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Playing Kabir credibly

Ajoka Theatre’s recent production was feel-good without the anguishing rattle of a preacher

Playing Kabir credibly

‘Kabira Khara Bazaar Mein’ was another play based on the life of a person who had existed in history. Ajoka has presented many plays based on the lives of such people — Bulleh Shah, Dara Shikoh, Bhagat Singh and it appears that these historical personages reinforce the message the group has been advancing in their plays.

But a play — unless a docudrama — is not history, nor is it journalism, for the character even if it exists in history is not the character in the play. This is because the play has to be driven by its own aesthetic requirement which may not necessarily follow events in history or what has come down to us as such. The subjective anguish of the character never surface it is never the subject of the discipline of history but in literature or art, it is less about the superficial unfolding of events and more about the inner conflict of a character or conflicts between characters that form the real stuff of the work.

Usually plays or novels written on characters that have actually existed in history are meant to give credibility. It is to counter the perception which many in the street have that fiction is lesser than what actually exists. Many have marketed their films, plays and novels on characters and events that actually existed as an advertisement based on a real life event. It could be marketing or an advertising gimmick because literature and art is not based on the higher truth. Whether the character actually existed in real life or the events took place have no actual relevance to the play or the novel because what is being arrived at is the poetic truth and not truth built on the veracity of facts.

These days in particular when a play, novel or a film is made on an event or a character, the main thrust of criticism is whether the thing is truthful to the events as happened. However, any semblance of veracity is all fortuitous because the only reality is the play or the film and how the characters and the events work out in the interplay of both. The rest is not needed or is superfluous because one is neither judging a documentary nor a work of social science. The entire criticism about the authenticity of facts too appears to get the audiences involved in a comparison game of what really happened and what did not. And it may only be done to create a controversy for greater publicity.

Very little is known about the character of Kabir and his poetry; though much mediated both have come down to us primarily through the oral tradition.

Some characters do become legendary and the stuff of art and literature like King Arthur, Gilgamesh, Afrasiyab, Nausherwan-e-Aadil etc. Much has been written and sung about them in the cultures of various societies and they appear every now and then to be the main character of a film, a play or another work of fiction. Very little is known about the character of Kabir and his poetry; though much mediated both have come down to us primarily through the oral tradition. The small Muslim elite ruling over a teeming majority in due course had to arrive at some synthesis and it did through the Sufis and the bhagats.

Kabir was a poet and must have chanted his verses like with many from those times — Nanak, Baba Fareed, Shah Hussain, and Meera. The word and the note have coexisted in tradition and chanting with the roving minstrels is still a living tradition. Poems /verses like shabds, ashloks, kirtans, dohas, and bolis were meant to be chanted or sung probably because society being largely illiterate at the time was more attuned to oral communication.

The play had all the ingredients of a production that has come to characterise parallel theatre. It had music, dance and ample use of colourful cloth. These amorphous and plentiful yards of cloth became a prop at one time and part of the set at another. Drawing from the traditions of folk displays, the theatre in India, initially, and then in Pakistan has got into this stock production technique, the wherewithal of song, dance and ample use of cloth; which seems to have come out of a production manual.

The production was full of colour and movement but did not become distractive for its excessiveness because the play was not very long. It could hold the attention of the audience as it moved swiftly to its conclusion. There was no real conflict in the play, or it did not develop enough as such — if there was any it was because of Kabir whose understanding of love transcended religious and caste boundaries, and the case in the court of Emperor Sikander Lodhi — for him being irreverent to the rites and rituals of both main religions, Hindus and Muslims — happened to be a summary trial that led to summary acquittal. It was wound up swiftly in favour of Kabir who then lived a full life and after death was prized by both religious communities.

The play made you feel good and did not have the anguishing rattle of the preacher of tolerance and forgiveness being taken to the gallows.

Bhisham Sahni who wrote the play is primarily known to the general public because of his serial ‘Tamas’ that was based on his novel about the violence and social disruption of partition and how it upturned the social fabric of the Punjabi society. The director, Kewal Dhaliwal, the founder of the Punjab Manch Rangmanch, is no stranger to theatre audiences in Pakistan. He was part of the team that organised Panj Pani Theatre Festivals in Lahore and Amritsar and has also directed many plays, one being Piro Preman that was staged in Lahore.

The role of Kabir was played by Usman Zia with the verve that was due of the character while others in the cast included Nayab Faiza, Samina Butt, Fahad Hashmi, Nabeel Butt and Sohail Tariq. The musicians and singers were Kamran Khokhar, Anam Zaheer, Adnan John, Sunil Sajan, Tazeen John, Naeem Ijaz, Imran Mull, and Imran Joseph.

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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