Ismat Chughtai’s eternal legacy

Tricycle Productions’s Lihaaf presents the story in a radical new light  

Decades after his death in 1955 at the tender age of 43, Saadat Hasan Manto’s legend persists at a fever pitch despite attempts to relegate his works to oblivion. After all, powers-that-be are still rankled by the mirror to society’s detriments his writings held up with macabre alacrity. This swirling cult of personality has eluded his great contemporary, Ismat Chughtai. A fellow enfant terrible of Urdu literature, Chughtai’s enduring legacy has acquired — over the 25-odd years since her passing — the quality of a slow-burning flame of muted flicker, that resists being quenched with an aplomb of its own.

Chughtai forever

In theatre circles, Chughtai enjoys, from time to time, what could be termed the sporadic resurgence. We are in the midst of one such wave, a year after a somewhat muffled commemoration of her purported birth centenary, based on her year of birth being widely reported as 1915. This despite all evidence conclusively pinpointing to August 21, 1911 when she was born to mofussil trappings in Badayun in Uttar Pradesh. In 2011, just before a performance of Ismat Apa Ke Naam, Naseeruddin Shah quietly acknowledged this lost signpost of history. Shah and his troupe, Motley, have contributed immeasurably to Chughtai’s longevity as a literary and feminist icon ever since that play was first performed in 2000. Manto Ismat Haazir Hain followed in quick succession, which included court arguments from the infamous obscenity trial in which the two literary stalwarts were both embroiled. He for the torrid Bu, and she for the sapphic Lihaaf. Another Chughtai anthology, Kambakht Bilkul Aurat, was brought out in 2009, an association with the Pahwas (Seema and Manoj) of Kopal Theatre.

These plays were dramatised narratives presented in the authors’ original voices. Chughtai’s stories like Gharwali, Lihaaf, Mughal Bachcha and Amar Bail, took their rightful place in the public consciousness.

A steady stream

In the Capital, Chughtai adaptations continue to find audiences. A cursory search online reveals at least half a dozen recently staged productions, or announcements of upcoming fixtures. Over the past weekend, the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) showcased Noor Zaheer’s Kahani ki Kahani, Ismat ki Zabani, a play based on her autobiography; Kaghazi Hai Pairahan, and assorted stories. It took place at one of Delhi’s most intimate venues, S47, a refurbished basement in Panchsheel Park. The coming weekend, the Stein Auditorium at India Habitat Centre will host Sunil Mehra and Askari Naqvi, who rustle up a dastangoi-style retelling of Gharwali. This provocative Chughtai tale was once optioned for the big screen by Mani Ratnam, as the ill-fated Lajjo, a vehicle meant for Kareena Kapoor and Aamir Khan. At least two other productions based on the same story abound, Rajesh Tiwari’s Laajo, and a version by Soleman Ali that recently played at Studio Safdar. Elsewhere, the Pandies Theatre Group stage Ismat’s Love Stories, which casts the Chughtai and Manto dynamic in the mould of a mercurial love match, even as Sayeed Alam’s Mughal Bachcha continues its run.

Chughtai’s own plays like Dhani Bankein or Bhoot Gaadi were performed in the 1940s by IPTA. She was a bonafide member of the Progressive Writer’s Association. In her essay, ‘Two Brothers’, Bhisham Sahni’s daughter Kalpana has written about how Bhoot Gaadi was an anti-Communist play, remoulded as an anti-communal one by KA Abbas, for the Ahmedabad IPTA Conference. It featured Shaukat Azmi in her first acting role, not long after her marriage to Kaifi Azmi. Interestingly, those plays seem to have been consigned to history, and it’s her stories that have survived as fodder for the stage. Most prominent in this oeuvre has, of course, been Lihaaf, an account of a young Chughtai’s encounter with the reclusive Begum Jaan, at whose palatial home her innocence is forever shattered.

A new path

Tushar Dalvi’s compendium The Darkroom Project, currently doing the rounds of suburban fringe venues, includes a shadowy retelling of the tale. There’s also Tricycle Productions’s Lihaaf which presents the story in a radical new light. These Mumbai productions go against the grain of how Chughtai stories have traditionally been told, even if that style of progressive if old-world sophistication is less than two decades old.

The Tricycle version has been economically devised by a young ensemble, comprising Kartavya Anthwaal Sharma, Radhika Chopra and Rohit Mehra, who flit in and out of multiple characters, but primarily embody the young Chughtai, Begum Jaan and her constant companion, Rabbo, respectively. If one were to parse Chughtai’s freely available Urdu text, or even Syeda S Hameed’s English translation (featured in a 1996 anthology brought out by the now-defunct Kali for Women imprint), Begum Jaan’s overtures towards an impressionable Ismat are quite unmistakably those of a sexual predator. This is not because we are watching it using a contemporary prism. When representing the piece as a solo performance, as Heeba Shah does in Manto Ismat Haazir Hain, or as Bhavani Prakash did in her experimental Kannada piece, Koudi, the nuances of these trangressions are subsumed in the progressive mien of how womanhood itself is represented. Shah’s pungently articulated text and Prakash’s stark visual metaphors reminded us of the oppressive social structures women attempt to find their way out of, with desires and taboos and social realities are all knit together in the form of a veritable quilt. In Tricyle’s minimalist staging, the child abuse and its emotional toll is substantially foregrounded. The oppressed become oppressors, even if we cannot ultimately cast them in the mould of outright malefactors.

The writer is a playwright and stage critic

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 6:30:42 AM |

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