Ehtesham Shahid on the Urdu play 'Mian, Biwi Aur Wagah'

A CATHARTIC EXPERIENCE: Ehtesham Shahid in a scene from “Mian, Biwi Aur Wagah”  

In times, when nostalgia is emerging as an important tool of cultural discourse, there comes an Urdu play that seeks to revive the lost art of letter writing. Written and produced by Dubai-based South Asian performing artists and media professionals working under Goonj banner, Mian, Biwi Aur Wagah is based on the real life experiences of senior media professional Ehtesham Shahid and his wife Amna Khaishgi. “We and some of our friends with common interest in South Asian literature used to sit and read out poetry of the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Faiz Ahmed Faiz. We also read out letters from someone to somebody,” relates Ehtesham, who hails from a remote district in Bihar and is now settled in Dubai.

Over a period of time, they realised how the tangible human touch associated with letters has suddenly disappeared from our lives. “As kids, we all grew up with receiving and writing letters. My grandfather used to receive dozens of them every evening and then he would spend hours replying to each one of them. We have to do something about it as the deluge of technology is reducing our relationships to merely transactional and we have become some sort of consumerist morons,” rues Ehtesham. That was the starting point for the “unique couple”, as Ehtesham describes the bond between the boy from Bihar and the Pathan girl from Karachi. This provides another creative twist. However, he clarifies that these are not love letters exchanged between a couple. “She wrote a letter expressing the cultural shock of visiting Bihar after marriage and I shared my experience of Karachi with my sister. Director Dhruti Shah D'Souza convinced us that if we had 10-12 such letters we could have a beautiful narrative on stage.” The challenge, Ehtesham says, was that the two had never delved into theatre. “But Dhruti insisted that nobody would be able to present the way we can.” Also the need for right diction made them accept the challenge. The hour-long play has been staged five times in Dubai to houseful shows and will have its India première this evening at the India Habitat Centre.

When it comes to the expression of longing through letters, those who grew up in ’80s and ’90s can’t forget the Pankaj Udhas song “Chitthi Aayi Hai” in Naam which captured an immigrant’s experience in 1986. “That was a very romanticised version of loss,” argues Ehtesham. “What we have successfully done is that we have stripped it off of all the romanticism or clichés associated with letter writing. Here you will listen to two human beings without any bogeys attached and that is what makes it human and identifiable.”

The idea also reminds of Feroz Abbas Khan’s timeless play Tumhari Amrita. “We took some elements of Tumhari Amrita but 80 of our work is an improvisation or a different take on the subject.” To make it multidimensional, Dhruti has personified Wagah as a character. “Wagah (Majid Muhammad) is the narrator, who also represents the border between India and Pakistan which unites and divides whichever way you look at it.” The play brings another lost tradition of postman and there is character called Kora Kagaz (Vrinda Bhandula). “She is waiting to be written upon and delivers it in the form of a kathak recital. The Postman is lamenting that his bag is empty for nobody writes letters anymore. These elements come together to provide multiple layers to the narrative.”

Then the letters are delivered in different styles so that the monotony doesn’t set in. “We have letters that are delivered in a dastangoi style and some letters become a sort of banter between husband and wife,” informs Ehtesham.

The argument from the other side could easily be that the death of letter writing is part of technical evolution. After all, once upon a time, pen and paper were also technical marvels. “I admit, we are fighting a losing battle. We are just telling if you have a friend across the border, you can pick a phone and send a Whatsapp message, but the more beautiful way is to express through a letter as you could gather your thoughts. There is a personal touch, and the limitation of space spurs creativity.” More than that letters help you value patience and understand pathos. “They allow us space to reflect on our relationships,” adds Ehtesham.

He remembers a viewer of Singapore-origin who wrote a letter to a friend 40 years after they fell out and stopped communicating. “The play inspired him to write a letter to say sorry. I wrote a letter to my mother ten years after she passed away. It proved to very cathartic for me.” It is part of the play as Ehtesham tries to convince others to undertake the exercise. A shy person, who is reluctant to talk about his personal experience in public, Ehtesham says the pin drop silence in auditorium makes it worth it. “The first half is a very roller coaster fun ride with India-Pakistan, Bihar-Pathan kind of exchanges about unique experiences. The second half becomes much more intense as very personal stories come out,” says Ehtesham.

The takeaways from these personal stories could be multiple. “Some may see them as metaphor for India and Pakistan. Some see them as an immigrant’s experience. There is a letter where a friend writes to my wife that how he used to think immigration as the panacea for all the ills and a safe future for generations to come but it is not how it is is. The moment the idea of culture and arts comes into it, you feel the pain. His children speak fluent English but they have forgotten Urdu. All these stories make you human; the letters make you human.” Will the Delhi audience identify with this pain? “We will figure it out tonight but I do feel human emotions remain the same, the sense of loss that we have for our culture and language is common. It is only more intense when you are abroad. I know there are people who are material seekers but I have friends who say cultural loss makes us poorer no matter how much material riches we have. I see a very significant part of audience identifying with the emotions.”

(“Mian Biwi Aur Wagah” will be staged at Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, on January 27 at 7 p.m. and on January 28 at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.)

Vehicle of culture

Ehtesham says when you are living among hundred nationalities, your cultural identity becomes an integral part of you. “I realised it in Dubai. And language is the vehicle of culture. So we made it a point that to go beyond our native languages. Bengali is as important for me as Urdu.” Fortunately, they found people from different cultural backgrounds. Dhruti Shah D’ Souza is one of them. Half-Marathi and half-Gujarati, Dhruti has directed Marathi plays and has worked with NCPA. This is her first Urdu play. “As a concept, Mian Biwi Aur Wagah developed very organically and so did its script. However, the stagecraft element had to be worked at various levels. We dealt with the complexities of emotions and made various shades of letter writing part of the narrative. It is a labour of love and we really look forward to share the stories contained in these letters with our Delhi audience.”

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Printable version | Mar 4, 2021 11:43:51 PM |

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