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Who’s afraid of Dara Shikoh’s ghost?

Raza Rumi (published in TFT this week)

Madeeha Gauhar
Prince Dara at the feet of his
Sufi saint
Emperor Aurangzeb
Dara Shikoh
Dara reading the Upanishads with Hindu priests
Maulana Maududi
To present a play on a prince who argued – with reason and reference – that there was little difference between the Upanishads and the tenets of mystical Islam is no ordinary feat. After all, this is a country where powerful forces within the state and society are hell bent on turning the Land of the Pure into a haven for cultural fascism
The Ahmedis are hounded on a regular basis, the Shias are being murdered and even the Barelvi majority feels unsafe given the high profile murders of their leadership
The propagation of Islam in the subcontinent was the handiwork of the Sufis who showed the path to a large number of people through the message of tolerance, harmony and reconciliation. Recognising the roots of our indigenous cultures is now the only weapon that Pakistan’s intelligentsia possesses

It is now a given that the Pakistani state is a playground for Islamism and extremism under various guises and forms. Since the passage of the Objectives Resolution in 1949, the state by design and sometimes by default has surrendered to the phantoms of the orthodox Islamic interpretation of the world. It is true that religion was central to the sloganeering for Pakistan, but the post-1947 architecture of the Pakistani state was meant to be secular and democratic. Whatever the proponents and apologists of a jihadi state might have to say, Jinnah’s words and deeds were clear. Iqbal’s vision, inspired by Islamic philosophy and strands of mystical thought, was also clearly anti-Mullah.

This was hardly surprising, as a majority of Indian Muslims, not unlike South Asians of today, were averse to orthodoxy. From the Bhakti movement to folk and Sufi traditions, mullahs and pundits have not enjoyed popular legitimacy, as their alliance with power was resented and rejected by the populace. It is also well known that Mr Maududi and his ilk were bitterly opposed to Pakistan and accused the Muslim League leadership of being un-Islamic. Even stranger is the fact that this essential truth is rarely discussed in the public domain, and excessive coverage and importance given to the orthodox champions of Pakistani nationalism in the media and in textbooks, betrays how the age-old nexus between Pakistani monarchs and the Mullahs has survived the test of time.

Ajoka theatre based in Lahore has been attempting to challenge the status quo. Its plays rooted in the folk and street traditions of the subcontinent have raised political themes and placed political mobilisation at the centre of any discussion for social change. Recently, its play Dara Shikoh was staged in Lahore, and this marked a watershed in our cultural and political landscape. Dara Shikoh, the elder son of Emperor Shahjehan, despite his brutal murder at the hands of his Mullahesque brother Aurangzeb, continues to represent a fault line that runs through the past and the present of South Asia, especially in Pakistan.

To present a play on a prince who argued – with reason and reference – that there was little difference between the Upanishads and the tenets of mystical Islam, is not an ordinary feat in a country where powerful forces within the state and society are hell-bent on turning the Land of the Pure into a haven for cultural fascism. Above all, Dara’s stiff resistance to a militant version of Islam and its exclusionary theological constructs is perhaps most relevant in these times.

However, Ajoka’s effort to take the play to our culturally desertified and politically bankrupt Islamabad, for a presentation at the Pakistan National Council of the Arts (PNCA), has been thwarted by officialdom, as it challenges the state complexion and orientation. One wishes that such a comment were merely speculation, but it seems that there is enough evidence to suggest that a female MNA from the Jamaat-e-Islami wrote to the PNCA earlier. Apparently, she believed that Ajoka was guilty of making fun of Islamic values and represented a threat to the republic of the believers and munafaqeen alike.

How ironic that this is no different from the late 1970s when a senior bureaucrat, now a media personality and scholar (of sorts), authored an article where General Zia ul Haq was compared to the austere and God-fearing Aurangzeb, and Dara was portrayed as a precursor to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. The maverick civil servant argued that in the clash of ideology, Zia’s coup was symbolic of religious power. Pakistan suffered from Zia’s assumed divine right to rule in the name of Islam for eleven long years, during which intolerance, bigotry, sectarianism and dictatorship shook the foundations of this country. Intellectual voices and activist groups such as Ajoka have to constantly contend with Zia’s legacy, and the wily servants of the state are always eager to provide legitimacy to retrogression.

Ajoka’s earlier play Burqvaganza explored another explosive subject, that of purdah, and its literal interpretation at the expense of the metaphorical and spiritual meaning. The female MNA referred to above, who also happens to be the daughter of the former Amir of the Jamaat, even raised the issue in the National Assembly and protested that Ajoka’s legitimate questions about the burqa were tantamount to demeaning Islam. History and politics move in cycles, and this outcry in the Parliament was not different from the earlier assaults on the secular vision of Pakistan. All our rulers, except perhaps Ayub Khan, pandered to the orthodox lobby. Under General Zia ul Haq, Islamisation became an official policy and its instruments the un-uniformed part of the national security apparatus.

A small theatre group therefore is pitted against far larger forces of orthodoxy and regressive medievalism. This is shameful, given that an elected government is ruling Pakistan, and the ruling party has been hostile to the ideology of Zia ul Haq. But Zia seems to be alive as much as his nemesis Bhutto. Whilst the jiyalas may chant zinda hai Bhutto, the institutions are pretty smug and happy to articulate zinda hai Zia. Small wonder that JI, whose lack of electoral worth has time and again been exposed, has the audacity to become a guardian of our faith and nationalism.

When Ajoka’s executive director Madeeha Gauhar called the other day to share the recent phase of her ‘struggle’ in the democratic era, she was obviously disturbed. And given her penchant for speaking the truth she was also not too charitable about the Mullah brigade. While she was talking on the phone, her voice faded and a recording of a Hamd (a eulogy for the Almighty) emerged from nowhere. This was amusing, yet quite unnerving. Our Constitution and laws prohibit anyone to monitor citizens’ expression and speech in the public and private spheres. And, to experience this intrusion was not pleasant at all.

Interestingly, the minions of Big Brother played a popular Hamd, that begins with the verse Koi tau haye jo nizam-e-hasti challa raha haye. Muzaffar Warsi, who apparently was Zia ul Haq’s favourite poet, had composed these verses. In view of his special place in the Zia kingdom, he was accorded with various state honours and also a cushy state job. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan later rendered this piece in his magical voice.

I clearly remember a discussion that took place in the presence of the late Ahmed Nadeem Qasimi, a twentieth century literary giant. Many senior poets critiqued this Hamd for being a problematic hymn for God Almighty, since it did not express absolute belief in God but worked through an inference: there must be Someone who was managing the universe! Thus the element of doubt marred a believer’s chant in praise of his Creator.

More importantly, the bugged phone line sent a clear message: that la-deen (irreligious as secularism is understood by the clerics) Madeeha Gauhar had to be ‘censored’ even in a private conversation, and reminded that there is a God. And, the chosen, self-appointed representatives were managing the show in His name.

This is not limited to the minions of the state apparatus. Such attitudes are now embedded in our curricula, modes of instruction, thousands of madrassas and more dangerously, elements of the media who were trying to convince us of the glories of the Taliban until the Pakistan Army valiantly took on the miscreants.

A journey that commenced with the Right’s struggle to capture political space in the 1940s, and with the state’s cynical support, has culminated in capitulation to such forces. The gradual erosion of Jinnah’s Pakistan has also led to the ascendancy of all that Pakistan was not supposed to represent. The Ahmedis are hounded on a regular basis, the Shias are being murdered, and even the Barelvi majority feels unsafe given the high-profile murders of their leadership. What we have is a curious mix of a Wahabi-Salafi variant of Islamism with several local offshoots, which are not averse to using violence and butchery as weapons.

The propagation of Islam in the subcontinent was the handiwork of Sufis and sages who showed the path to a large number of people through the message of tolerance, harmony and reconciliation. Violence simply did not deliver in this part of the Islamic world.

This is why recognising the roots of our indigenous cultures is important. It is now the only weapon that Pakistan’s intelligentsia possesses. To encourage the airing of alternative messages and interpretations such as Dara’s worldview, and challenging the burqa’s form […]

Ajoka’s new play on “Dara Shikoh”

It is absolutely a significant cultural landmark in Pakistan. Ajoka has decided to stage a play on a personality that has been neglected by India and Pakistan. His views and role in history challenges the myths of Indian and Pakistani nationalism and confronts religious militancy rampant in the two countries. Had Dara – the visionary, sage and believer in humanism – lived, we may have avoided blood, carnage and violence that defines South Asia of today. Those interested to explore the hidden history, removed from textbook propaganda must watch this play. The venue and timings can be found at the end of this post. Now the formal introduction to the play:

Dara – A play on the life and times of Mughal prince Dara Shikoh

Ajoka’s new play “Dara” is about the less-known but extremely dramatic and moving story of Dara Shikoh, eldest son of Emperor Shahjahan, who was imprisoned and executed by his younger brother Aurangzeb. Dara was not only a crown prince but also a poet, a painter and a Sufi. He wanted to build on the vision of Akbar the Great and bring the ruling Muslim elite closer to the local religions. His search for the Truth and shared teachings of all major religions is reflected in his scholarly works such as Sakeena-tul-Aulia, Safina-tul-Aulia and Majma-ul-Bahrain. The play also explores the existential conflict between Dara the crown prince, and Dara the Sufi and the poet. […]

Ajoka Theatre and the Caucasian Chalk Circle

My piece published in The Friday Times (October 24 issue)

Who is entitled to keep the child – one who is a better, nurturing mother, or the one who may be the natural mother but could not care for the child? The larger question then haunts the audience: who is entitled to ownership – the one who has the deed or the one who tills the land?

Ajoka Theatre has revived a production that was first staged twenty three years ago. A deft adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, its vernacular version, Chaak Chakkar, is a timeless comment on the viciousness of Pakistan’s exploitative culture of power politics. Perhaps the duo, Shahid Nadeem the playwright, and Madeeha Gauhar the director, would have tried to capture bits of social reality in the mid 1980s when General Zia was still the Lord Master of Pakistan. Why did Ajoka choose to stage this after a gap of two decades?

As Madeeha Gauhar explained: “In 2008 one marvels at how Brecht had foreseen the chaos, the anarchy, the shameless switching of loyalties of recent years, especially since the return of the popular leadership exile.” The seat of total power, “symbolized as Lal Mahal, is uncannily similar to Lal Masjid and Lal Haveli of our times,” she added. […]

Feryal Ali Gauhar – femme fatale

Conversations with novelist, filmmaker, feline aficionado, and femme fatale, Feryal Ali Gauhar, as she prepares to launch her second novel

Who doesn’t know Feryal Ali Gauhar? A novel at the top of The New York Times international bestseller list, years of television appearances and a highly publicised marriage to Jamal Shah that became fodder for countless gab sessions, have caricatured and made famous her persona. Had I not known her personally, I too may have fallen for the half-imagined tales littering the drawing rooms of socialites in this land of the pure. But I have had the pleasure of Feryal’s acquaintance for years, and not a moment of our friendship has resembled the images painted by petty gossip and lazy misinformation.

Feryal is a celebrated actor, filmmaker, journalist, activist, development worker and above all, a renowned novelist. Our recent meeting in her Zaman Park, Lahore residence took place after a long interlude. That afternoon, with the winter sun at our backs, we sat in her garden and talked with abandon while several of her cats and pet dogs meandered in and out of the plant-life; silent witnesses to our conversation and its occasional unfettered laughter.

Feryal is the youngest child of dynamic, accomplished parents. Her late mother, Khadija Gauhar, was a leading intellectual in Lahore who came to the city from South Africa after marrying her father, Sayyid was a military man from the NWFP who later retired from the army and took to farming. Her elder sister, Madiha Gauhar, is a talented theatre personality who founded theAjoka theatre group and has managed it for over two decades. Feryal was initially associated with Ajoka as its first female actor. The sisters also have an older brother, Aamir, an industrial engineer who operates a business in alternative energy products.

As a young woman Feryal attended the Lahore American School. Her experiences there included a reaction to the school’s requirement that all students, regardless of nationality, pledge allegiance to the United States. In response to this practice, the eight year old Feryal insisted that the Pakistani national anthem be played for the entire school as well. Later, Feryal was the first Pakistani and first female to head the school’s Student’s Council. She was an honour role student and captain of several sports teams. Several scions of leading feudal families at Aitchison College at that time remember Feryal leading her team into the school grounds to play soccer. What they especially remember is the soccer team uniform which revealed a rather shapely pair of legs. “Some have never forgotten that sight,” she chuckles. […]