Zain Ahmed and Hajrah Mumtaz[1]

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Disasters come in many shapes. The impact of the much touted “war on terror” after 9/11 may be the first thing that may interest those who are not fully acquainted with Pakistan’s theatre. However, as Zain Ahmed and Hajirah Mumtaz explain, that is only part of the disaster that inflicted theatre in Pakistan, as a kind of war against dictatorship began already in 1977, when they had a coup, or even in its colonial year of 1876, when Dramatic Performance Act was put in force. Their report elucidates many aspects of the disaster that theatre people had to undergo — political, economic, religious extremism, power shortage, street violence, etc. — in making their voice heard. (Editor)

Dictatorship after the 1977 coup

While the arts in Pakistan, particularly on the performance side, have never really had it easy, they have managed more or less to hold their ground in a challenging environment. There have been a number of high points that promised the establishment of a discernable Pakistani theatre with a narrative distinct from that of the subcontinent in general.

Despite the fact that the field has historically received little state funding or support, theatrical activity has managed to maintain somewhat reasonable levels since the 1960s. During the ‘70s and early ‘80s, the field attracted original ideas and was nominally supported by the state-run arts councils. While the number of people working in this field was quite low, interest was running high and, had Pakistan’s history run a different course, it may have become possible to develop that sought-after Pakistani narrative.

The military coup staged by Gen Ziaul Haq in July 1977, though, changed almost everything. Having overthrown an elected prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, (hanged by the military regime in 1979), Zia initiated a process of Islamisation to which can be traced the spectre of militancy and extremism that haunts the country today. Free speech, liberalism and dissent became things of the past.

The response of theatre people to the oppression wielded by the dictatorship was the “parallel theatre” movement. Denied permission to stage material critical of the state in the arts councils, activists turned to alternate, private venues and funding was raised from private sources and donations. Many of the groups that sprang up the, such as Ajoka (Today’s) Theatre, the Tehrik-e-Niswan (Women’s Movement) and the Punjab Lok Rehas (People’s Theatre) remain active even now.

Parallel vs commercial theatre

But as martial law forced the creative and unwilling to kow-tow, theatre professionals moved to other venues, and mainstream theatre was left without a backbone of competent directors, writers and actors. This space was gradually filled with mainly amateur comedians and performers who took theatre steadily towards the bowdlerised and the risqué. This sort of work came to be known as “commercial” theatre (indeed, it was in contrast to this that activist theatre was dubbed “parallel”). This disparity, in content and in the class differential of the audiences (which were overwhelmingly male, in the case of the commercial theatre), remains to this day, and has led at various times to highfalutin complaints about the commercial theatre’s being “obscene” and “vulgar,” as justices of the Lahore High Court put it a few years ago.

During the ‘90s, though, a variety of factors—including the end of the repressive Zia regime and the election of Z A Bhutto’s daughter Benazir Bhutto as prime minister—started coming together and for a while it looked as though the fates were smiling. Dancers and theatre activists who had either been hounded out of the country or had chosen to go into exile started returning; it seemed the theatre would be revived. Theatre halls brimmed with audiences, festivals were instituted, and even a few training academies sprang up.

After 9/11 under President Musharraf

Then, however, came the events of 9/11, and their irreversible fallout on Pakistan and its polity. We continue to pay an immense price for our involvement in the affairs of Afghanistan since the 1980s, and in the “war on terror” after the US-led invasion of that country. The various facets of the casualties are well-documented and do not bear repetition here.

The area that does not often figure in these commentaries, though, is that of cultural expression, especially the performing arts. In the Pakistan of the new millennium, in fact, theatre can be seen as an analogy for this country’s society: braving an increasingly hostile environment just to keep up some appearance of normalcy.

It is not that no gains were made. Even as the country’s security and economic situation started on a downwards trajectory (the full effects of that administration’s blunders became clear after its ouster in 2008), at the helm of government was yet another military dictator, Gen Pervez Musharraf—this time one that supported the arts and liberalised the country’s media policy.

His personal views led to the creation, in 2005, of the National Academy of the Performing Arts (NAPA), in Karachi with a federal government grant. While the location of the academy was considered somewhat curious given that it was Lahore that was considered the hub of the theatrical and film arts in Pakistan, NAPA’s faculty is unarguably comprised of the seniors in the field. Spearheaded by RADA-trained actor Zia Mohyeddin and senior composer Arshad Mahmood, the institution—the first in the country to offer a diploma in theatre and music—hoped to be able to turn around the performing arts profession. And, indeed, despite the fairly regular hiccups in the release of funds by the government, NAPA has made a qualitative difference in the theatrical work being undertaken in Karachi.

Violence in the streets

Yet meanwhile, politically things have been going from bad to worse in Pakistan. With the country embroiled in a many-layered insurgency, led by the umbrella organisation the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, and a series of military operations against them, violence has spilled over into the streets. As everywhere else, this has thrown up new challenges for the theatre, too.

The out-of-control economic and security situations are amongst the greatest twin impediments. The former has led to shrinking advertising budgets. Multinational and other companies that earlier sponsored theatre work are no longer so forthcoming. This situation is only worsened by the security threat. The TTP-led militants, and religious extremists of various stripes, have often condemned cultural activities such as theatre or dance as being against their version of Islam, and have issued threats in this regard.

While the actual instances of theatres or cinemas etc. being targeted remain only a handful, thankfully, the threat of bombings and suicide bombings looms large in the mind of every person here and people tend to avoid places that could be potential targets. Consider, after all, that there were at least 476 major terrorist incidents (involving three or more deaths) in Pakistan last year alone, in which nearly 4,500 people were killed. The number of major attacks in 2010 stood at 662, with upwards of 6,000 deaths.

The result is that while potential audience members are reluctant to expose themselves, sponsors have for obvious reasons become wary of lending their names to an activity that may attract the attention of the extremists. Disrupting a play need not involve a bomb, after all. In such an explosive situation as prevails on the streets of Pakistan, a raucous mob raising slogans is usually enough to spark off violence.

One outcome of this has been a sort of takeover of theatre by the elite. Performances are held in only a handful of venues in the “safer” areas of cities, i.e. those with heavy police presence where the more well-off sections of society operate. This means that the access of the average family to quality theatrical work is severely restricted. Similarly, sponsored media events, such as award shows or dance recitals, now tend to be non-ticketed events held at private venues, with tightly controlled guest lists and private security.

The fate of Lahore’s World Performing Arts Festival

The reality of the threat posed by the combination of the lack of sponsorship and security is best reflected in the fate of Lahore’s World Performing Arts Festival. This was a large-scale international festival that the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop used to organise annually, beginning in 1992, which showcased experimental as well as traditional theatre, dance and music from around the world and from Pakistan. It attracted hundreds of performers from around the world, putting Pakistan on the map as far as the performing arts were concerned, and drew huge audiences over its typical 10-day to fortnight spell.

All that ended in 2008, though, when a small bomb went off outside the venue while the festival was under way. While there were no fatalities, the city government told the organisers that it would be unable to provide the sort of security required for a festival of this scale. The next year, the RPTW could get neither sufficient sponsors nor governmental support, and meanwhile had to contend with security fears with regards to the few foreign performers that were still willing to visit Pakistan. The festival was not held that year, and has not been held since. RPTW director Faizaan Peerzada told me that ensuring the safety of foreign delegates had become a virtually impossible task, and the financial situation was bleak enough to be the final deterrent.

Ajoka Theatre, Chak Chakar
Ajoka Theatre, Chak Chakar

The following year, in 2009, cinema and theatre audiences dropped by about 80 per cent, according to the owners of such venues, as reported by the Dawn newspaper group. Ajoka Theatre organised a festival that had to be shifted to India because of security concerns, while the Lahore Arts Council was forced to cancel the International Urdu Conference for similar reasons. Relatively small explosions (for Pakistan) outside the Alfalah and Tamaseel Theatres in Lahore, at different times, caused panic and a subsequent drop in audience numbers.

Power shortage: From 2008 and on after Musharraf

Even this does not represent the full scale of the challenges with which theatre in Pakistan must contend. Over the past few years, particularly the four years since the country’s most recent brush with a military dictatorship ended, a crisis has been under way in the national power sector. Disruptions and shutdowns of electricity have become routine, and can last anywhere upwards of four to six hours intermittently (and unexpectedly) throughout any given day, up to eight or ten hours at a stretch. There have been shutdowns lasting a couple of days on occasion. Riots over this issue have become a regular feature across the country, as industries are virtually shutting down and jobs are being lost in the hundreds and thousands.

Staging a play, therefore, means having to arrange an alternate back-up power supply in the shape of generators and uninterrupted power supply mechanisms that run on gas or diesel. On top of the regular expenses of staging a play, producers must add security and electricity costs, making it a dauntingly expensive proposition for smaller producers—students doing experimental work, for example, or a theatre group not associated with an institution such as NAPA or a university. Some of the theatre halls in the large urban centres of Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad provide generators, but that often involves pulling strings and calling in favours. The cost of renting generators can be passed on to the ticket prices, but there is after all a limit to how high these can go until they become prohibitively expensive. And this links back to the takeover of theatre by the elite: for such reasons, big-budget performances target the English-speaking elites, who have deeper pockets.

Responding to the “war on terror”

In terms of content and subject, the two trends that have emerged in Pakistani theatre in response to the situation created by our involvement in Afghanistan and the “war on terror” are either to avoid the issue completely and not discuss the political dimensions of the prevailing situation, or to be reactionary and reject Pakistan’s complicity in and ownership of the battle under way.

In the commercial theatre of the Punjab, and the “elite” theatres of Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, the effort has gone towards staging plays for commercial gains that provide the audience an opportunity for escapism. This explains the success of a string of high-profile productions in recent years, from Mamma Mia, Chicago, Moulin Rouge and Phantom of the Opera (which were productions with some of the largest budgets seen in Pakistan) to Neil Simon comedies and Chekhovian classics. There has been very little effort to employ theatre as a tool for understanding and distilling the Pakistani experience, to create new work that sheds light on the different dimensions of the here and now.

Censorship and the Dramatic Performance Act

Behind this reluctance lies a myriad of myriad reasons. First, there is the fact of the Dramatic Performance Act of 1876, originally put in force by the then British government in colonial India to control dissent through the performing arts. It remains on the books unamended in Pakistan to this day, and requires that every performance be pre-screened, with the script submitted in advance for vetting by state authorities. It is extensively used for censoring material considered by the state to be “dangerous”: dissent against a military dictatorship (the Zia and Musharraf eras), against state policies or material that is too liberal in content or form (the Zia and Nawaz Sharif eras), or against stated state policy, for example the state of denial the country is in vis a vis its complicity in creating the hyra-headed monsters of extremism and the TTP in Pakistan.

Then, there is, quite simply, the fear of reprisals and violence. In the emotion-charged and lawless landscape of Pakistan, anyone who says too much or says the wrong thing is a target. The fear inspired in general by instances such as the murder of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer in January last year must not be underestimated. He was shot down in public by an individual in his police security detail for having called for a review of Pakistan’s infamous Blasphemy Laws. In 2009, armed gunmen stormed the Karachi Arts Council (the venue for most of the city’s theatre work, including that of NAPA) while the Shanakht (Identity) Festival was under way, because party loyalists felt that an artwork depicted Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto in a poor light. The festival was cancelled, and searches on the Internet now give me a number of sites where the image was originally uploaded but then removed. One blogger explained it in the following words: “The controversial image of the Shankht Festival has been taken down from this post due to repeated insistence of the organisers as they continue to receive threats from various sources, so in light of the seriousness of the issue I must condemn these instigators but take down these images for the sake of public safety.”

The fragmented nature of Pakistani society is such that confusion over issues of identity and ownership is rampant, and there is strong reluctance to engage with either the subject of religion or the religious terminology employed by the terrorists. Consider, for example, the ideological implications of the fact that on the one hand, the popular slogan with which the citizenry has been indoctrinated over six decades is that the country “was created in the name of Islam.” On the other hand, the terrorists that now bomb our shrines and mosques, send suicide bombers into schools and hospitals, indeed threaten the very existence of the state itself, call Islam their ideological underpinning and rally their men under the demand to reform the country into a state governed by Shariah, or Islamic, law.

The chasms that could appear, and the assumptions that people would have to challenge in their own minds, if debate opened up about what Islam really is, or how the Taliban interpret it to allow murder, are for many people just too frightening to contemplate.

Ownership of the war

All this is made all the worse by the confusion that exists at the top level of the military, political and civilian administrations about Pakistan’s position in the “war on terror” and the ownership of the war. Even as we lose civilians and soldiers to the fight, with military operations undertaken by the army having displaced several million people from the northwest parts of the country, the dominant discourse is that this is “not our war, but that of the US.” There is little doubt, for example, that the government tacitly gave the US permission to send unmanned drones into terrorist-infested areas to target the militants that our army has been unable to neutralise. Until US-Pak ties became strained in November last year, Pakistan had given that country a couple of airbases from which the drones were operated. Publicly, though, politicians—helped in large part by right-wing activists—maintain a posture of outrage against what they term America’s violation of this country’s sovereignty.

All these factors play a significant role in restricting ground for debate in terms of the issues that matter. Theatrical work that is in any way relevant to today’s situation and explorative of the current Pakistani condition is just one of the casualties. Turbulent times often produce the most meaningful theatre, but here unfortunately there is a serious dearth of people with the academic and technical backgrounds to create new scripts and stories that refer to the country’s current realities. At NAPA, we have been able to make some such attempts, and they have been received well by the audience. But far more needs to be done.

That is not to say that the bleakness is uniform. As far as theatre for the elite goes, NAPA has been successful in reviving audience interest. So has the work of some experienced directors and producers, including Nida Butt in Karachi and Shah Sharabeel in Lahore, that have made re-creations of international musicals their forte. Their relatively big-budget productions include Bombay Dreams (Sharahbeel) andChicago (Butt), with the latter also doing the original Karachi, the Musical. Such productions are popular not just because of the scripts but, in my view, because they provide a measure of escape to a class of people that can afford high ticket prices (and therefore demands spectacle) and is also somewhat removed from the poverty, crime and desperation that have the larger part of the citizenry in their grip.

Theatre for activism

On the other side of the coin, though, are the instances where theatre is being used for activism. The most prominent of these is the Theatre of the Oppressed-inspired Interactive Resource Centre (IRC), which was formed at the turn of the millennium by Mohammed Waseem. Wanting to “explore new avenues of community dialogue and mobilisation,” Waseem developed what he refers to as “forum theatre”: in the place of a script or actors, community members act out an everyday issue—underage marriage, perhaps, or domestic abuse. Different people take turns playing the same role, taking the story where they think it should go, thus producing varied outcomes. This demonstrates how issues can be resolved through dialogue in multiple ways. The IRC has, over the years, trained over 150 groups and facilitated thousands of such society-changing performances across the urban and rural landscapes.

It would seem, then, that the curtains are not about to close on Pakistani theatre just yet. Times may be difficult, but as the seasoned professionals who rode out the Zia regime point out, they have been difficult before. Those in the field here are doing what they can to keep the show going.


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[1] Zain Ahmed has a BFA in theatre from York University, Canada. He currently lectures at NAPA and is the artistic director of the NAPA Repertory Theatre. Hajrah Mumtaz is a columnist and assistant editor for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English-language daily newspaper. Her writing focuses on media and culture.

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Theatre in a Time of War