Theatre Under Fire

By Sonya Rehman

‘Burqavaganza’, a play was recently staged in March, and again in April during the Ajoka Indo-Pak ‘Panj Pani’ Festival, this year in Lahore.
Written and Directed by the eminent Shahid Nadeem (of Ajoka), the play is a harmless one – focusing 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 brings to light issues such as gender discrimination, intolerance, and fanaticism.

After receiving positive reviews from the city’s avid theatre-goers and the media world at large (both print and broadcast), Ajoka has come under serious criticism – instigating debate after the issuing of a complaint by women MMA’s against Shahid Nadeem and his wife, (Director of Ajoka, Madeeha Gauhar) on the 26th of April, 2007, in the National Assembly.
The matter is being contested within the Assembly itself where individuals such as Mehnaz Rafi and Sherry Rehman (of the PML and PPP respectively) have criticized the decision of the play’s prohibition from being staged in the future.

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Apart from the banning, the Minister for Culture has avowed ‘further action’ against the theatre company which has entertained the citizens of this country – irrespective of class, gender and creed – for years.

“I’m not surprised at the MMA’s reaction”, Madeeha Gauhar told Instep Today, “They were bound to react in such a manner. However, what I’m truly shocked about is the way the Minister of Culture has reacted. The banning of ‘Burqavaganza’ is further exposure of the façade of the much propagated ‘enlightened moderation’ that the government has tried to spread. Our play’s prohibition is the final nail in the coffin and I will be taking them to court, as I have already spoken about it with Asma Jehangir. The two-facedness of our government has been exposed.”

In light of Madeeha Gauhar’s statement, it was expected that the conservative-orthodox strata of the society were to react. “The burqa is part of our culture. We cannot allow anyone to ridicule our culture”, Ghazi Ghulam Jamal, the Culture Minister was reported to have stated during the discussion at the National Assembly adding that the government could cancel Ajoka’s license.
Burqvaganza’s embargo has also seemed to have gotten some amount of Western media attention as CNN’s website carries an extensive report on the entire matter. CNN’s report states: “The minister announced Thursday that the government had barred the play, which had already ended its run in Lahore, from being performed in other Pakistani cities. Described by critics as a romp, the play sought to highlight the impact of the veil on society, by showing how wearers use it as a way to hide what they want to keep private.”

Ajoka has in the past (and now in the present) put up spectacular performances that have amused and entertained the common man – easing his everyday plight. With independent productions as well as collaborations with theatre groups across the border and overseas, Ajoka has kept the nation’s spirit of culture and art alive. The banning of Ajoka’s play can ricochet into a ‘domino affect’ – where other such theatre companies (and independent artistes) will be made to face similar blows.

It is criminal to clamp down on artistic expression by way of threat – whether vocal or physical. Art means the sovereignty of an individual’s expression – it cannot be stifled.
One must sympathize with those who have been affected by the play’s subject/theme but just think, has any serious action been taken against those stage plays and dances (‘mujras’) which are given complete freedom vis-à-vis intense sexual innuendos and their heavily provocative undertones?
And what about the plethora of vulgar Lollywood productions that are released year after year? Why have they been given a blind-eye? Why has the backlash been so tremendous now? Given the current state of affairs, one wonders where the term ‘enlightened moderation’ really stands.

The choice of expression with regard to Ajoka’s Burqavaganza is its ‘free will’ of being able to comment on the veil. And those who oppose it, are justified too. It is the ‘freedom of expression’ of both the moderates, as well as the conservatives. The theatrical production like any other form of art, is open to interpretation and right now what the country faces is a grave clash of ideologies.

Instep Today, The News

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