Voices Of Dissent In Pakistan: How A Theatre Group Is Questioning Religious Dogmas
Traversing through the land of Lahore, one must find bits and pieces of dissent scattered all over the place. The land where many freedom fighters of independence breathed, couped, conspired and eventually martyred storming a revolution against the Britishers. However, their essence remains alive – heaving in the corners of the narrow bylanes or in the voices of dissent that echo against the tyrant society.
One such voice reverberates loudly every day in the walls of Surkha Ghar where a small group of whimsical people go on a quest to find the most uncomfortable answers, and challenge the rigid norms of society through their beloved art – theatre!
Surkha Ghar or Mad Mask Theater is a theatre group established in the year 2014 by Usama Lodhi Aul, a theatre artist who has also served in ranks in Pakistan.
Having performed in 120 national and international platforms, the group aims to question and quash the taboos and stigma that shackle the society of the Islamic State of Pakistan. The intention is to explore various art forms to question what is wrong with society. The group has chosen art as a means of communication as they believe art is something one resonates and connects with on a deeper level. Hence, performing on such topics and tutoring the students for free, Surkha Ghar intends to aid the fractures of their society through method acting, dance, and music.
“I was a religious teen until I got in touch with my uncle who was ostracized from our society for speaking vehemently against religious and social stigma. We would sit and talk endlessly discussed taboos, blasphemous content and that time I got exposed to various social, cultural and religious innuendos that hampered our society from becoming progressive,” said Usama, as Faiz Ahmed Faiz bol ke lab azad hain tere bol ke zuban ab tak teri hai played in the backdrop.
However, to lay the foundation stone of such a mutinous organization, Usama drew backlash from the public in his initial years. He was ostracized from his family. He meandered from one door to another, found his haven in masjids and mazhaars only to realize his dream of opening an organization that talks about issues which are not preferred to be discussed even within the closed doors.
“It was like a secret society where I worked discreetly with people whose thoughts aligned with mine. Bunking lectures, reading the history of our freedom fighters, and dissolving ourselves into the world of theatre,” remembered Usama.
Usama further told The Logical Indian that it is not the era of Bhagat Singh or Chandrashekhar Azad where one can be so gutsy. “We slide the truth into our viewers’ mind without them getting to know of it. You slap truth on their faces, they take this as a big question mark on their identity,” laughed Usama.
However, the journey to proclaim truth has been bumpy and full of hindrances for the Surkha Ghar.
Surkha Ghar was slapped with three sedition charges for their performance on transgender rights, Pashtoon Tahaffuz Movement, and Islamic dogmas. Usama had been incarcerated twice for coming up with such acts in public. The group was also on the verge of getting shut under the blasphemy act of Pakistan. According to the act, crossing religious lines in Pakistan tantamount to capital punishment.
“There is only one motto that every member of the Surkha Ghar abides by and i.e. being pro-truth. To lay bare the harsh realities of our society. To not be afraid to point fingers on the authority, state, and the army,” asserted Usama.
However, the 25 people group has only three women working and volunteering for them. According to Parveen(name changed), the struggle intensifies tenfold when it comes to women associating themselves with such rebellious organization.
“Women are shouldered with more social and religious responsibilities. Our moral code of conduct is more stringent than that of men. Staying back late for tutoring and practices will directly result in serious consequences at home,” said Parveen, who was unwilling to converse with The Logical Indian initially.
“I still remember I was so thrilled for my first performance which was to be witnessed by my parents. The moment they figured out, I was assumed as a transgender imploring for the basic rights. They reprimanded me, called me names and prevented me from indulging into any theatrical performance. To this date they don’t know what my extra classes are about,” chuckled Parveen.
Parveen is of the view that women are expected to dress in a certain way, look in a certain way, subscribe to societal rules and regulations. While liaison with the theatres asked her to go animalistic, hysterical, evoke the pent up emotions to bring about the change. “Change we want, change we shall bring,” established Parveen.
While maintaining the fervor in every performance, Surkha Group is also backed and joined by prominent theatre artists and journalists in Pakistan for the kind of work they are doing. One such renowned theatre artist is Mehboob Alam, who is dedicated to theatres for the last 40 years. Upon asking where does he drive his inspiration from, he replied, “We are just trying to walk on Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Sahab’s path. The parameters they set while defining the 90s parallel movies, same parameters we try to put in our work.”
“Wo ek daur hua karta tha parallel movies ka, Amol Palekar ka, Satyajeet Ray ka, humein bas deewana kar dia unke abhinay ne(there was a time when parallel movies in Bollywood rose to prominence along with Amol Palekar, Satyajeet Ray, their acting made me go whimsical),” Alam said nostalgically- as he enacted Nana Patekar and delivered the dialogue impersonating his voice, thoda sa rumani ho jayein (let’s be a little romantic) for The Logical Indian.