The play Raja Poras by Azad Theatre at Lahore’s Alhamra last week was staged in the tradition of dastaan goi, one of the major forms of dramatic enactments in this part of the world.
Theatre, or drama as we know it conventionally, was in decline since the heydays of the Sanskrit Theatre which ended around the 7th century. The Muslim rulers in the subsequent centuries did not really encourage theatre. It only received a fillip with the growing European influence in the various seaports of the subcontinent while a lesser form, if it may be labelled so, of dramatic enactment of tales, legends, historical personages and religious rituals gained currency.
Dastaan goi was — and is — a continuation of that tradition. It had a very solid grounding in folk culture of the region and a mixture of dramatic enactments, poetical outbursts and musical renditions have formed the medley of its performance. It used to be an all-night affair with people gathering informally around one or a number of narrators, relishing the stories which were not always original but part of the repertoire of folk tales known to all. This commonality of sharing and knowing something beforehand bound the people together culturally.
The play, or the episode, that was chosen by Azad Theatre was the character of Raja Porus, a legendary king from this land who fought Alexander the Great. There have been varying versions about the fate of the battle that was fought on the banks of River Jhelum and to many Raja Porus was the first rival who slowed down the mighty conquerors’ sweep. Various tales about heroism and bravery too form a complex body of legends and anecdotes that make the bedrock of reconstructed history. Most of all, these versions had come down orally from one generation to the next. And in this day and age when the oral traditions are disappearing due to other means of communication, very few remain which have not been conditioned by the lure of modernity.
But there may be pockets and people who hold on to some older versions. One such person in the Chiniot area, Kamaluddin the bard, is well-versed in this oral tradition. Most of the tales that he remembers and narrates are in the Lehnda dialect, the dominant strain in Punjabi literature.
Saeed Bhutta, a Punjabi scholar, has been researching and putting in printed form the vast treasure trove of oral tales, histories, anecdotes and snippets. Kamal Kahani, a collection of stories from Punjab, especially the Saandal Bar and Kidana Bar areas took over 16 years to compile.
In 1993, when Bhutta’s first Punjabi story was published in The Ravi, Raja Porus Di Kahani, it got tremendous applause from everyone. From then onwards, he researched and collected stories from different, traditional storytellers and has transcribed them verbatim so that the beauty and authenticity of the story remains intact.
Basing the play on Kamal Kahani, Azad Theatre also must have chosen this character because the people who lived here were — and are — not considered heroes for the population in general, who have displayed a bias for foreign invaders. Since most of the invaders were victorious, the local people find greater solace in being with the conquerors than the conquest. There have been repeated calls to redress this skewed understanding of our past and our position in this part of the world — and Azad Theatre, too, seems to have joined in the enterprise.
It may be an artistic correction of history in a language which the Punjabis have shunned in favour of other languages. From time to time, Punjabis suffer this pang of guilt about abandoning their mother tongue and culture and it resurfaces in some gesture of correction and rectification.
Oral tradition is not always about authenticity. It is more about adding another voice, another tone to the singleness of the narrative. It, thus, yields to a plural and a more wholesome understanding of the past.
At the same time, oral rendition is pliant to the demands of dramaturgy and at times the performers deviate from the text driven by the intense desire to catch the attention of the audience. The desire to seek an instant response from the audience is considered a great virtue by the actors and it is possible that the dramatic callings win over the veracity of the text. This is a peril that lies embedded in the oral tradition. And, it should be viewed as a performance and not as pure academic historical discourse.
The two main persons who have carried the burden of Azad Theatre since it was formed a few years ago were quite visible in this production. Malik Aslam directed the play and Sarfraz Ansari played the main narrator. In the traditional format, it is usually one narrator who performs the entire dramatic enactments but there is no dogmatic adherence about the number. It can be more than one and in this play the second narrator was played by Usman Zia.
The stage was a simple enactment of a village scene under the stump of a tree, two people sitting on a charpoy with a few musicians straddled by the side. All these were performers to listeners and viewers who were also gathered there on the floor in anticipation of the unfolding events and narrative.
The vocal abilities of Sarfraz Ansari came to good use as he often broke into singing compositions on the well known raags and bandishes of lok dastaans in particular and thus added more variety to the performance and also a greater level of evocation. As it is singing and narration are two sides of the coin of performance and they have been twin brothers in the history of the subcontinent’s performance tradition.
This simple performance was probably meant to redress the way we treat our past and particularly our heroes who spring from the soil.