Patras Bokhari’s contribution to theatre is often placed on the backburner and not fully appreciated
atras Bokhari is known for his contribution as a writer of Patras Kay Mazameen as well as the work that he did in the establishment of the All India Radio. He is also known as an educationist and an international diplomat for his service at the United Nations, both as a Pakistan’s representative and then as a diplomat who served the United Nations. He died with his boots on and was buried in the United States in 1958.
It is said that Bokhari spoke better than he wrote and his command of the English language was lauded as he lectured the literature students at the Government College, Lahore. What was not appreciated in full measure was his contribution to theatre. Actually, it was him and Imtiaz Ali Taj who put the college theatre on the front page and made it an entity itself as well as one that served as the nursery of theatre and performing arts talent in the sub-continent.
At Government College there was no ambivalence about the Dramatic Club, unlike Aligarh where it was mired in controversy because many stressed that it was contrary to their faith and hence discouraged. Aligarh failed to set up the drama society unlike the Government College where Government College Dramatic Club became the most sought after and talked about activity of the college. The annual play was considered the star event of the year, and so valued was it, that the city elite were invited to be its audience. The elite usually meant those in the government, the literati and a few intellectuals bearing the colonial stamp.
It was a social occasion as well, because in the high British tradition, people came dressed up to see the performance. The four-day event, thus, was the showpiece of the institution and, thus, was brandished as such. The missionary colleges, too, promoted their drama societies but it had been said that the Government College could not be surpassed.
It is said that the Dramatic Club started in the 1880s. Among the early local enthusiasts was one Nur Ellahi who as very active in displaying his flair for thespian arts. The students, too, were very welcoming in their initiation. But it had to wait for a few years before Patras Bokhari lit up the stage and made it as valuable or useful as debating or poetry recitals. People in Lahore waited for the annual play to show off their fineries and be counted and seen on the occasion.
Since Patras was there at the very top of the radio administration, his understanding of the theatre guided him in the making of the radio play. The great nexus with literature was the backbone of the enterprise and the so called tradition of high culture was maintained in the establishment of the radio play.
Then there was popular theatre in the sub-continent; most of it a rehash of the European plays that had become the standard repertoire of the thespian activity across the landscape. The adaptations, very liberal ones, were performed in a number of languages across the societal and cultural divide. Starting from the ports and warehouses this proscenium theatre took over the performing arts activity with generous input of music, especially the song. The theatre, thus, was quite indigenised. It was basically improvisational, allowing the audience to slake their thirst for live music as well. The songs/ ghazals were sung on request as the play lasted the entire night allowing people to stay till the crack of dawn.
The college theatre was staid in comparison and usually stuck to the script. The allowance for improvisation was extremely limited, the directors were mostly in charge not letting the actors encroach on their space. Often the texts taught in the courses became the plays to be performed. The audiences were, thus, more informed of the academic complexities and theories than the audience in the public sphere who came to see the play for its own sake and not the buzz surrounding it.
This could never be a box office success but when the radio was set up it provided the raw material for the radio play. The progeny of the popular play was nourished and bred by the cinema. Since Patras was there at the very top of the radio administration, his understanding of the theatre guided the making of the radio play. The great nexus with literature was the backbone of the enterprise and the so-called tradition of high culture was maintained in the establishment of the radio play. It set a standard where the unities were followed more religiously and the adlibbing reduced to the minimum. The emphasis was on delivery and the application of the norms of dramaturgy.
This helped the theatre outside the radio as well and the plays were staged that did not cater too much to the audience’s taste and maintained their standard and quality. Thus two streams of theatre became distinct and the demarcation hardened. The same divide has ruled theatre ever since in the sub-continent.
The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore