NAPA International Theatre Festival 2014 – Ismat Apa Ke Naam


NAPA Ismat Apa Ke Naam

There were two standing ovations that night at the NAPA auditorium in the old Hindu Gymkhana. The audience first rose to its feet when Naseeruddin Shah walked onto the stage to introduce the production, a dramatic retelling of three of Ismat Chughtai’s plays by Motley Theatre, titled Ismat Apa Ke Naam. That ovation was for Shah alone, fueled by the audience’s deep respect for his work in film, and their utter delight at seeing him in the flesh.


Photo credit: Syed Junaid Ahmed.

This production was an experiment of sorts, Shah said in his introduction. The storytellers would employ a mix of narration and acting, with basic use of props, lighting and sound, thus creating a more full-bodied storytelling experience. Karachi audiences had previously seen a simpler version of this being put into practice by Qissah Farosh, which had inserted a basic component of acting in their performance of the works of Patras Bukhari and Mirza Farhatullah Baig, but had stayed faithful to the narrative form of storytelling. Prior to that, Zambeel Dramatic Readings had paid tribute to Ismat Chughtai’s work in a more classical narrative style.

The benefits of the evolved storytelling model are obvious: it allows the narrator to interact with the audience, to react to the material while relaying it, and to laugh off mistakes – all the while maintaining the ambiance of a theatrical production. And so we saw Heeba Shah give a wide grin when she briefly stumbled at one point in her telling of Chhui Muee, a scathing critique of gender and class relations seen through the prism of childbirth. We saw Ratna Pathak Shah stop mid-sentence and chastise an audience member for leaving their cell phone on while narrating Mughal Bacha (originally published as Ghoongat), a funny and also incredibly sad lesson on love and ego. And we saw Naseeruddin Shah chuckle frequently through his telling of Gharwali, a hilarious literary treatise on the patriarchal concept of honour. Of course, given Shah’s skill as an actor, it is perfectly possible that the chuckling was intentional, but the point remains that the storytelling model allowed him to use it.

Over the course of an hour and some minutes, the three actors enthralled the audience with their charged performances. My only peeve was that Mughal Bacha was narrated in too low a voice; the audience had to strain to hear Ratna Pathak Shah. But Ratna Ji also served us one of the evening’s most memorable scenes, in which she prepared to say her prayers while building up to the climax of the story. The quiet, deliberate movements with which she performed the wuzu and wrapped her head scarf created an aura of both piety and dread as we waited to hear what would ultimately become of Kaalay Mian’s and Gori Bi’s unfortunate marriage.

It was testament to the strength of Chughtai’s writing and Shah’s direction that the theatrical aspects of the production never overpowered the stories. It seemed as though the Shah family was simply the channel; ultimately it was Ismat Apa whose voice emerged the strongest – unapologetic, unflinching – and that was exactly how it should have been.

NAPA Chairman Zia Mohyeddin with Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah. Photo by Fawad Khan.

NAPA Chairman Zia Mohyeddin with Naseeruddin Shah and Ratna Pathak Shah. Photo by Fawad Khan.

The second standing ovation of the night came when the actors converged on stage to take their bows. By this time, the applause was not just for Naseeruddin Shah. All three actors had, in their own way and style, owned the stories they had told. They had truly celebrated Ismat Chughtai, and in doing so they had done us a service. As Shah had pointed out in his introduction, Chughtai never got the recognition she deserved in her own country. Despite her obvious literary talents and diverse body of work, she forever became known as the woman who wrote Lihaf. The stories showcased in this production demonstrated that Chughtai was never one to step back from difficult themes, but the mere implication of lesbianism in Lihaf had caused a scandal that she was never quite able to overcome in the course of her career, or indeed even after she died. Every time Motley Theatre performs Ismat Apa Ke Naam, it reclaims some of the space, inch by precious inch, that should legitimately have been hers. And for that we are grateful.


The NAPA International Theatre Festival 2014 is on ’till 27th March. Get details for the event here.

All that is good and Frere


Life has a way of coming full circle – something to remember in these mad, maddening times. Burdened by the cross of our sins and our fears as a nation, and staggering under the weight of all the things that we know to be true even though we wish they weren’t, many of us feel helpless in Pakistan today; as if we are ineffectively digging our heels into the ground as we get dragged closer and closer to a yawning abyss. Equally the victims and perpetrators of injustice, we throw punches where there is only air and we protest by crying wolf. Our eyes fixed on what we are afraid lies ahead, we fail to look back; but if we did, we might notice that all along the trail of desolation and violence left behind us, life continues to quietly reassert, restructure and rebuild itself. For all the mayhem that people cause, the ability to recover is a fundamental building block of the natural and spiritual world and so, every once so often, life will come full circle. The question is: will you be there to see it when it happens?

This is the sense I had when I visited the Frere Hall book fair in Karachi earlier this summer. I had last been here seven years ago, accompanied by a photographer friend visiting from the US. We had gone to see the historic building on a Sunday morning and had been caught completely by surprise at the sight of a sprawling, tent-covered area lined by tables upon tables layered with books. The hall famous for its ceiling mural by Sadequain was not open to the public at that time, but the caretaker let us in. It was in terrible shape: dark, dusty, unused. The window panels, he said, had been shattered during the bombing at the US consulate two years before. No one had bothered to fix them, but (and at this he pointedly looked at my white American friend) he could take it upon himself to do the job if he had the money for it. The talk of bombing, the smell of decay and the enormous bee hive in one corner of the ceiling was making it was difficult to concentrate on the beauty of the mural. It was as if Frere Hall was still in mourning for what had come to pass in its environs on that day in 2002, when a vehicle full of explosive had blown up outside the consulate and killed over 50 people. We thanked the caretaker and gratefully escaped into the sunlight, where we spent several hours browsing through books and taking photos of the booksellers.

The fair attracts all sorts

I found out later that that was the last year the book fair had been allowed to run in those gardens. As the consulate moved to secure its surrounding areas, Frere Hall and its lawns were closed off to the public entirely. It made me angry to hear this. The presence of those books and those people had signified something critical in our post-9/11 country. I felt that the residents of Karachi had been consistently robbed of such simple pleasures  as reading and picnicking at precisely the time when they needed them most and that the closure of Frere Hall was a towering symbol of this. Two years later, there was another bombing at the American consulate and I remember thinking at the time that this building would probably remain closed for good.

Life moved on and in January of 2011, I shifted with my family to Karachi. Five months later, the news came: the book fair at Frere Hall was being resurrected. It would run from 8 am to 7 pm every Sunday. The US consulate had shifted to a new location and in its wake, the revival had already begun. My husband and I went at the first possible opportunity and we were not disappointed. The set-up was on a more modest scale than before, but it was still big enough to keep us busy for far more time than we had to spare with two children in tow. The original sense of being able to find bargains was still very much intact and the fair retained its quirky flavor: we were delighted to find books that were not available in regular bookshops. My husband found the third book in a trilogy that his father had been trying to complete for several years. I found English classics, Tintin comics and a title that was so interesting that it simply had to be purchased, regardless of whether one ever got around to reading it.

Where else would you find this?

What a joy to lug those books home. What a joy to soak in that atmosphere: children playing in the grass, people quietly browsing through book stalls and a steady stream of visitors flowing through the newly renovated, gorgeous Sadequain Art Gallery, now beautifully lit with repaired windows and an exhibition in progress. Frere Hall was reborn and with it, symbolically, so was the cultural heart of an entire city: momentarily arrested, but now beating, alive.


All the lit you'll ever need (click to enlarge)