Theatre has been an integral part of the rich cultural tradition of the Subcontinent which has been synonymous with the region’s folk tradition characterized by music and dance. While cinema was a popular mode of entertainment in the newly independent Pakistan, live theatre always retained its viewership as a dynamic medium of entertainment.
In the nascent years of Pakistani theatre, legendary writer Saadat Hassan Manto’s name figures prominently. Intensely gritty and imbued with dark political overtones, Manto’s work always made him wade through controversy for the greater part of his life. Small theatre groups were also established around this period as young actors struggled to carve a space for theatre in the newly independent country. Khwaja Mueenddin surfaced as a prominent name in theatre who touched upon social issues with considerable wit. Some of his notable works include: Lal Qile Se Lalu Khet Tak, Mirza Ghalib and Talim-e-Balighaan.
The 1950s saw the emergence of legendary actor and orator Zia Mohyeddin whose formidable poise and crisp articulation made him a nationwide sensation. His father, Khadim Mohyeddin, had established himself as a playwright and producer of college plays, including the famous Dill Ke Dharkan performed in Lahore. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) London, Zia Mohyeddin was one of the few actors in the history of Pakistan to have forayed into Hollywood. After starring in the West End play, A Passage to India, Mohyeddin bagged his first Hollywood film, The Lawrence of Arabia which is often touted as a cult classic. In Pakistan, he continued to grace the stage with his plays and recitals.
Lahore was considered the hub of art and culture at that point in time, and the epicentre of the Pakistan’s thriving film industry. In the 1960s there were two streams of theatre -college productions associated with Lahore’s Government College (GC) and Kinnaird College, and professional theatre staged at Lahore’s Alhamra Arts Council. The old building which became Alhamra had a mud-packed ceiling back then, remnants of which used to occasionally crumble down on actors as they performed. Kamal Ahmad Rizvi, Naeem Tahir, Shoaib Hashmi and Khayam Sarhadi were some of the names linked with the Arts Council in those days. The plays at the time had an Anglo feel to them, and many well-known English plays were adapted in the Urdu language. Plays used to run to packed houses for weeks on end, albeit within the constricted space of Alhamra, which had a tiny stage and no green room. The productions staged by GC and Kinnaird College were equally popular, and had today’s veteran actors such as Navid Shahzad performing in them. Imtiaz Ali Taj who was a pioneering Urdu playwright, took charge as the secretary of the Arts Council in the 1950s, and produced the iconic theatre play Anarkali, in which he dressed in drag, and performed the role of a female character.
In the following decade, theatre for the first time received state patronage, with the establishment of the Ministry for Culture, Lok Virsa and the Pakistan National Council for Arts (PNCA). Salman Peerzada, who helmed a variety of mainly English plays at the beginning of his career, collaborated with his brothers Faizan and Usman, to set up the Rafi Peer Theatre group, which staged productions both locally and internationally and also hosted a number of theatre and puppet festivals in Pakistan. The vibrant theatre scene in the country, however, soon dwindled at the hands of an oppressive dictator who mercilessly stifled creativity.
On the other hand, political repression during the 1970s and 80s ironically inspired creative political expression. A new brand of theatre for social change came to the fore, heralded by groups such as Ajoka Theatre, led by Madiha Gauhar and her husband Shahid Nadeem in Lahore, and Tehreek Niswaan in Karachi, founded by iconic classical dancer Sheema Kirmani. Given that political dissent could lead to incarceration, these groups generally performed in private spaces that were deemed safe. Ajoka Theatre produced plays on a number of socio-political themes, such as gender-based violence, religious intolerance and political oppression, while also revisiting the stories of the Subcontinent’s celebrated figures such as Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Bulleh Shah and Dara Shikoh.
Theatre in Pakistan, while operating on a small scale, has been able to transcend national boundaries of late, with local troupes capitalising on increasing opportunities to perform internationally. In 2012 for instance, a theatre group from Pakistan performed at the Globe Theatre in London, as part of the World Shakespeare Festival. Meanwhile, the National Theatre UK adapted Ajoka Theatre’s period drama Dara into English, while Islamabad based theatre group Theatre Wallay’s production Daagh Daagh Ujaala based on stories from the Partition, toured across the United States.
Apart from activism-based theatre, commercial theatre has also flowered in the country, and has been moulded to appeal to different strata of society. Commercial theatre in Punjabi and Urdu in the 1980s was spearheaded by names such as Naheed Khanum, Amanullah, Mastana and Umer Shareef who were known for their bawdy and slapstick comedy. Just like the Punjabi and Pashto cinema of the 1980s, vulgarity also pervaded theatre - characterised by lewd dances and dialogues strewn with profanity, which gave the term “commercial theatre,” a negative connotation for the longest time.
Towards the early 2000s, English Theatre which was previously restricted to school and university productions, took on a bigger scale under the auspices of theatre producer and director Shah Sharabeel who attempted to bring Broadway to Pakistan. His adaptations of popular Broadway productions such as Phantom of the Opera and Moulin Rouge with opulent sets on stage, was a first for Pakistan. Audience members consisting mostly of the urban elite, thronged theatres in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad, stoked by the glitz and glamour of these productions. Sharabeel provided a platform to many a young actors and directors such as Omair Rana, Osman Khalid Butt, Gohar Rashid and Hamza Ali Abbasi who went on to enjoy successful careers in theatre, television and film. Director Nida Butt followed Sharabeel’s footsteps in terms of her style of presentation, and in the last few years has become a force to be reckoned with, through her grand productions. She has produced and directed a number of successful plays such as Grease under the banner Made for Stage Productions.
Commercial plays in Urdu which are meant for the family audience, have also taken the contemporary landscape of Pakistani theatre by storm, and in this category the name of KopyKats Productions comes to light. Some of the most famous productions under this production company have been written by the legendary playwright Anwar Maqsood, such as Pawnay 14 August and Half Plate.
Slowly but surely, theatre has seeped its way into the curricula of universities and is now being taught as a subject at academic institutions such as Beaconhouse University Lahore, and NAPA (The National Academy of Performing Arts) in Karachi. NAPA is a premier performing arts institute, which has stalwarts such as Rahat Kazmi and Zia Mohyeddin in its faculty list. The institute not only mentors young actors but also stages quality theatre productions, often with some of the leading actors in the country.
Nonetheless, while theatre has a resounding presence in Pakistan, the volume of plays produced, and the revenues which they generate, make it difficult for theatre practitioners to rely on theatre as a sustainable and lucrative source of income. Many theatre actors are thus angling for careers in television and film, for fame as well as financial security. Theatre, therefore, ends up becoming a hobby for most professional artists, instead of a full-time profession.
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