The lost son of Lahore—–Shaheed Bhagat Singh By Shreya Ray
It is an uncanny coincidence that Nawab Muhammad Ahmad Khan Kasuri, the magistrate who signed the death warrant of Bhagat Singh, was killed, more than 40 years later, at the same spot as the 23-year-old freedom fighter. The roundabout in Shadman Colony, Lahore—where the execution chambers of the Lahore Central jail used to be—is where the magistrate was shot in 1974. Not that many Pakistani youngsters know these details about Singh’s death, or even that he was from Lahore; to them he’s the guy Ajay Devgn played in a Bollywood movie.
Resurrecting Singh—and reclaiming him—as a son of Lahore is Pakistan’s Ajoka theatre group, in the first-ever Pakistani production on the freedom fighter, Mera Rang De Basanti Chola. The play, also staged at the National School of Drama’s (NSD’s) Bharat Rang Mahotsav, is third in a series of Ajoka’s plays that question the Arabised Pakistani identity, and emphasize its roots with the Indian subcontinent. Drawing constant parallels with contemporary society, peppered with traditional folk song and dance it inlcudes a Tangewala ki ghodi, a type of Punjabi folk song on the verge of extinction.
Forgotten hero: Nirvaan Nadeem plays Bhagat Singh.
Born in 1978, after the overthrow of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s government by the military regime of Zia-ul-Haq, Ajoka was formed by a group of writers, intellectuals and artists perturbed at the erosion of democratic values in their country. They wrote about religious extremism, repressive government machinery, and other things that made the Pakistani establishment sit up and squirm. Within a year, they had been banned from performing at public venues, and their members, personally attacked. Playwright-director Shahid Nadeem, who has written 40 plays and adaptations, including Mera Rang De… and is, along with his wife Madeeha Gauhar, one of Ajoka’s key founder members, lost his job with PTV twice. The first was in 1979, during Zia-ul-Haq’s regime, when he was forced into exile in London for eight years but kept writing for Ajoka; the second in 1999, during the reign of Nawaz Sharif.
Only after the death of Zia-ul-Haq in 1988 did the group gradually get access to venues like the Goethe-Institut, which gave them space to rehearse and perform.
But even during the years of the ban, Ajoka performed at factory premises, community halls, street corners, even private residences. There have been suicide bombers and bomb attacks outside venues during their performances. Members have received threat calls, emails and texts, the most virulent after the production of Mujahid, a telefilm produced by Ajoka about the “jihadi mindset and how it is destroying society”, aired in 2005. “The film was a warning against jihadi violence—which until then hadn’t assumed the scale it has today—and said that if the issue wasn’t addressed it would spiral out of control,” says Nadeem. “The government’s response to that was to say that people like me need to be thrown outside Pakistan; in the parliament they talked about having our group banned, they had conferences accusing us of being enemies of Pakistan.”
The high drama off-stage is wonderfully offset by the entertaining and often uproariously funny plays. Their take on family planning, specifically the issue of vasectomy, Jum Jum Jeeway Jaman Pura (Long Live the Delivery Town) in 1995, addressed the politically explosive subject through song and dance. Burqavaganza, which travelled to India for the NSD festival in 2008, was a laugh-out-loud satire on hypocritical Islamic clerics—and their attitudes to women, sex and sexuality.
The connection with India is not quite incidental; their relationship with India is “a political statement”, says Nadeem. The latest series of plays, which keeps rejecting its Arabised identity, keeps making constant connections with India. “Mera Rang De…,” says Gauhar, who has also directed the play, “is not just about Bhagat Singh, it’s about identity. After the creation of Pakistan, there was an effort to reinvent ourselves as Pakistanis, and identify ourselves with our Muslim identity and with the Middle East (West Asia). This was a way to justify the creation of a nation based on religious identity. But in that myopic view, thousands of years of history was wiped out,” she says.
Dara, their previous play, celebrated Mughal prince Dara Shikoh, and held up the peace-loving and Sufi-poet prince as the true face of Islam. “Nobody in Pakistan knows about Dara’s ideology because there has been an effort to erase him from our history books, as happens with anyone who doesn’t fit into the ideology of Pakistan and the two-nation theory. It is these distortions in history that we’re trying to correct,” she says.
Similarly, Singh, despite being a hero of the independence movement and a son of Lahore, has been ignored because he was a non-Muslim and a socialist, says Nadeem. “He is an important role model in present times, when the current generation doesn’t know of the dream of socialism that inspired people in the previous century,” he says. “They need to know that there are other things more inspiring than the insanity of suicide bombers,” he says.