As a relatively new resident of Lahore, I clearly remember the first time I visited Charing Cross. Driving along the famous Mall Road, we passed by the Governor's House, the Zoo, Avari Hotel, and soon arrived upon a large intersection with Queens Road. It was a busy area, and all I could make out was the large white building to my right. “That’s the Punjab Assembly,” said my friend from the driver's seat. “And you see that marble pavilion in front of it,” he continued, while trying to avoid the road barriers placed here and there, “Well, it used to hold the statue of Queen Victoria, but it’s been replaced with a Quran. This area is called Charing Cross; I forget what the new name for it is.”
This week, Ajoka Theatre presented their newest performance at Alhamra Arts Council, on January 31st and February 1st. Titled “Charing Cross,” the story of the play was centered around the area in Lahore known by the same name. Once functioning as the central point of the city, Charing Cross is recognized for its historical significance as a venue for protests and rallies; it was a common point for different people to gather and express their sentiments. In the words of writer and director, Shahid Nadeem, “The play takes its audience on a whirlwind journey through Pakistan’s political history, and enables them to experience the events, the stories of shattered dreams, and undying hope. Charing Cross is a salute to the resilient and optimistic spirit of the people.” Over the past 33 years, through the art of theatre, Ajoka has been bringing to light hidden narratives and alternate interpretations very courageously. Their newest drama was no exception. There was much excitement in the audience, and the largest hall in Alhamra was jam packed.
The play progressed in a chronological order and included important political events in Pakistan’s history, starting from independence and taking the audience through the journey of the past 70 years, in approximately two hours. From the rise and fall of presidents, military dictators, and prime ministers, to the popularity of different political trends such as socialism, islamization, and privatization. The stage was set with the white pavilion at the center, and all the action happening around it. Dance and poetry were used throughout the play, stimulating the audience to think. With so much information to convey, the actors were very strategically used as metaphors to represent different types of people and ideas within the society. The audience is transported through the story of this community, through the eyes of a sain baba and jamadar, for whom Charing Cross is home. We see their interactions with a young couple, Asim (Sohail Tariq) and Almas (Hina Tariq), who first meet at the Charing Cross bus station. Miss Malka, played by Mehreen Imran (her first performance), was a prominent woman of the area who ran a hotel. Another key character was Shehbaz (Usman Raj), who represents the typical pragmatic Pakistani who changes according to the needs of the time, and benefits from joining the popular bandwagon during each era.
At the end of the play, Shahid Nadeem acknowledged that the play was also a form of tribute to Hara Sain, who recently passed away. Hara Sain was a passionate supporter of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Pakistan’s People’s Party, but more than anything else, he was an avid believer in the idea of democracy. He was one of the characters who remained on stage throughout, and it is through his actions and reactions that the audience was given food for thought about our tumultuous history. Arshad Durrani played this role phenomenally well.
The impact of the play lies in the contrast shown between the past and present. In the beginning, we see a lively community, who despite their differences in class, gender, profession, find intersectionality in the form of Charing Cross. As things change, the statue is removed, external forces start playing an active role, and the constant breakdown of the political system leads to chaos. By the end of the play, Charing Cross is no longer recognizable. Like most works of art, the play had multiple layers of messages. Some might argue that the play was skewed in favour of the more progressive and secular political movements, either directly or indirectly. However, the overall theme of the play was to show the journey of a nation trying to find itself, with Charing Cross as a witness of the last 70 years.
All images provided by Ajoka Theatre
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