Viva Ajoka!

By Sonya Rehman

Known for their history of socialist-driven theatre productions, Ajoka stands as a theatre company that fuses art with pertinent social messages quite remarkably.
Run by a husband and wife duo (Shahid Nadeem and Madeeha Gauhar), Ajoka, in addition, is also well-known in Lahore for its exciting collaborations with theatre companies and thespian troupes across the border.

Last year for instance, at their annual ‘Indo-Pak Panj Pani Theatre Festival’ many Indian theatre groups performed – alongside Ajoka’s own plays – at Lahore’s cultural hub, Alhamra.
Infact the festival’s last show – put up by an Indian group (named ‘Bhoomika’) had to be one of the most fascinating mime performances one had ever seen. It seemed to strike an enthralling balance between fantasy and realism.

But coming back to Ajoka, given their productions (ripe in social messages), do they ever manage to rake up controversies? They sure do.
In 2007 for instance, ‘Burqavagenza’ (penned and directed by Shahid Nadeem) found itself in hot water. So what was the play all about? Basically, the production was based upon the veil; the play was a harmless one that focused primarily on the hypocrisy and two-facedness of a society that is swathed in corruption.

Depicting men and women concealed under the façade of a burqa, the play brought to light issues such as gender discrimination, intolerance, and fanaticism. Therefore given the production’s theme, the play was opposed by certain MMA’s in the National Assembly in April, 2007. The complaint was then contested in the Assembly by two individuals (belonging to the PML and PPP), who criticized the prohibition of Burqavagenza.

The matter however, reached to such a degree, that Pakistan’s Minister for Culture declared serious action against Ajoka if it were to put up the production for public viewing again. It was a thoroughly unfortunate turn of events, as Ajoka has entertained Pakistani audiences (irrespective of class or creed) for decades.
But interestingly enough, Ajoka received immense support from NGO’s and women’s rights activists on the local front – and internationally, a theatre-group overseas translated Burqavagenza in English, to be staged for foreign audiences, and to be put up in solidarity for Ajoka.

This year in May at the local theatre group’s Indo-Pak Panj Pani Theatre Festival, Ajoka hosted three of their plays – namely ‘Hotel Mohenjedaro’ (an Urdu short-story by Ghullam Abbas), ‘Toba Tek Singh’ (a Sadaat Hassan Manto short-story) and ‘Sheher-e-Afsos’ (penned by Intizar Hussain and directed by Madeeha Gauhar) at Alhamra.
The reason as to why there was an absence of Indian productions is because of the Indian government’s non-clearance to cross the border on foot into Pakistan.

Enjoyed by a wide cross-section of people across Lahore, theatre, on the local-front, stands as a popular form of art and self-expression.

Infact, over the past few years, mammoth commercial productions (put up Shah Sharabeel) are thoroughly enjoyed by upper-middle classes within the city.
Why only upper-middle you’d ask? This is because the prices charged (per ticket) to Sharabeel’s plays are far too pricey to be bought by lower-income groups.

Whereas Ajoka, on the other hand, is hardly that expensive at all. This, quite obviously enough, has created an underlying schism in Lahori society – an ever-widening fissure between the privileged and the under privileged.
In addition, while Ajoka focuses more on local themes and stories, Sharabeel’s productions’ are based on popular foreign films (and plays) such as; The Phantom of the Opera, Moulin Rogue, Dark Comedy, Bombay Dreams and so on.

The most pertinent question here arises is this: which form of theatre is appreciated more so now in this current day and age – big-budget commercial theatre or small-budget productions based on social commentary?

Perhaps the answer is not as simple as one imagines. This is because Lahori society is such that it is made up of different factions of people: the moderates, the orthodox and the ‘in-betweens’.

While some may hold commercial plays in high-esteem and be swept away (visually) by elaborate sets and costumes, others appreciate realistically witty socialist plays (like Ajoka’s) that are produced on tighter budgets, more so than the ‘dhoom dhaam’ elements that encompass commercial plays.
That being stated, the sustenance of both, in the final analysis lies in how well both can adapt to the changes (and alterations) that time brings with it to a society.

Images, Dawn

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