Parallel Theater: Socio-Political Perspective By SHOAIB IQBAL

IMG_3162-paralleltheater“Parallel Theater Movement” in Pakistan was initiated in 1980’s. The aim was people’s empowerment, on the one hand, and on the other to equip them with their non-material resources (history, language, cultural tradition) that were denied to them since colonial times. Parallel theater experimented with new ideas keeping in line with indigenous as well as modern theater as the foundation. The subjects of the plays performed pertained to people’s identity, disempowerment, political struggle against dictatorial oppression of 1980s and human rights. Although the issues dramatized were political, they were not reduced to slogan mongering or mere propaganda. The aesthetic dimensions of expression were blended with the political content.

If we give a facile look on the history of theatre in Subcontinent the origin will go back to the Vedic period in the form of Sanskrit theatre. Kali Dass, Shodrak, Bhavbhoti, Bhas were few of the famous ones. Later, the period after 6th century AD, saw a state of dilapidation in theatre. It became stereotyped and full of repetition. Its form became so rigid that neither the actor nor the writer or director could deviate from the set patterns of performance.

In 7th century AD Muslims invaded Indian Subcontinent. The route of invasion was Arabian Sea. Muslims were averse to art in general and did not encourage theater. It was considered un-Islamic. Since the majority of local inhabitants were non-Muslims, and it was not possible for the invaders to completely abolish the local socio-cultural and economic structures, the Muslims had to adopt their governance according to local norms. It was, therefore, not possible to completely abolish local art forms and theatre sustained itself in the form of folk theatre in villages and towns. The form of theatre also changed, as now it was not performed at Maharajas places as proscenium theatre, but acquired the form of street theatre. Street theatre was more flexible compared to old stereotyped proscenium theatre.

This popular street theater was called ‘Rahs’. Rahs and Swang were Punjabi names of street theatre in Punjab. It had different names in other parts of the Subcontinent. For example: in Utter Pradesh it was known as ‘Naotunki’, and in Bengal as ‘Jatra’. Though these popular street theatres were similar in their form, their contents were considerably influenced by the local subjects of particular areas and were different.

The most popular stories performed in street theatre were “Ram Chander Tey Seeta Da Banwas”, ‘Pooran Bhagat’, ‘Bhagat Parhlad;, ‘Haquiquat Rai’ and the stories of Buddha’s childhood. These were religious stories and used to be performed on significant religious days. Street theatre also dealt with secular stories like ‘Heer Ranjha’, ‘Sohni Manhiwal’, ‘Sassi Punnu’ and ‘Mirza Saheban’. What kind of stories would be performed where largely depended on the nature of audiences. For religious audiences, the former stories used to be performed and for secular audiences, the latter.

In colonial period the theatre further changed its form and content. The very first influence of British period on theatre, for example, was that of the impact of Circus, as it was the Circus that was introduced by the colonizers in the beginning. Colonial theatre was, therefore, followed by Circus and was meant for the entertainment of the military elite. The stories for the theatre were generally taken from the English literature. Later on, the local writers such as ‘Talib Banarsi’, and ‘Munshi Deena Naath’ translated these stories in local languages. Such translated plays started becoming commercially viable in big cities and many commercial theatrical companies came into being. Parsis were the first to invest. A prominent name popular within such companies was that of Agha Hashar Kashmiri.

These companies were at early phase of development that the cinema was introduced in subcontinent. Though the cinema presented silent movies in the beginning, but due to their unprecedented popularity amongst masses, it posed a real challenge and threat to theatre. While theatre was for the rich, the cinema could be afforded by the poor as well. This was one reason for the mass popularity of the cinema. Another factor was that the cinema was portable. The talkie films further increased the popularity of cinema.

Although cinema started dominating theatre in the period between the two World Wars, the theatre did survive in Indian subcontinent. From the period between two World Wars and the partition of Indian Subcontinent in 1947, theatre companies like Bengal National Theatre, Prithivi Raj Kapoor Theatre, and some other Parsi’s theatre companies along with non-commercial theatre groups like Indian People’s Theatre Association kept the theatre alive. Moreover, Rahs (folk form of theatre) also survived within rural population.

As mentioned above Indian Subcontinent was divided in 1947 into India and Pakistan. In Pakistan after the partition, theatre mainly survived through theatre societies in colleges. Apart from that in 1957-58 Khawaja Moin-ud-Din Theatre Group was formed and worked up till 1964. Similar to the case of cinema that undermined theatre in Subcontinent; in the case of Pakistan it was the coming of Television channels that undermined theatre. It was therefore, that after 1964 the theatre remained largely dormant up till mid 1980s.

The 1980s saw the most brutal and unmitigated military regime of Zia-ul-Haq. It may be mentioned that throughout its history, Pakistan has been dominated by the military elite and like all previous military regimes; Zia-ul-Haq’s government also faced a dilemma of political legitimacy. Such legitimacy he sought by pleading that Pakistan was created in the name of Islam (though historically the claim was totally false) and his mission as head of the state was to form the Islamic state in the country. For this purpose he first put the constitution in abeyance and later amended it by introducing the so-called Islamic laws. Interestingly the issue of legitimacy, for which he imposed the so-called process of Islamization, was an internal concern. Internationally his regime was welcomed by the West and the USA in the emerging geopolitical context of soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Zia-ul-Haq banned all trade unions, student unions, political parties and curtailed the freedom of press. Thousand of political workers were persecuted. In long and short there was a ban on all forms of human expression. It is in this scenario that represented absence of any viable political expression, that the parallel theatre movement in Pakistan took birth.
It enabled performers to establish face-to-face contact with the people and promote democracy and human rights.

The major theatre groups in mid 1980s were formed in the context of above political scenario. These groups were Ajoka Theatre and Punjab Lok Rahs that initiated the parallel theatre movement in Pakistan. This theatre was also called alternative theatre. The terms alternative or parallel theatre had specific meanings. It was called alternative or parallel theatre because it offered an alternative to the officially controlled Television entertainment channels and the mainstream theatre performed at official art councils in Pakistan. This main stream theatre was and still is known as vulgar theatre. It is vulgar as it merely promotes script-less stories based on vulgar jokes and dances.

Such theatre got its audiences during Zia-ul-Haq’s period. The audiences, however, did not belong to the educated middle class, or lower classes, but the newly born rich individuals who grabbed black money through drug trafficking and the petty shop keepers being empowered by Zia-ul-Haq to serve his regime.

The parallel theatre, on the other hand, had different audiences. These were mainly from educated middle class and the suppressed lower classes aspiring for democracy in the country. One could, therefore, see alternative theatre that presented meaningful plays like “Bandiwan” that raised the issue of political persecution and prisoner being convicted because of their struggle against Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship. The play was performed by Lok Rahs.
Another play that was performed in 1986 was “Anehrey da pandh”. The central theme of the play revolved around the uncommitted attitude of the middle class that only aspires for upward social and economic mobility. The character of a Jhalla (mad man) was idealized. Jhalla was the hero of the play who challenged the given notions of sanity that is defined by the society in terms of conformity with what is prevalent. According to him all those who are part of inhuman rat race for material gains are insane. The only sane person in such society is the one who says no to such culture, but is popularly known as a mad person.

The parallel theatre groups employed indigenous theater traditions. Punjab Lok Rahs specifically used the folkloric traditional elements in a complex interplay with modern themes. It not only increased the impact of theatre but also gave artistic and ideological value to it. Some popular folk songs were re-written, though composed in the popular folk tunes were used in performances to convey contemporary socio-political sentiments.

The movement was not merely restricted to performances but endeavored to create more theatrical groups. For this purpose the parallel theatre groups conducted theatre workshops with community groups and students. Rahs particularly focused on conducting such workshops with community groups and organizations working in rural and low-income urban areas. The aim was to raise awareness on various human rights and political issues and equips the groups with theatrical tools for better communication.

Parallel theatre movement was never free from social and economic conditions in Pakistan and had to face ups and downs. Up till mid 1990s, it sustained as a potent cultural and political agent. Later on, it had to go through a period of transition that persists till date. Why it so happened needs some explanation.

In its golden period, the moving spirit of parallel theatre movement was the middle and lower middle class theatre activists/volunteers. They not only used to participate in theatre activities but in mobilizing the local resources for such activities too. Many times, they used to personally contribute to meet the production costs of the plays. The rehearsals used to be organized in parks, and private lawns donated by theatre lovers.

After mid 1990s the theatre movement declined as a result of increasing unemployment and poverty. IMF Structural Adjustment Program coupled with the recent wave of globalization after Soviet disintegration brought significant increase in poverty and unemployment. Before that period volunteers were still not worried about employment and were able to manage their living even after devoting most of their time for theatre and other forms of politically motivated cultural activism. Increasing poverty and unemployment significantly created economic insecurity amongst youth, and considerably eliminated the volunteer base for cultural activism. Consequently parallel theatre movement gradually declined; though not diminished all together. Theatre groups still exist and struggling for new ways to sustain cultural activism.

Along with increasing poverty resulting from globalization, one factor that needs to be addressed here is de-politicization of people. Such de-politicization was a result of continued military dominance in political sphere, dismantling of all civil and political institutions and the rapid onslaught of globalization. Military intervention in national elections tailoring election results according to their wants further eroded people’s faith in elections and military controlled democracy. Such democracy is being called procedural democracy, where democracy exists in theory and not in practice. All democratic institutions are eventually controlled by the military. As a result people lose faith in the political process and become indifferent to it.

Such process of de-politicization gained grounds even further due to the intervention of global forces that, on the one hand, supported and strengthened military in Pakistan and are still supporting them in the name of war against terrorism, and on the other, they endeavored to export democracy to Pakistan in the form of “Projects of Democracy” being financed by them.

Mushrooming of foreign funded NGOs in Pakistan since late 1980s is one of the major achievements of international donors representing the forces of globalization. The mechanism to get foreign funding for NGOs is primarily based on PR within donor community and having proficiency in writing project proposals, management and report writing. Such NGOs could be formed, therefore, over night, provided if the people initiated them were equipped with the rules of the game. Readily available funds coupled with increasing poverty and un-employment further de-politicized youth searching for jobs. Today there is no donor in Pakistan that is not sponsoring theatre, but the entire activity is non-volunteer. The youth that used to do cultural activism on voluntary basis, now ask for money to do that.

Though foreign donors and international NGOs are funding theatre, theatre is usually part of their larger projects and tied up to enhance the aims of such projects. Establishing a tradition of theatre is not the prime goal of donors or international NGOs nor does it generally concerns them to finance theatre movement. For these reasons, the cultural activists and theatre volunteers have now become beneficiaries of donors’ larger projects

Since theatre cannot be done in vacuum and needs resources (monetary as well as human) that are not readily available, except for the one available from foreign donors having strings attached, the parallel theatre movement is facing a situation of resource constraint. Although volunteer base has been generally eroded, Punjab Lok Rahs, to an extent, managed to sustain volunteerism through ideological training. It is also searching for alternative resources (both foreign and local) that could finance theatre activities and help sustain and promote cultural activism and voluntary spirit required for strengthening the establishment of pro-people theatre tradition in Pakistan.

SHOAIB IQBAL is coordinator of Punjab Lok Rahs, (Punjab People’s Theater), Pakistan. He is currently a fellow at the Arts Management Institute of The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington D.C.

Published in KUNCI Newsletter No 16, April 2007.

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