The journey of theatre

October 10, 2021

The scripts for folk plays as well as the Parsi theatre plays were not meant to be published

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The death of Umar Shariff and the birth anniversary of Imtiaz Ali Taj can be an occasion to take a look at our theatre as it has evolved over time.

If one goes looking for the most popular plays of Umar Shariff like Bakra Qistoan Par and Buddha Ghar Pe Hai that ran for weeks, months and years, one will hardly find their scripts at bookshops. This can be a departure from, say, the Western tradition, where staged plays have been published and sold across the cultural divide to a people wanting to read them as possible works of literature. The greatest playwright in their tradition has also been the greatest literary figure: Shakespeare’s adulation across the class divide has kept the written words staged like the scripts firmly as part of literature as well. Unfortunately, this has not been the case here as theatre scripts have hardly had the same literary status as, say, the short story and the novel.

The scripts for folk plays as well as the Parsi theatre plays were not meant to be published. These may have been used as working drafts for the directors and actors. As it were, some of the actors were not literate. They memorised the script and acted and delivered from memory. The munshis who scripted these plays were not placed on the same level as the poets and the early prose writers. They were dismissed as mere entertainers not fit to be discussed and written about. This dichotomy has persisted in our culture and people associated with film and theatre arts are not placed on the same level as the poets and short story writers. Some of the plays of Agha Hashr, the most popular of the Parsi theatre playwrights, were published, probably on a regular basis and could be reclaimed, but the number of plays performed was staggering and no one took the trouble to catalogue and preserve those scripts.

A similar divide has existed between ‘high theatre’ and ‘low theatre’ and many of the plays that were hugely popular may be dismissed by the higher society as being below par or vulgar. This divide or prejudice may not have served the performing arts well in our tradition, both in film and theatre, for a fluidity of boundaries makes for greater possibilities. Many of the top plays and works of the performing arts were initially criticised for a number of reasons, primarily being crude and unsophisticated, but were later accepted as works that merited consideration.

Imtiaz Ali Taj’s interest in the theatre must have led him to compile a history of our own theatrical tradition. He painstakingly collected the plays of many munshis and had these published when he was the moving spirit of Majlis-i-Taraqqi-i-Adab, Lahore, a state funded institution for the publication of classics. The original plan envisaged the publication of 100 plays in 30 volumes; only seven were published in his lifetime. The seminal work was carried forward by Viqaar Azeem and 13 volumes were eventually published along the roadmap drawn by Taj. The most informative aspect of the work is that in many cases the year and venue of production too was mentioned along with the name of the theatre company.

Umar Shariff was responsible for taking the theatre back to its basics –the connectivity between the happening on stage and the audience.

The plays of Seth Behram Ji Fridoon Ji Marzabaan, Narvaan Ji Meharvaan Ji Aaraam, Mehmood Mian Ronaq, Vinayak Parsaad Talib Banarsi, Hussaini Mian Zareef, Alif Khan Hubab, Kareemuddin Murad, Hafiz Muhammed Abdullah Fatehpuri, and many lesser playwrights like Syed Abbas Ali and Nazeer Beg, were collected. Having these published was one of Taj’s major contributions.

One basic reason for the scripts not being valued is that they do not honestly reflect what was said on stage. The word is only one medium of performance, the others in the theatre are action, movement and all these are interpreted differently by different actors and directors. However, the major reason why the dichotomy exists or has existed is because most of the plays have been so heavily censored and that the resultant script makes no sense. The actors and their directors were forced to adlib and therefore the theatre freed itself from the dictates of the script.

Most of the greatest names in our theatre have been greatly felicitated for their ability to improvise.

The leading figures of theatre in our country like Imtiaz Ali Taj, Rafi Peerzada, Hakeem Ahmed Shuja and slightly later Safdar Mir, Ishrat Rehmani and Khawaja Mueenuddin were aware of this historical divide and wanted to bridge it. The tragedy is that the divide continues even today. The plays thought to be good usually run with assistance for no more than a couple of weeks, while the theatre that supports itself or makes a profit runs for weeks. This has made the theatre a viable financial option rather than just being an activity that exists on dole.

Umar Shariff was responsible primarily for taking the theatre back to its basics –the connectivity between the happening on stage and the audience. The livewire act was brilliant by any standard and immortalised many including him. The ability to improvise and adlib and to strike an instant chord with the audience is the very meat of a live performance. Umar Shariff had a genius for it.

The research and publication of the thirteen volumes must have required great patience and dedication which was obviously demonstrated by Imtiaz Ali Taj and gives us an ample understanding of the kind of theatre that was so popular and was staged and produced by big companies with huge investments. Another such effort may be needed to publish the subsequent plays staged in our country.

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

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