Claire Pamment’s book delves deeper into the lives of these practitioners of humour and the cultural significance of their work
There is a growing and unsatiated appetite for the repartee and the double entendre. An ordinary conversation that is not peppered with wit and furthered by adlibbing is considered to be too dry and stale, failing to attract the right amount of attention for it has roots in our past and goes deeper than can be traced to its actual origins. It fulfills not one but many functions.
So the bhands have been part of the cultural landscape in this part of the world ever since it organised itself into rigid systems and structures. They have been taken for granted by the people here who expect them to be present on occasions like the births and marriages but do not spare a thought as to who they are and what they are supposed to do.
It was perhaps easier for an outsider to be struck by the oddity of the social performance on special occasions, and point it out as a very significant happening. Thus Claire Pamment was able to focus so much on this cultural phenomenon that she wrote a book on it. She is eminently qualified to have done so as she is assistant professor of World Theatre at the College of William and Mary. She has also been a Yale Institute of Sacred Music Worship and Arts fellow, and has taught at the various universities in Pakistan. Her articles on South Asian performance, censorship, burlesque, comedy, transgender have appeared in TDR, Comedy Studies and Theatre Journal. She is Performance Reviews Editor for Ecumenica as well.
Though theatre in India and Pakistan is presented and recognised separately, there are joint roots of performance modes that have only been severed. They speak openly of class and caste divide that compartmentalise Muslim and Hindu or elite and low-class performance realities. Humour has been a celebratory release, critique and a prod directed at the forces of class and power. The bhand emerged part jester, part wandering buffoon, an oral and a literary figure transcending status discriminations. He has been executing a dual function of being able to assert and negate, emerging as one who both praised and destroyed, who was absurd and wise, friend and foe.
By recognising the bhand’s ability to play on both sides of the hierarchical structure, he is liberated from the fixed identity to further explore the mobile aesthetic practices.
Though most of the cultural practices mostly in their oral forms have been part of the living tradition for generations here, these have not been documented let alone analysed as they should have been. Being part of the living tradition has been considered enough for it to survive and fill people’s life with joy or heightened emotion. The researchers thus find themselves in nearly a blind alley with very little written sources leading them directly to the work. The best option is really to tap at the very centre of the living tradition and to talk to the practitioners and others directly involved with it.
An honest attempt initially should be to understand the entire thing before offering or passing a judgment on it. This is exactly what Claire Pamment did. By almost passing her days and nights with the practitioners, she got to know the culture and the practices that bound the structure by experiencing the performance, by discussion, by holding interviews. Munir Hussain, a leading bhand (now dead) had been the focus of her work. She learnt about the practice and the craft of the entire performance from him and dedicated her work to his ability to execute it to almost perfection. It is thus a seminal work as nothing on the said subject has been attempted with any degree of seriousness.
She gave an analysis of the ranga- bhigla (straightman-clown pairing). She tapped into historical sources to show parallels between the Brahmin jesters of Sanskrit literature and the wise fool of Sufism, arguably two halves of the related phenomenon of South Asian Comic practice that has existed over time. And then she traced continuities from popular performance of the Punjabi Theatre to contemporary stand-up and political lampooning on the modern media; and thus, summed up the professional theatre of the country these days.
Professional Theatre, theatre that is economically viable and actually makes money and is financially solvent, has been a rarity in Pakistan. Only theatres in folk melas and urs were supposed to make money; the rest were all propped up by subsidies for survival.
Initially, it were the arts councils that supported urban theatre influenced by western thespian traditions and later it were the non-government organisations that aided theatre financially if they staged plays that furthered the cause for which they were founded and accepted foreign aid for the said purpose. In the last three decades, most of the alternative theatre or so-called meaningful theatre, though not all but greater portion of it, has been funded by various non-governmental organisations.
It is only the theatre that is called professional in other words that has challenged the dominant cultural narrative where people actually buy tickets at the box office and then enjoy the show. Women and particularly dancers that dominate these shows or plays too fall in the same category.
There is much pressure to morally sober up the act and yet in these theatres the same values of propriety are flouted as just sanctimonious empty gestures. These tickets are not cheap, actually quite expensive given the state of the economy but it is rare that seats are found empty in these shows. It is a critique and an explanation of what is happening, played out evening after evening and it has spilled over to the national television networks, where similar style and content, basically lashed around with repartees are televised. These must be enjoyed by the viewers all over the country, urban and rural, in the same manner as the bhands of yore.