Review: Tales of 1947

Guest post by Qurratulain Zaman


“Pakistan ek aisi jagah hai jahaan gale katne wale usture bante haiN,” an inmate in the hospital tells Bashan Singh when he asks, “What is Pakistan?”

Toba Tek Singh is one of the most celebrated works of Saadat Hasan Manto. Set in post-partition Lahore’s Central Mental Hospital, it is the story of an asylum inmate called Bashan Singh, whom everyone calls ‘Toba Tek Singh’ after the town he hails from.

Photo credit: Abeer Shaukat

Photo credit: Abeer Shaukat

Manto’s story was recently adapted for the London stage in a production called Tales of 1947 – a play in Urdu, Punjabi and English performed by students of the School of Oriental Arts and Sciences (SOAS). Directed by Marta Schmidt, a Polish student in her final year of BA Politics and South Asia, the production combined music, dance and shadow play. The play premiered in March this year and due to its tremendous success it was performed again recently to a jam-packed audience.

The narrative begins a few days after the partition of the subcontinent. Indian and Pakistani authorities have decided to divide among themselves, like many other things, the lunatics living in the Lahore asylum on the basis of their religion.

Photo credit: Elif Sipahioglu

Photo credit: Elif Sipahioglu

Toba Tek Singh and his fellow inmates are not happy with the decision. Wanting to stay together in Lahore, they cry and fight with each other and call their Gods names for dividing them. A Sikh lunatic asks another Sikh, “Sardarji, why are we being deported to India? We don’t even know their language.”

Bashan Singh of Toba Tek Singh escapes the asylum with a sense of confusion and displacement. He asks everyone he meets, “Where is Toba Tek Singh? In Pakistan or in India?” He encounters different people on his way and witnesses the turmoil faced by them during the partition. One of these people is Bahadur Singh, who shares his memory of honour killings of women from his village. The narrative here is very touching. Bahadur recounts how the women of his village aged between 10 and 40 were killed by their own brothers or fathers to save their honour. The families feared that the Muslims would rape them or force them to convert.

Shadow play 1947

Photo credit: Elif Sipahioglu

This particular scene as enacted on stage was powerful and very emotional. As background music, Schmidt decided to use the song ‘Saada Chirya Da Chamba’, a famous Punjabi folk song popularized by the late Surinder Kaur and Prakash Kaur, which is traditionally sung during the formal departure of a bride from her parents’ home. In the play it was employed to depict the departure of the women of Punjab to another world. The version sung for stage in Raag Churaksi by twin sisters Hernoor and Sukhman Grewal was very moving and highlighted the wider displacement and suffering of women during the partition of 1947.

Similarly, ‘Aj Akhan Waris Shah Nu’ a poem written by Amrita Pritam (1919-2005) was recreated by Amrit Kaur Lohia for a rape scene in the play. Amrit Kaur, the singer and music director of the play, is definitely a gifted young musician. Her pure, deep voice seemed to take the listener back in time.

Photo credit: Abeer Shaukat

Photo credit: Abeer Shaukat

Further into the play, Bashan meets Javed who has lost his lover Husna during the partition. Javed longs for her and cries day and night. Marta Schmidt re-enacted this scene on stage with a breathtaking semi-classical dance on ‘Husna’, a song by Piyush Mishra sung in Coke Studio India.

All the actors in the play were amateurs but their performance was exceptional. It was obvious that the subject really touched them. Like the characters of the story, they too were of different backgrounds: Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Zain Haider, a British-Pakistani who played a Hindu, expressed the troupe’s wish to travel with the play to India and Pakistan. “We would like to go to the colleges and schools in Pakistan with Tales of 1947,” he said.

At a time when Manto’s work is being rediscovered in Pakistan, this innovative interpretation by an excellent British student troupe could definitely serve as an inspiration.


Q. Zaman is a Pakistani journalist. She divides her time between Bonn and London. She tweets @natrani.

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