focus Bhagat Singh from a Dalit perspective and “Waiting for Godot” adapted to contemporary Pakistani reality offered food for thought at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav. CHAMAN LAL

Two plays from Pakistan that featured in the just-concluded Bharat Rang Mahotsav deserve attention for their theme. One was “Insha ka Intezar” directed by Anwar Jafri from Karachi's Tehrik-e-Niswan group of Sheema Kirmani in Urdu. The other was the Punjabi play written by Shahid Nadeem, “Mera Rang de Basanti Chola” directed by Madeeha Gauhar of Lahore's Ajoka theatre group.

While the first play is an Urdu adaption of Samuel Beckett's world classic “Waiting for Godot” contextualised in the socio-political reality of Pakistan, the second, as can be derived from its title, is based upon the legend of Bhagat Singh, this time coming from the city where the martyr was politically active, Lahore.

Scripted, adapted and directed by Anwar Jafri, “Insha ka Intezar” turns Beckett's Absurd and not-so-progressive play into a more realistic one and grounded in the social reality of Pakistan, devastated by prolonged and frequent military coups and rules. The play features Sheema Kirmani, a seasoned theatre personality of Pakistan, as Zuleikha, and Salim Meraj as Karimuddin (Karmo) Along with Naseeban (Shama Askari) and an unnamed girl (Iman Mirzathey), they stand for the marginalised people of Pakistan. Victims of an oppressive system, they are sought to be controlled with brutal force — which is represented symbolically by the army officer character of Mansha (Hafeez Ali). Zuleikha and Karmo, living a subhuman life, are waiting for ‘Insha', to free them from deprivations and make their life liveable with dignity. In Pakistan's political context, Insha symbolises a ‘democratic setup', as opposed to the army rule of Mansha. While ‘Insha' is a shortened version of Insha Allah (God willing), which is used commonly in Pakistan, ‘Mansha' literally means ‘intention'! While Insha is abstract and always remains elusive, Mansha is concrete and functional, oppressing people. He is dragging his maid Naseeban bound with rope, which is in his hand and she serves him like a slave, except when she is given ‘headgear' to wear! Wearing ‘headgear', she talks ‘philosophy' and becomes a ‘free' human being, symbolising that it is ‘thinking', which leads to ‘freedom' from all kinds of slavery. At the time of her ‘philosophical murmurings', the army officer is spinning his head and is about to ‘collapse'! The play concludes with Mansha walking away with a roped ‘Naseeban'(fortune) and an unending wait for Insha by Zuleikha and Karmo. Anwar Jafri and Sheema Kirmani and their team have given new meaning to the 1969 Nobel Prize winning writer's classic play.

“Mera Rang de Basanti Chola”, written by Shahid Nadeem, presents Bhagat Singh through the Dalit character of Bogha (spelled Bhoga in the brochure). The legend of Bhagat Singh has many tales, both true and imagined. Bhagat Singh wrote a seminal essay on the Dalit issue, “Achhut da sawal” (Issue of Untouchables), exhorting Dalits to rise up as lions and claim their rights. It is said that Bhagat Singh, asked to make a last wish before execution, wished for roti cooked by ‘Bebe'(mother), which was how Bogha, a Dalit prisoner in jail, was addressed. The idea was that just as a mother looks after the hygiene needs of her child, the Dalits, condemned to carrying night soil, were performing the role of a ‘mother' to humanity and so deserved the respect due to a mother. Bogha was moved at this respect given to him by Bhagat Singh.

Shahid has woven the Bhagat Singh legend through the narration of Bogha, who stayed behind in Pakistan at Partition since, for ‘low castes', there was no difference between Hindustan and Pakistan. This line is a masterstroke of the playwright on the social conditions of both countries even after Partition and independence! The legend is further linked to the story of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's hanging. Nawab of Kasur, Mohammad Kasuri, was the magistrate who oversaw the hangings of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru, as many other magistrates at that time declined to perform this task they considered anti-national. And the same Kasuri was murdered at the very place where Bhagat Singh was hanged, known as “phansighat” of Central Jail, Lahore, but which was demolished and turned into Shadman colony after partition. Pakistan's ex-prime minister Bhutto was implicated in Kasuri's murder by the military ruler Zia-ul-Haq and hanged in 1979.Though Shahid has shown Bhagat Singh to be an atheist and socialist revolutionary, reading Lenin on the verge of execution, turning even Bogha into an an atheist in honour of his friend Bhagat Singh, the playwright also links the story to the Sufi saint Shah Jamal, who, legend has it, avenged Bhagat Singh's martyrdom by getting Kasuri punished for his crimes. Some people in Lahore said they had a vision of the saint at the time of the execution pledging revenge.

The play is enriched by songs like “Ghori” of Bhagat Singh, sung by Mela Ram Tayar on the streets of Lahore on 23rd March 1932, to mark the first anniversary of his martyrdom, “Pagri Sambhal Jatta”, “Mera Rang de Basanti Chola Mayee”, etc. The group got an emotional standing ovation from an overcrowded Kamani hall.

The author is former Chairperson of the Centre of Indian Languages at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is editor of Bhagat Singh's documents, published in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Marathi, Bengali and English.