The richness of Islamic theatre

Taoos Chaman ki Myna  

A classroom debate moderated by this writer last week, with students of drama, brought to the fore misapprehensions regarding what one might term ‘Islamic theatre’ in India. The phrasing itself was called out as parochial in its scope, or too strongly affiliated with religious identity, and some even questioned the need for such a classification since we don’t usually talk about ‘a Hindu theatre’ (but of course we do, by glorious default). This was all compounded by the fact that there were no Muslims in the room, but arguably, one might say there were many among us whose world-views might have been influenced or even shaped by Islamic mores and values, given that we live in a country with one of the largest populations of Muslims in the world and even if insularity runs really deep, parallel cultures do meet at some point. Or, at least, we hope they do.

Rooted in culture

To explain further, when it comes to semantics, many use the words ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ as adjectives rather interchangebly, often in incorrect contexts. While the word ‘Muslim’ refers to those people who are followers of Islam and not to events or ideas or things, the word ‘Islamic’, according to scholar Ahmed E Souaiaia of the University of Iowa, “can be used to describe things that are present in Islamic societies and cultures, even if their origins are not rooted in Islam or produced by Muslim people.” It is an adjective that connotes a civilizational ethos and encompasses almost everything from architecture and art to philosophy and history and, yes, theatre. It is, without a doubt, an inclusive term, even if speaking it out loud might seem odd to our tongues, laced as they are with a multitude of conditioned prejudices. A corollary might be drawn with the word ‘queer’. For some it is an all-embracing cultural umbrella that covers an entire spectrum (the veritable rainbow), for others it remains a social label that is pejorative and reductive and can never be reclaimed. Even words like ‘feminist’ are double-edged these days, given the rise of ‘male anxiety’ culture post the advent of the #metoo movement. It is unfortunate that there are many who seek to interpret politically charged labels by being selective, or even cavalier, about the meanings that they want to extract, and that is a problematic privilege of gaze that most might be hard pressed to discard.

The notion of an Islamic theatre does not encourage the politics of exclusion or discrimination. Instead it is a canopy of cultural richness, even if the categorisation might make some uncomfortable if only due to its lustre. From aesthetic forms like the Dastangoi (or traditional Urdu storytelling) to mainstream fare like the stage adaptation of K Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam to sub-cultural gems like Bhagi Hui Ladkiyan, performed by young women from Delhi’s Nizammudin Basti, it cuts a large swathe across the cultural landscape and perhaps, acknowledging its cultural roots shouldn’t threaten those who live insecurely in majoritarian systems.

Tip of the iceberg

Plays such as Taoos Chaman Ki Myna, directed by Atul Tiwari and based on Naiyer Masud’s story, are set in a milieu where Islamic culture prevails — old-world Lucknow during the ill-fated reign of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. However, the vein of progressiveness that pervades the piece makes a strong case for its liberal credentials. This is different from a play like, say, Imran Rasheed’s Bade Miyan Deewane, based on Shaukat Thanvi’s Budbhas, where religion might be absent, but a patriarchal structure is very much in evidence, even if it lends itself to far-fetched but hilarious comic situations in the mien of the Urdu farces of yore, which wore their ‘Muslimness’ both lightly and without reproach. Then there is Deepan Sivaraman’s masterful theatrical adaptation of O V Vijayan’s Khasakkinte Ithihasam, in which Islamic religious fervour is ingrained in the soil of the small hamlet of Khasak, rather than being ‘othered’.

Where purportedly non-Muslim theatremakers come into the picture, there is usually an outsider’s gaze that might codify everything from hijabs to prayer mats to skullcaps, while often, Muslim theatremakers operate from within the status quo without commenting on ages-old practices and customs, but focusing instead on humanising the people who abide by them — Rasheed’s Phir Se Shaadi, where a divorced Muslim couple seek to remarry, but not before negotiating a minefield of Quranic regulations. As Anamika Haksar’s Ghode Ko Jalebi Khilane Le Jaa Riya Hoon showed us, these works are just the tip of an iceberg.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 9:35:52 AM |

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