6 April 2009

Theatre Preview - Sarhad paar

A piece written for Time Out Delhi in 2007.

Usmaan Peerzada is bringing his nautanki-style play Patay Khan to Delhi this fortnight. Trisha Gupta finds him upbeat about Pakistani theatre.

Usmaan Peerzada’s Patay Khan is one of the most eagerly-awaited productions at this year’s Hungry Heart Festival. The play is a musical satire written by Imran Peerzada, Usmaan’s younger brother and another member of the family that Pakistani newspaper The Nation described as “thespian and puppeteering royalty in Pakistan”.

“It’s a story about small people, with small problems,” said director Peerzada in a telephone conversation from Lahore. Patay Khan, which he described as “a nautanki in the pure Punjabi form”, opens in a small village where people are awaiting the arrival of the king. Before the king can show up however, the bureaucrats start conniving to ensure that no real communication takes place between ruler and subjects.

“We took stock characters from traditional puppetry and wove them into a play. So there’s the Nawab, and Kalkatte ki Gohar Jaan – I don’t know whether the character derives from the famous singer Gauhar Jaan. Patay Khan is the name of a thanedar, a bureaucrat, a guy who runs the show on behalf of the government. If someone acts important, hamare yahan kehte hain, ‘bada Patay Khan bana phirta hai’,” Peerzada explained.

Patay Khan has been staged in India before, at the National School of Drama’s Bharat Rang Mahotsav in January 2005. The Peerzadas – five brothers and two sisters – are the children of the late Rafi Peer (1898-1996), a pioneer of modern theatre in the subcontinent. Peer led an eventful life in an eventful time. Sent to study law in Oxford at 18, he got into a fight with a racist Englishman, left England and ended up in Berlin, where he fell in love with the theatre, working with Bertolt Brecht and training with Max Reinhardt’s Theatre Ensemble. But this was 1920s Germany. “In 1932-33, when the Nazis came to power, my father was first rounded up by the Gestapo, then presented to Goebbels (Hitler’s Propaganda Minister), who offered him a job: running the Voice of Berlin India broadcast, to get Indians to rise up against the British. My father decided it was time to leave.”

Back in India, Rafi Peer taught acting and direction at the Indian Academy of Dramatic Arts in Mumbai, while also writing exceptional radio and stage plays in Urdu and Punjabi, like Akhin. “He was from aristocratic Punjabi stock, so it was difficult for the family to accept: ‘yeh kya bhaand-mirasi ka kaam kar raha hai,’” said Peerzada. “The thing is, today, in Lahore, you can choose from among 16 plays on one evening, but they are all descendants of the same crude bhaand-mirasi style. Either that, or there are those snobbish NGO plays on women’s issues. Theatre is not about shouting slogans. It’s about joy – entertainment which makes people think.”

Apart from their own productions, the Peer Group runs three massive festivals – the World Performing Arts Festival, the International Puppet Festival and the Sufi Music Festival – giving people in Pakistan an opportunity to see productions from places like Ukraine and France. Peerzada is optimistic about the future of theatre in Pakistan. “Good work is being done by young people. In our Youth Festival, you can see the influence of international exposure. Things have changed drastically for the better in the last 11 years. Media is booming. We have a man in uniform running the government, but he has allowed freedom of expression."

Time Out Delhi ISSUE 3 Friday, May 04, 2007

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