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Native - Alien Encounter and Urdu Theatre


The process and logic of encounter and co-existence and its debt to various cultures can be traced back to the pages of history. Indian art and culture, with all its charms and graces inspire men of action and thought. In the same way, different cultures of the world do not cease to influence Indian life and literature. In the sphere of theatre too the mimetic instinct being 'universal' and 'revealing' in its basic nature, the encounter and co-existence of native and alien dramatic literature and its subsequent presentations on stage are inevitable. Despite profound differences in the social, economic and cultural background, as also in the emotional build-up; the theatre of east and west will, no doubt, influence each other in form and content— the occident by its sheer achievement of an extraordinary sophistication and the orient by its rich repertoire of Classical treatise, the brilliant narrative technique and abundantly powerful folk forms. If one happens to witness a few of the plays in national theatre festival in India, one can safely conclude that the overall technique used in them grapples with the basics of native' and alien elements. Hence, in order to demonstrate that theatre is a living art and highly contemporary, the directors and playwrights of our time try to find relevance of the past in our present. In doing so they seem to keep the options open. They use the codes of native and alien theatre, which seem most appropriate for the expression of their ideas on stage. Each of these ideas in its way, derives influences, which in turn, makes the play a kind of 'Unifying image' of the lessons learned at the corridors of west as well as in the magical realms of our traditional theatre.

Presently, there is no fixed focus on a particular style in our theatre. The best we get at a playhouse is that of a `unifying image' (to borrow a phrase from Peter Brook) which enhances the quality of production as well as the communication of messages in the play itself. India, being a land of varied cultural ethos and the home of endless traditional folk forms, can never have a universal signature or fixed characteristics in a theatrical production. We are bound to find semblances of native and alien influences, or for that matter, native and native encounters, co-existing in a production if the present stylized version of play, born out of the traditional theatre and western sophisticated canons, takes us closer to the reality of events shown, we are safely home with it's contemporary relevance. If the play presented becomes too didactic and the daring experiments appear repeated sequences of the director's trademark, we are sure to get bored in the final analysis and effect.

In short, I mean to say that there is, and will always be, a possibility of similarities and parallelism in the domain of theatre. In recent times we have seen a kind of revivalism of traditional and folk forms in the hands of directors like Girish Karnard, Habib Tanveer, Rattan Thyium, Jabbar Patel, B. V. Karanth and others. They have skillfully explored the possibility of using native idioms effectively in their plays to express their ideas about inner reality of contemporary life. Traditional forms got modified in the hands of these masters and theatre appeared a rewarding aesthetic experience. The fusion of two opposing aspects of presentation, to a great extent, yielded positive results in the print media and in the minds of a select few. When the same experience became more dogmatic in form without any comprehensive sign or symbols of communication, the play failed to establish any link with our past. Such a play does not even earn the tag of being contemporary in nature. Hence valid theatrical experience fizzles out and the play is presented in national and international festivals as museum pieces. In my opinion, the fusion of different forms of theatre with a contemporary emphasis on the contents of the written words is far more refreshing than trying to create a form in vacuum.

The tricky word in the topic is encounter. Generally it means a conflict or confrontation. It also refers to a confluence or co-existence or even facing something difficult. In any case, the word 'encounter' in its reference to conflict or confrontation is sure to give birth to a third or new form. In theatre I take it to be the emergence of a new form as an extension of our time-tested classical theatre and the various folk forms of theatre. Inpersuance of the meaning that I am inclined to take, I would like to discuss a play I have seen in the recently concluded Nandikar theatre-festival in Calcutta. The play is "Naurldin-er-Sarajiban". The script was authored by a Bangladeshi playwright. The play was directed by Mr. Sudipto Chatterjee, a Calcuttan, now based in U.S.A. It was presented by epic actor's workshop and choir (USA) with the local involvement of a Calcutta-based theatre-group. The cast included artistes of Indian, Bangladeshi and American origins. It was a bilingual play. Everything in the play provided a true picture of using form for the better treatment of the play. Here was a confluence of traditional Indian theatre and the experimental American/ European theatre. The sets, the scenery, the use of slides to decode the dialect of the play and the lighting technique created a meaningful spectacle for the eye. Thematically the play depicted the insensitive treatment of the Indians at the hands of the British's and the rebellion and sacrifice of the central character Nuruldin. The director seems to have accepted the principles of co-existence with regard to forms in theatre. The play, in its presentation, drew support and sustenance from both worlds and once the coexistence is established, all the flimsy contrast between the two disappeared. The play becomes effective in expressing the content of written text at a Trans-cultural level.
The native theatre clearly relates to the Classical/ Sanskrit theatre, the ritual theatre and the popular folk forms in different parts of the country. We have the most important text of dramaturgy "Natya Shastra" a few surviving plays like Shakuntala, MrichaKatika and others. The treatise on theatre, dance and music is an encyclopaedia of knowledge where as the plays, with the possible exception of Mrichakatika, border heavily on lyrics / melody. A combination of factors, which need not go into that led to the decline of this classical theatre. It almost died as it was confined to scholarly margins. The ritualistic theatre and the folk forms were already there before the Sanskrit/Classical theatre. These forms continued to thrive, with whatever shape they had, on social violence and rage, love and hate, joys and sorrows of different castes and communities with special focus on super-natural elements, dream-like state and audience participants. These folk forms emerged from different linguistic and cultural ethos. The folk forms of Tamasha, Jatra, Ram-Lila, Bhawai, Ras-Lila, Yagshagana, Chau and others flourished in rural areas of the country with the association of myths, fables, folktales and regional/ local festivals. The use of the local languages was its added strength. These are the most vital and vibrant sources of our traditional theatre. In retrospect, we can say that Sanskrit plays were formulated on fixed ideas. There were codes for everything, directives for sets, even a plan for the building of the playhouse. Although the presentation and structure of classical plays were grand and powerful, nonetheless, they were affected; these were dramas of. statecraft, portraying mostly the stories of historical Kings of the past. Legends of Gods and heroes of earlier period form the inexhaustible part of the dramatic literature. The splendid costumes of the characters, especially the characters of the upper-strata of life followed strictly according to the fixed tenets of stagecraft. They were easily recognizable by their costumes and highly developed gestures and movements. Even decorum or `auchitya' was religiously observed in writing the dialogues. Yet the classical plays, far removed from the language of people, in the hands of geniuses like Kalidas, Sudarka and Bhavabhuti, appeared like stars brimming with joys, pains, love, hate, drama and reality. However they had a kind of mechanical surface and a strong sense of courtly art form in comparison to the folk forms, the mother-theatre, which had been there since the dawn of civilization. In fact the formulated and sophisticated
theatre obstructed the free growth of indigenous forms and they, from time to time, receded into their groove.

The logic of the development of performing arts suggests that these forms of theatre were present even when Muslims ruler came to rule India (8th Century onwards). Theatre-culture suffered because the Muslims patronized dance and song instead of theatre whereas the Hindu monarchs religiously patronized theatre to develop it freely in the length and breadth of the country. The rest is the history of modern theatre as modelled by the colonial powers. When the English men brought their plays and theatrical devices, the indigenous art forms, however raw and uncultivated they were, they were swallowed by the alien encounter. It is common knowledge that the elites tended to separate themselves from the masses and the native elements receded into the background. There was, in fact, no resistance of our weak and raw performing arts when the English men began to regale the urban audiences. Even in Bengal, there was no confrontation or encounter of any kind. The European theatrical canons established themselves firmly and playwright of the stature of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, too, with his education and upbringing, labelled the indigenous forms as bad theatre. We, urban educated playwright, simply followed English theatre without any resistance. The western ethics and technique became our source and native elements alien. Thus with Herashim
Lebdeff's initial performance in Calcutta, we began to work under an imposed alien atmosphere. The birth of modern Bengali theatre was in fact, the death of indigenous forms.
Jatra was still performed but even its life orce slowly began to turn commercial. The famous play Nabanna had Indian content meant primarily for the proscenium theatre. In the
post Independent era, theatre could not reach to the larger audience because the gap between the urban and rural areas widened. Hence in the absence of any cultural intercourse
between the two and the lack of any strong infrastructure, theatre could not fill the void created between the cities and villages. We only tried, at regular intervals, to establish an identity with our past by doing the regional forms of contemporary play before the urban audiences. Again, if we go deep beneath the skin of presentation, we find a kind of ceramic approach, almost a deliberate attempt at patchwork, in most of the plays in the hands of lesser mortals.
The western influence can be traced back to the Greek theatrical canons down to the different styles of Brecht. Beckett, Artaud, Piscator, Stanislaysky, Meyerhold, or even Growtosky and Richard Schechner. Here lies the encounter and the co-existence of the two seemingly warring styles.
With these kinds of categorization, the same old questions remain. Why do we commit ourselves to the practice of theatre? When does it become a living theatre?

Are the traditional styles and techniques relevant today or how much of the presentation of recent past remains traditional? In my opinion our sincere-attempt should be to make theatre a living art by bringing it closer to the general audience. In a play presentation we have always a kind of explicit or implicit concern for bringing order into the lives, thought emotions and desire of our ignorant masses. Political theatre amply I demonstrates this. It is not a personal triumph of aesthetic excellence in art or putting theatre of abstract ideas in our mind. It is also the purpose of our living theatre to make life more tolerable to the theatre people. Artistic activities of our masters must reach to the simple down-trodden people and not be bottled up in the select pockets only. There must be a humanitarian appeal n all our aesthetic activities for the wide variety of people instead of only intellectuals and the learned. It is to make them aware of the conditions they live in.

How far have we succeeded in creating a tradition to salvage the common people from unsatisfactory conditions? To what extent have our exercise in creative expressions and play-presentation given us sustained aesthetic exaltations and social awareness? Have we provided them anything concrete, even by way of a tradition in theatre arena, any kind of ling art that can lead ordinary people to a better, enduring and meaningful life? Are our performances simply endorsed as artistic cliches apart from providing them cheap commercial stuff? Have we explored the possibility of a stage for the ordinary play - going public, apart from recommendations of the revival of traditional forms of theatre or marching with bloated ego in the theatre festivals, both national and International?

A little scrutiny of the theatre movement in general and the overall Bengali production in my region convinced me that contemporary theatre is a product of alien - Native encounter. Nearly SO% of the productions in Bengali are translations and adaptations, many of them without any relevance to the contemporary situation. Even a recent adaptation of Dario Fo's "An accidental death of an anarchist" in Bengali and Hindi could not rise above the ordinary. Since the days of Herashim Lebedeff's staging of the Bengali version of "The Disguise" (1795) there has always been a conscious effort to write or stage plays in the European moulds. It is not a case of simple imitation; it is also the simple joy of sharing such plays meaningfully. Barring a few original plays (like Ebong Indrojit/Pagla Ghora, which incorporates traditional structure rather unconsciously*) there is a steady flow of. adaptations and translations. Modern plays, sensitivity, too, demonstrates a western liberal upbringing and orientation. Indian audiences, particularly the urban audiences have seen some of the stimulating vibrant theatrical presentations by some of the masters of the craft. These masters have tried to create an indigenous idiom by presenting plays in different folk forms. The plays, which acquired currency, can be counted on ones' fingers. We have seen Vijay Tandulkar's "Ghasi Ram Kotwal" directed by Jabbar Patel in native form. We were thrilled and illuminated by the pure Chattsgarhi folk form * The past never dies. It is always there in one way, or the other, even if it emerges from our sub-conscious. of Habib Tanveer's "Charandas Chor". We were also excited by the powerful impact of Girish Karnad's "Hayavadana" in Yagshagana style. We watched with awe and reverence, Jabbar Patel's "Teen Paisa ka Taamasha", B. V. Karnatha's "Barnam Vana" and Rattam Thyyum's "Chaker Viuya" including his recent production "Uttara priyadarshani" in traditional Manipuri dance drama. The wind of change was blowing and we all, mostly urbanites, found them extraordinary, exhilarating and almost creating the much sought - after intensity of our nation theatre. A keen sense of the past lurked hopefully but left us too soon and too ominously. In order to evolve a vibrant theatrical idiom, they all assiduously embraced folk forms. I do believe that these efforts were graceful, towering and magnificent but I hasten to add that the powerful play did not create a path with all the required songs, codes and symbols for theatre practitioners to follow. The directors' brilliant trademark added colour and vibrancy on the stage. They still haunt me. But they failed to become trailblazers. They remained exceptions without setting any trends. Further more I feel that these dedicated and brilliant directors began to repeat themselves in their later plays.

My Question is: Of what use are the magnitude and variety of dramatic experimentations if they did not become trendsetters and pioneering in their approach? I do not find much sense in repeating the same achievements in subsequent productions. Hence the spectacularly choreographed productions appear to me to be negligible in comparison to the effort given and within the total scheme of presentations it proved to be nothing more than a vanity fair.
The obvious reasons for the not so successful impact of these plays and production lie in the socio-cultural makeup of Indian society. It has become almost western in nature and subsequently urbanised to a great extent, despite the tall claims of some theoreticians regarding thinking and feeling pure and traditional even in an urbanised atmosphere. Hence the effort to create any indigenous or totally native form have not reached fruitions even after four decades of theatrical experimentations. The play going public had clapped vigorously for minutes on end and left the hall without any lingering illumination in any way about the contemporaneity of the past. They, in fact, could not locate in or identify with the play. On the contrary, the ethical aspects of our traditional plays in the barest forms played better roles in creating a consciousness among the rural audience. Now the colonial past looms larger when they leave the corridors of the hall and the native appears more alien to them with the possible exception of Shutra-dhaar. However keeping in mind the socio-cultural currents and cross-currents of our time as well as the fact of global communication facilitating immediate and unhindered flow of ideas, the contemporary theatre, to me, lies in welcoming the confluence of different styles according to the need of the play. It will be infinitely richer by suggestion rather than crude imitation of east or west. Peter Brook's suggestive nature of "the flavour of Indian without pretending to be what we (they) are not" in his Mahabarata is an example. Even Brecht, the most popular Dramatist/ Director after Shakespeare, modified his art through his knowledge of Chinese, Indian and Burmese traditions. In the end I would like to refer to the thoughts of Eugeno Barba, whose quest for a total theatre led to what he calls "Eurasian theatre". It may not be out of place to quote a very illuminating excerpt from one of his articles."I compared our Theatre with theirs. Today the very word "comparison" seems inadequate to me, since it separates the two faces of same reality. I can say that I compare•Indian orBelenise, Chinese or Japanese tradition's if I compare their epidermises, their divers conventions, the many different performance styles. But if I consider that which lies beneath those luminous and seductive epidermises and discern the organs which keep them alive, than the poles of comparison blend into a single profile: that of a Eurasian Theatre"
(Article read in a seminar of Calcutta)
URDU THEATRE
We are all aware of the fact that Urdu is one of the richest of languages. Poetry and Mushairas (Poetical Symposium) were patronized in the initial stages. A sort of Urdu-based cultural identity developed. Though Urdu theater remained in the background, the valuable contributions of poets continue to inspire the heart and imaginations after generations. Why, then, has theatre, in this language of "communication" and "integration" languished far behind the other regional languages lacking its relation to local myths, fables, folk-tales and other references to Mahabarata, Ramayana, Puranas etc.
The clue to this lies in our history. A language which was flourishing with the care of the legendary AMIR KHUSHRU with such poetical composition:
ZAHALE - E - MISKEEN MAKUN TAGAFUL and Quli Qutub shah's
PIYA BAAJ PIYALA PIYA JAAYE NA
suffered a shock of the magnitude of a Greek tragedy at the time of partition. The language was also divided with the land and had to face the ignominy of being a language of a particular religious group. The British diplomacy hampered the growth and intensity of the language, together with the apathy of our very own enlightened intelligentsia. The language, which was growing richer with the free exchange of different regional language, had to face the tragedy of isolation. In the absence of any support, it became detached from the folk tradition and only long narratives (Dastan), Persian folk-tales and fables, tales from Arabian nights along with the poetical compositions flourished. One can well comprehend the problem limiting the emergence of any indigenous form or pattern in Urdu theatre.
And yet Urdu Theatre persists_ It began with the "Rahas" of Nawab Wajid AH Shah and Inder-Sabha of Amanat Luckhnavi, Wajid Ali Shah's Rahas can not be termed as drama "Proper" in Urdu nor can Amanat's effort be called any improvement upon which a strong foundation of living theatre could be laid. But there was stir in the stagnant water. There were music and dance and songs, there were Kings, Queens, Fairies and Villains. Strangely enough, Wajid Ali Shah himself enacted "Krishn" in his presentation of Luckhnow. There was also a kind of tendency, which we refer to as Rag-Natak songs were presented in different ragas. Inder-Sabhas and Rag-Nataks were essentially native in nature and provided the required boost to the Urdu theatre loving people.
Urdu theatre made a giant leap in the hands of Parsi theatrical companies. Urdu was the lingua Franca and these producers adopted a more commercial attitude. The costumes became gorgeous, the scenarios acquired more colour, actors were loud and strange and supernatural elements were presented in such a way that theatre became people's favorite pastime. Despite their efforts at prose play, It was written in the inherited poetic tradition in which they excelled. There were many playwrights then but none so successful, so apt in poetical composition and so strong in dialogues as Agha Hashr Kashmiri. He always knew the art of "Spoken language" on stage. A voracious reader and temperamental conversationalist, Hashr was at ease with various subjects. He emerged on the scene when theater-craft was not fully explored nor the audience was well versed with theatrical nuances. Shortly afterwards he joined the company of Nauroji Parsi and became popular with plays like Do Rangi Duniya and Said-e-Hawas. He established his own theatrical company, translated and adapted plays of the English bard. He wrote plays for the Indian communities bound together by strong to the profound ties and common vision if life which could react strongly to the theatrical performances. Apart from handling non-literary elements like music, Pygmalion) and Gudya Ghar (Ibsen's The Doll's House) merit serious attention. Her knowledge of Brecht's craft and art created an image of coexistence of forms. It was then left to the great Ibrahim Alkazi and National School of Drama to give new meaning to the confrontations and amalgamations of the native and the alien theatrical canons. Initially N.S.D. presented some Urdu plays before fully tilting towards Hindi theater and Urdu plays were left in the hands of unimaginative amateurs and on the stages of Colleges and Schools. Lately there has been a slight revival of Urdu plays like Ghalib by Ram Gopal Bajaj and Indra Shabha by the N.S.D.

It was in the fifties that Urdu theatre regained some of the lost prestige in the hands ofHabib Tanvir. He presented "Agra- bazar" and "Shatranj Ke Khiladi" for Jamia Millia and I.P.T.A. Theatre immediately became vibrant with the confluence of the native and alien elements. But he soon left Urdu Stage to find his own "Pure" chattisgarhi style, which has become history. Even when he came back with a full length Urdu play "Jis Ne Lahore Nahi Dekha" in collaboration with Wajahat Mirza, it was labelled as a Hindi production on occasions. Naming the language does not seem necessary to me anymore. However Urdu theatre had to take refuge in hands of literatures and under the canopy of A.I.R. Such plays made deep in-road lines for Urdu theatre and Md. Hassan (Kohre Ka Chand, Zahaq etc) Ibrahim Yusuf (Parchayoon Ke Peeche and other play) Quratul Ain Haider (Pali Hill Ki Ek Raat) Anwar Azeem (Brechtian Translation of Arturou and Awazoon Ke Qaidi) Sagar Sarhadi (Tanhai & Other plays) Kumar Pashi (Andhere Ke Qaidi & other plays) Zahida Zaidi (Doosra Kamra, Sehra-e-Azam and many translations of important European plays) Afaque Ahmed (Drama Adhura Hai and European Translations) Iqbal Niyazi (Jalianwala Bagh and adaptation of short stories) Javed Danish (Hijrat Ke Tamashe etc.) Kamal Ahmed (Ek Tha Raja and other plays) and Zahir Anwar (Naqqara, Qaidi, Black Sunday and Translations/ Adaptions of European and Bengali plays) are some of the major contributors who need serious attention. These plays did not relate explicitly to the traditional forms but went on to explore multiple layers of meaning in Contemporary Indian life. Even regional plays were explored and we can locate playwrights and stage presentations with native influences on a native language itself.

The numerous translations and adaptations of European plays also added colour to our theatrical conventions. Some of these were for reading and others stageable. Firaq Gorakhpuri, Sagar Nizami, Ateeq Ahmeed Atteq, Akhtar Hussian Raipuri and others translated plays, which were proof of their erudition. Some of the major European plays were translated by Zahida Zaidi (Checkov, Sartre, Ionesco, etc.) Qudsia Zaidi (Shaw/ Ibsen), Anwar Azeem (Brecht/ Gorki) Rawish Taqi (Edward Albee) J. L. Kaushik (Lorca) Jav,ed Danish (Soyinka) Zahida Zaidi took up the responsibilities of translating of translating modern master-pieces with a fair amount of success. My own adaptation/ translation of Feydeau, Camus, Dario Fo and TawfiqueAl-Hakim had a fair run in Calcutta and other states. These plays created a kind of multiple image of Urdu theatre.

Last but not least, one area that needs our concern is the influence of opera in Urdu. It would be unfair not to endorse the efforts of Rifat Sarosh, Ameeq Hanfi, Sagar Nizami, Abdul Aziz Khalid and others in this form of theatre. Their expressions in this form will inspire better artistes in future. This is not a really popular form in the present situation. However, the poeticplayss/ opera of Rifat Sarosh like "Jahan Ara", "Hubba Khatoon" and others were hailed as interesting experiments.

The immediate cause for the failure of this form emerging under the influence of west is that poetry seems to appear more as an external decoration and embellishment .rather than any awareness of the - gulations of plain drama or drama proper. These, poetic cotpositions with delicatemovements of opera and loose theaterical framework do not appear to be woven into any kind of rich or coherent mosaic. T.S. Eliot preferred poetic dramas because it could express the innermost layer of human nature Here the text, though poetical and rhythmic, does not transcend the ordinary and the superficial. In the absence of any strong tradition it does not reveal subtle nuances and the inner realms of a universal life through its resources of symbols and images

In the end I wish to see the avenues of Urdu theatre should be explored in a systematic and enthusiastic way, both on a personal level and by the guardian-angels of our culture. We must come up with strong recommendations to create a stage for Urdu and avenues must be explored, too, for a direct contact with the folk forms of our land. There is a plethora of ideas because it has a direct relation with the man in society. We should be careful not to allow the sensibilities of a great language to die painfully in utter thankless humility.