Thirty years of Ajoka

Formed during Zia ul Haq’s regime as a symbol of protest and liberal values, the group’s plays remain pertinent even today

Thirty years of Ajoka

Lahore’s spring had come to an end when the Ajoka’s theatre festival brought back the memory of it in early summer -- to be precise from the May 10th to 17th. It was 30 years ago in May 1984 that Ajoka started in a house in Lahore. Their first play was Jaloos and the festival this time presented seven very popular plays. This is not all the group has to offer, for Ajoka has more plays than it could present in a single festival even if it stretched over a whole week.

Let me begin by confessing that I am not a drama critic nor is this an attempt to assess the artistic aspects of the plays performed by Ajoka on its anniversary. Indeed, if Ajoka was an ordinary theatre group I would probably not be writing about it as I do not understand the art of theatre. I am writing about it because Ajoka represents an attempt to support liberal-humanist values, which are being marginalised and banned in Pakistan, in a comprehensible and enjoyable form to ordinary people in the languages they understand i.e. Punjabi, Saraiki and Urdu.

Ajoka -- which means ‘aajka’ (of today; contemporary) -- was conceived in the darkness of Zia ul Haq’s authoritarian rule. Its main purpose was to counter the darkness which had descended upon society. To conceive of such a theatre for social change required moral courage of a high order which Madiha Gauhar, the manager of the theatre, has. And the person who wrote the plays, Shahid Nadeem, shared this dream of social change and both had the artistic talent to convert the dream of social change into entertainment and art.

Later Shahid Nadeem published his plays in a book entitled Selected Plays which was published by the Oxford University Press in 2008. The book has three of his most famous plays: Teesri Dastak (the third knock), Barri (acquittal), Aik thee Nani (once there was a maternal grandmother), Kala Meda Bhes (My black dress for deception), Dukhini (woman of sorrows), Bulha (On the sufi saint and Punjabi poet Bulleh Shah whose real name was Abdullah Shah), Burqavaganza (Veiling from head to toe of a whole society).

Ajoka theatre serves the function of being a tool of education for the masses. It is a heuristic device to disseminate liberal-humanist values.

Shahid Nadeem is one of those rare people who genuinely stand against authoritarian rule instead of just talking against it. He tells us that as early as 1969 he was protesting against Ayub Khan’s rule and he must have done it seriously since he was thrown out of Punjab University and tried by military courts. This must have been a traumatic experience but he tells it to us as if it was a breeze, not worth lamenting about -- that he ‘was imprisoned a couple of times’ (p. xxvi).

Such understatement requires much modesty, fortitude and moral courage. Obviously, anyone who gives such heterodox messages as he gives in his plays would have to possess great qualities of character.

The person who gave the plays a life -- an existence on the stage and in people’s consciousness -- is Madeeha Gauhar. She comes from a talented family; her mother, Khadeeja Gauhar, was an intellectual and activist in her own right. It was Madeeha who had the courage to start Ajoka theatre. And it is she who sustains it till date. How she manages it, since many people watch the play free of cost, must be a feat by itself as she must be running after the authorities who book the hall, the logistics and constantly finding of the right kind of performers.

The plays carry the basic message of humanitarianism and tolerance which had started disappearing from society because of the policies of Zia ul Haq and are almost absent today. There are some plays which have themes that predate Zia ul Haq. Among the plays which are my own favourite is Kari. The idea of honour as conceived by tribes inhabiting the Indo-Gangetic Valley existed even before the advent of Islam and is still responsible for many deaths of young women and also some men in our society.

The play Kari is case in point. In this play, performed in Saraiki, a youth and a girl are in love and meet each other. One day the body of a young man is found near the village. This dead body is of a man is from a rival tribe and he has been killed by a young man of the village. Since the murder would be avenged and the police could take away the killer, the elders of the village decide to make it appear an ‘honour’ killing. For this they have to kill a girl from their own village to imply that the murdered young man had come to meet her and the guilty couple was murdered according to the norms of the villagers which both sides respect. With this strategy in mind the men subject the women to an inquisition and finally pin the guilt on to the girl who is shown meeting her lover in the first scene. She is the one who will be killed. However, the other women help her to elope with her lover.

A new play which was only written in 2012 was Kaun hae ye Gustakh (who is this impertinent one?). It is based on the Urdu short story writer Saadat Hasan Manto who was charged with obscenity in the 1950s for his original short stories like Thanda Gosht (cold meat) and Khol Do (open up).

The play encompasses the artist’s life including his migration from India to Lahore and then his attempts to survive as a person and an artist while succumbing to alcoholism. As Manto and his values, including the facts that many Muslims and Hindus were personal friends and got on very well with each other, are no longer a part of the official narrative, this play was a forceful corrective to our narrow minded prejudices which pass for patriotism.

Another perennial favourite which featured in the week of celebration was Bullah. The play is on various aspects of the life of Abdullah Shah (1680-1748) and is as relevant today as the saint himself was in the latter part of Mughal rule. The themes of priestly narrow-mindedness and the eclectic beliefs of mystic saints are very much a part of the story of the experience of the spiritual in contemporary Pakistan.

Another theme of the play is egalitarianism. Bulleh Shah was a Syed and his spiritual mentor Shah Inayat was an Arain considered a lower caste compared to a Syed. Bulleh Shah’s poem proclaiming that he was no higher than his mentor is a crucial point in the drama.

The play recreates the legend of Bulleh Shah and the sufis who gave lessons in tolerance and forbearance in Punjab. That is why the Sikhs, otherwise inimical to Mughal power which had treated them cruelly, were respectful towards sufis like Mian Mir.

For lack of space I will not comment on all the plays put during the one week of celebration. However, there is one which deserves critique. This is Mera rang de Basanti Chola’ (dye my robe yellow, the colour of the season). This play is about Bhagat Singh’s hanging on March 23, 1931. The problem is that, in my view, Bhagat Singh chose terrorism as a method of protest against the British occupiers of India. The same methods were chosen to annul the partition of Bengal and then by some of the extreme leftist parties in India. Since they were anti-British, Indian and Pakistani nationalists approve of them whereas they do not approve of such methods when used by other politically oriented activists. In my view Bhagat Singh’s methods must be condemned in principle in the same way as other terrorists are.

The play, however, glorifies the defiance of Bhagat Singh which leaves us no logical ground for condemning the defiance of other terrorists. This, however, is a personal view and does not detract from the inspirational value of the play. Indeed, I am sure most people will not agree with me in this matter.

To sum up, Ajoka theatre serves the function of being a tool of education for the masses. It is a heuristic device to disseminate liberal-humanist values. For those who want to enjoy more plays than the week long celebration which is the focus of this article, I would recommend Shahid Nadeem’s book to the discriminating reader.

Thirty years of Ajoka