A minimalist performance

March 12, 2023

DRF’s Saanjhi Kahaniyan: Diverse Experiences of Individuals Online turned out to be a pared-down performance, with an almost bare stage set created within a room. But the stories they told were compelling

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Lahore is known for its rich culture and heritage. It also boasts a glorious history of arts and literature. Sadly, however, today the city has been reduced to a mere shadow of its former self.

But all may not be lost yet. There are artists as well as progressive people who are making sincere efforts to restore the city’s link to its roots. This is where drama and theatre come in to create awareness among the general public with respect to the many issues plaguing our city.

Recently, I was invited to a theatre performance at Ali Institute organised by the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF). Titled Saanjhi Kahaniyan: Diverse Experiences of Individuals Online, the short plays were based on true stories. These were scripted by Seerat Khan and directed by Sohail Allah Ditta (Satranga Theatre). The topics that the plays touched were digital security and its impact on everyday lives.

The last time I had gone to a theatre was Olomopolo’s Jhanjar Di Paawaan Jhankaar in 2018. It was a riveting three-actor play. I went to Ali Institute expecting something similar. But what I saw here was a pared down performance — an almost bare stage set created within a room space, and a couple of chairs to be occupied by the audience. It was like a blank canvas waiting to be painted over by the artists.

I was told that the DRF runs a helpline to provide digital security. In 2022, they heard 68 cases from vulnerable communities. These included the differently-abled, ethnic minorities, gender minorities and religious minorities. The distribution of gender alone was 1,403 cases from women, 1,131 cases from men and 19 cases from transgender community.

The stories for the performance were picked from the cases that had been reported on the DRF helpline. These are significant stories in that they highlight the experiences of vulnerable individuals and groups in online spaces in Pakistan. Women, religious minorities and transgender people are the most vulnerable in online spaces.

The first story presented was about a Hindu boy who posts a tweet on politics.Soon afterwards, he starts receiving threats and does not know how to deal with them. He is later approached by a friend who explains digital security and legal aspects of the mater to him and refers him to the FIA. The issue is sorted out after a complaint is lodged with the concerned authorities.

The second story revolved around a girl named Laila who was fond of making videos on TikTok. She was also getting threats. Some of her pictures had been edited/morphed and shared on social media to blackmail her. At this point, a friend told Laila about the cybercrime wing. That’s when she found the courage to seek justice.

Both the stories were told simply, and didn’t seek to intellectualise or complicate the issue. The actors performed their parts well too. The language used was not only easy to understand but also appropriate. No fancy costumes or props were used; the entire focus of the night’s performances was on the message.

It was a small room, accommodating no more than 50 people. Mics weren’t needed, even as tabla played in the background in some key scenes.

After the performance, I had a quick word with the director. He said that Satranga Theatre had been working to promote culture and literature through street theatre since 2006. He also spoke of taking up issues as diverse as climate change and domestic abuse. A play on digital security “was a different experience altogether,” he said, “as it required knowledge of legal terms. We had to make sure the clauses mentioned were correct.”

Seerat Khan, the writer of the play, said that this was her first script for a theatre play. She said she believed that drama was an effective instrument for advocacy. “As a digital rights enthusiast, I wouldn’t say that social media campaigns aren’t important, but while they are more about reaching the people, I feel drama is more personal and has more of a human touch,” she said.

“As an activist, I believe in the motto that personal is political. While social media campaigns also have a certain personal element,drama is always more thought-provoking than any other form of literature or performing arts.”

The writer is a freelance journalist



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