for an hour, pausing to talk about Hamlet as a “troubled” and morally uncertain soul, and Shylock, cleverly mixed with the kind of realistic comment that Shakespeare’s anti-Semitic Elizabethan England wouldn’t have stomached easily had the character been overt. And there was Lear too, problematic as all his tragic heroes, undermining our mistaken belief that tragedy underlines fallen greatness. Zia said it was the classicism of Shakespeare he had grown to live with.
He is always cut-and-dried, restrained even when he is triggering belly-laughs with his “new” rendition of Mushtaq Yusufi, revealing his ruthless side in the pursuit of his art: “I have little patience with those who indulge their nervousness to the extent of spoiling their performance. If an actor is undisciplined enough to allow his own self-consciousness to intervene between himself and his talent, he should give up his profession and devote all his time to running a laundry.”
For an hour he recreated scenes from Shakespeare on a darkened stage spotlighting his classic profile, his face chiselled with age and words issuing from his lips in cadence. He didn’t read, he enacted and evoked as a full hall listened, transfixed by this unfamiliar Zia. His figure recalled his years in London when he had caught the attention of EM Forster in whose A Passage to India he was to act as Dr Aziz. Writing in Government College journal The Ravi in 2013, Zia remembered an exchange with the novelist he revered.
“He asked me if I had heard anything about Broadway and I told him that my agent felt pretty confident that the production was going to be on, but he hadn’t received a firm offer about me. ‘Well’, he said, ‘I have just had the papers about the New York production. I have told them that they would be mad if they don’t have you. I said I was deeply touched and honoured and that I didn’t quite know what to say. ‘Don’t’, he said, ‘you are the part’, and I felt like getting up and hugging him but checked my emotion.” At NAPA, the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi, his little island under siege from the philistines, he must be talking about some unremittingly unforgiving masters like Stanislavsky, “who was born in Moscow, was the co-founder of the Moscow Arts Theatre and was largely responsible for coaxing the great Chekhov to write some of his immortal plays”.
But to Zia it was always the classical restraint that clinched the effect. It was the understatement that would be the most difficult to teach; the Urdu couplet must have an un-doggerel, conversational rhythm. First give him Ghalib or Mir to transform them with his non-formulaic conversational rendition; then give him Faiz’s ingrained feminine instinct of bearing the pain of someone else’s power projection rather than Allama Iqbal’s Nietzschean longing for it. What no one can rationalise is the quality of Zia’s voice.
Give him classical Indian music and Shakespeare, and he would eat out of your hand. He is high culture, distant, and un-talkative with an ability to communicate in accents Alcibiades would envy. Zia is meiosis personified. He was born in Faisalabad, a city that was cultured before 1947 because of its non-Muslim majority, but is brutally visceral — and religious — where the first al Qaeda commander was caught. He graduated from Government College (GC), Lahore and worked at Radio Pakistan before joining Radio Australia. He was a debater in Urdu at GC, but was finally drawn to the stage in England, to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
Reading his book, A Carrot is a Carrot (Ushba Publishing International, 2012), I realised that his father loved classical music, taught English and was smitten with the stage. People who dote on him in Lahore every December while he reads his Urdu purple patches should know it is all a son’s payback time. He wrote of the milieu he has landed in: “Give any organisation power to generate beliefs and it will make, within 20 years, the majority of the population believe that two and two make five. So much for an authoritarian state, but even in a democracy governments tend to control thought.”
As opposed to Dionysian Krishna, the god of restraint presided over his childhood. His father came from Kasur, named after Kush, the elder son of an Apollonian Ram, and studied in Lahore, which is named after Loh, the younger son of Ram. He travels to Lahore every last day of the year to commune with people who believe in him and are touched by his thin, expressive body enacting classicism in an environment of vulgar exaggeration. Just like Shakespeare who lived under the Reformation but would refuse to accept its religious fiat.