Pioneer performer

July 4, 2021

Khurshid Shahid started her career in radio plays and then moved onto theatre and TV

Pioneer performer

Khurshid Shahid, who passed away on June 27, was a pioneer of sorts: she was one of the first women to act on stage in the early years of Pakistan.

She grew up in Delhi where she was exposed to a relatively more open environment. While a student there, she participated in a radio programme. After moving to Pakistan, she became one of the few females who took part in radio programmes, both in radio plays and as a singer. However, when the fledgling theatre industry started to get its act together, she was there to be cast in the leading roles in her bid to establish a theatre tradition in Lahore.

Women were discouraged from acting in stage plays. We know that in the Parsi Theatre, which was hugely popular and a commercial success, the female roles were done by men. It was a tradition shared with many vibrant theatres round the world including England. Men played the roles of women as women were either not willing to be seen on stage or the entire enterprise was seen to be uncertain, entailing plenty of hardship in terms of travel and living conditions.

The trend continued all over the world and it was only in early 20th Century that some of the women agreed to be cast in radio plays because their faces could not be seen. Some adopted pseudonyms and all their lives were recognised by those and not their given names.

In Lahore, early attempts to revive or initiate theatre had been at the Alhamra. However, only a few plays could be staged. When Faiz Ahmed Faiz became secretary of the Arts Council, theatrical activity picked up in an organised fashion. Some of the first plays that set the standard for theatrical productions were staged then. At one of the sets was Khurshid Shahid, who played the female lead role and showed the women of this society, hemmed in by conventional values discouraging them from participating in public life, that another avenue was open to them to utilise their talents. Her performance in Sayee, an adaptation of Hamilton’s Gaslight, is still remembered.

In the absence of a tradition of staging plays, other than Parsi theatre and college plays, the stage plays seemed to have been a continuation of the radio plays that were seen as being of a certain artistic merit. Many of the front-rank writers were cajoled into writing for the radio by Patras Bokhari, and a whole new genre came into existence which was different from the larger-than-life thespian sensibility expressed in the Parsi theatre with shades of realism. Help was sought from the plays that were accepted as classics in the contemporary European tradition, especially of the 20th Century, and a liberal adaptation of the plays assumed its own tone, tenor and justification. A similar tradition was carried over to the new plays that were staged and continued to infiltrate further into the establishment of the TV plays in Pakistan.

It is difficult to recall the names of the women who appeared on stage in those days – Promilla Thomas was one acting in college plays. At the Government College Dramatics Club, where women students were discouraged from acting on stage by their families, Promilla Thomas did so as she was not subject to demands of Muslim middle class respectability. Then, there was Yasmin Imtiaz, later Yasmeen Tahir, who was able to do so because she was the daughter of Imtiaz Ali Taj, who also broke many rules to be a playwright, screen play writer, radio voice and a short story writer, continuing with his passion from his exposure during the Government College Dramatics Club days with Patras and Sondhi. One comes across a few names in those days of women appearing on stage in amateur forays like Safia Dean, Fawzi Zareen, Ishrat Ghani, Nudrat Altaf, Begum Parveen Meena Daud, Ruqia Hasan, Zakia Hasan and Nuzhat. Mehr Nigar Aziz lasted the longest as a playwright, director and impresario.

Some encouragement was feted out by the sudden appearance of Sigrid Kahle, the wife of a Swedish diplomat hugely interested in theatre. Her appearance as an actress and theatre person showed many the way. Alyz Faiz always encouraged women and her own daughter, Salima Faiz (later Salima Hashmi), to act in Alhamra plays amidst societal opposition.

Khurshid Shahid carried her early tips from the radio. She retained the poise and delivery in chaste language that was very difficult to keep up with and was stressed upon greatly by the earlier radio play pioneers.

In the early days of television, when the rules of TV acting were in their formation, Khurshid Shahid took the plunge and helped in establishing the status of teleplays. She was associated with the medium for the larger part of her life because the avenue afforded great creative freedom. She played some memorable roles on television. The actors of later generations benefited from the trials and tribulations of the earlier set of actors.

She also sang but could not continue when a rather weird policy was adopted by radio requiring one to choose between the vocations. She then had to discard singing for her first love, acting. She became very close to Roshan Ara Begum and strummed the tanpura when the latter performed. She also had the privilege of spending months at the diva’s rural retreat in Lala Musa and it would not be wrong to say that from among the diva’s urban friends or fans, she was the only one who was exposed to that side of Roshan Ara Begum’s life. There was a total duality in the life of Roshan Ara Begum’s urban existence and her rural one. Khurshid Shahid, throughout her life, lived for her profession and may have sacrificed much. Ordinary women just cannot even think of such sacrifices.

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

Pioneer performer