Peace podium: Pakistan troupe performs to packed house

January 18th, 2009 - 4:13 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Jan 18 (IANS) Cross-border cultural ties jumped the terror bar as Pakistan based Ajoka Theatre performed its “Hotel Mohenjodaro” to a packed appreciative audience during the 11th Bharat Rangmahotsav theatre festival in the national capital - belying speculation that the group might not come after all.The lobby at the LTG Auditorium in the National School of Drama here was a picture of bonhomie and relief Friday evening after “Hotel Mohenjodaro”, an adaptation of a short story titled “Dhanak” by one of Pakistan’s finest writers Ghulam Abbas, was staged.

It was a last-minute change after the play “Glad Tidings” was cancelled in the course of the festival.

And the audience, subjected to a week of rumours and speculation by the media that the Ajoka Theatre would not be allowed to come to India, was relieved when the play was staged.

“It was a fantastic play. I did not see it in Lahore when I was there early this year. The story is a telling comment on the dual face of extremism in Pakistan - and undoubtedly funny,” Zorawar Ali, a cloth merchant from the old city of Chandni Chowk, told IANS. He had come with his parents to catch the play that his father had seen last year.

The Urdu play, Ajoka’s latest production adapted by master wordsmith Shahid Nadeem, is a comic “elegy” for the victims of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism.

It is the bizarre tale of a “progressive” Pakistan conquering the moon and then facing the consequences, which leads to a change of guard. The play also questions the blood bath unleashed by the “jihad” and the relevance of claims of a greater “Muslim brotherhood”. It closes with the spectre of war.

The play, “Hotel Mohenjodaro”, has an interesting history. When Abbas penned it in the mid-sixties as a short story and read it at the Halqa-i-Arbab-Zauq (a hardline literary forum) in Lahore, the right-wingers cried foul over the macabre characters of the zealots created by the writer.

“It is an insult to people’s religious beliefs” - was the popular refrain and the story was not included in any of the author’s anthologies.

The Lahore-based Ajoka Theatre Troupe, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is part of an independent television company that is committed to the idea of entertainment with a social purpose.

It has produced telefilms, dramas, serials, songs and documentaries on themes including women’s rights, religious freedom, family planning, peace and honour killing. It also has an active outreach programme that promotes peace initiatives in the region.

This was Ajoka’s second trip to India. The troupe was here just after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks to take part in the Thrissur International Drama Festival with one of their productions, “Bullah”.

The staging of the play at the Bharat Rangmahotsav is significant in more ways than one.

Early this week, the media was rife with speculation that the Ajoka Group had been told by their organisers not to come to India.

The media reported that Maheeda Gauhar, director of Ajoka, had been asked by the NSD to cancel her trip as the drama school had been warned against staging Pakistani plays.

The reports said Gauhar had apparently told the NSD that the troupe had received several death threats earlier and appealed not to cancel the show.

“Such reports were baseless. ‘Glad Tidings’ was cancelled at the last moment and we contacted Ajoka to stage its play. There was no change in schedule and neither did we receive any information about the troupe being told not to perform in India,” chairperson of the National School of Drama Amal Allana told IANS.

She was echoed by the director of NSD, Anuradha Kapur, who also refuted the rumours. “Everything was on schedule,” she asserted. Troupe members said the visas arrived on time and “process of revisiting India was smooth”. Ajoka has been attending the NSD annual festival for the past five years.

A relaxed Sheema Kermani, whose troupe Tehrik-e-Niswan, staged a popular Pakistani play, “Jinnay Lahore Nahin Vekhya” by Asghar Wajahat Jan 12 at the festival, told IANS over bites of spicy snacks at the NSD food court: “We are feeling secure and it feels wonderful to perform in India. I would love to come to India more often and I hope the theatre people of India would support us.”

The glamorous co-director of the play, about an immigrant family in post-partition Lahore, refused to be drawn into the argument about “terror threats to Pakistani artists and troupe”.

“We came here to perform and we will keep returning to India. I don’t want to talk about terror,” the feisty actress said.

The crowd at the LTG Auditorium Jan 16 to watch “Hotel Mohenjodaro” vindicated the actor’s stand.

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