The accidental playwright

January 31, 2021

Sarmad Sehbai’s Aarhay Terchay Aainay explores his journey of becoming an acclaimed playwright

The short introduction that Sarmad Sehbai wrote at the beginning of his book Aarhay Terchay Aainay revealed that it was out of accident that he became a playwright. Actually, he had held only poetry to be the expression of high seriousness. However, he was forced into writing a play for television because the original playwright had failed to meet the deadline. The producer, Yawar Hayat, asked him to fill in the slot. It was a ‘do or die’ situation because transmission then used to be live and it was inconceivable to think of leaving a slot vacant. Otherwise, they all would have lost jobs. So, it was in great urgency that he wrote the play Lamp Post that was televised live under the direction of Yawar Hayat.

The teleplay was generally liked and discussed more because of the unfamiliar treatment and the script being not the stereotypical realism made for television or radio. The teleplays and broadcasts had become used to fitting the mould that was understandable and easy to gulp down. Being state-run, the do’s and don’ts of what was to be aired had to be kept foremost in the mind. If certain things had to be said they were to be said not in the face but indirectly. The writers and artists working under censorship and oppressive regimes found their outlets. At times, they got caught, but at times they succeeded in escaping the brutally scrutinising gaze of the omniscient censorship.

The accidental exposure opened new doors for Sarmad Sehbai as he got down to studying the form of drama. After a rigorous study tour, the realisation dawned on him that drama was no more or less than poetry – that the most overwhelming questions could be addressed and the most sophisticated feelings expressed through it. This emboldened him to venture forth into this medium which was seen to be less important in the literary and artistic tradition of the subcontinent.

For a number of reasons, drama was looked down upon: Iqbal called it contrary to the integrating view as propounded through khudi, and others linked it more to entertainment and frivolity than high art or literature. The bias which the Muslim civilisation had against the performing arts also bit into the sour bread of the hierarchical structure on how society views its achievements. However, being exposed to English and European tradition, Sarmad Sehbai pushed the boundaries and in the process discovered in himself the value of expression through a number of voices. The point of the multiplicity of meaning or views appeared to be greater than the desire to express a resolved single narrative. The greatness of Shakespeare as the ultimate thespian started to sink in, liberating him as well from being a poet only.

He was fortunate to find his teachers Professors Rafiq Mehmood and Aziz Butt holding his hand and his junior contemporaries Usman Peerzada, Imran Aslam and Salman Shahid rushing in with passionate commitment and talent to escape yet another spectacle of a failed venture. This enthusiasm generated enough energy to provide fuel for the requisite momentum to place Sehbai as the foremost playwright of the age.

The first success at television reinforced Sehbai’s idea of what a modern play was supposed to be. Being increasingly familiar with the various experiments to do away with the well-made play, Sehbai departed from the realistic form of theatre and wrote more in the avant garde manner. However, with the passage of time, he settled down to a mid-way mark where the plays were neither too realistic nor so experimental as to challenge the viewers or audience into believing what they had viewed and understood. The audience did not have to rack their brains to find out what the play was about, perhaps necessitated by the fragmented experience that had started to characterise the life patterns and the way it was being felt in the post- WW II world. However, at the same time, he was also exposed to various playwrights who were influenced by Marxism, and who sought redemption in reorganising society and looked beyond the absurdist point of view. It was actually the belief in society’s finding its own level by creating an order that was not inequitable that Sehbai was able to bring back the familiarity between the audience and the playwright.

Dark Room was obviously an experimental play that did away with the conventional plot. So, when it was directed by Shoaib Hashmi in the manner of its sensibility, it carried off many of an award. The unconventional pattern continued but with more rounded edges in Phanday where the young heroine was seen fighting off the conventional roles assigned to women. The young generation was seeing little worth in the routinised life, seeking an escape from the conventions that they were supposed to follow. But the first play that put Sarmad on the map of Pakistani playwrights was Tau Kaun – a Punjabi play that also challenged the conventional belief system and made people condition their life’s responses accordingly. The plays lifted the thick curtain from exploitation and the inequity embedded in the system itself perpetrated in the name of religion sanctioned ibham – ambiguity.

That made Sehbai resort to his own tradition and discover the symbolic layers embedded in our classical literature. The quasi-mythological style was a means to escape definiteness of realism and to seek deeper layers of experience that only lent itself to one dimension of reality and understanding. The multilayered experiential reality appealed to the sensibility that Sehbai aspired to express.

Sehbai’s belief in the society redeeming itself by seeking to explore answers has kept him relevant to the debate and the forms of contemporary times. In an age that has seen so many ups and downs, Sehbai’s quest has been steady and unflinching. He has remained faithful to his form of expression and has shown rare commitment to his craft as a playwright. The plays in the volume under review include: Hash, Ashraful Makhlooqaat, Phanday, Aik Muazzaz Shehri Ki Namaze Janaza, Dark Room, Auss Gali Na Jaween, Tota Rama, Tau Kaun and Panjwan Chiragh.

Aarhay Terchay Aainay

Author: Sarmad Sehbai

Publisher: Gurmani Cenrtre for

Languages and Literature

Price: Rs 1,500

Pages: 532

The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore

Sarmad Sehbai’s: The accidental playwright