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Lahore Agitprop Theatre (part 2)

I’m staying in the NCA hostels, the college halls of residence.  The NCA staff had been lovely enough to offer me my own mini-apartment, though it felt better to be in amongst the students in order to recruit and also to get to know prospective members of The Lahore Agitprop Theatre Company.  It also sounded like a lot more fun, which it absolutely is.  I feel like I’m a student again, but then again I’m not sure if I ever really lost that feeling.  I’m staying amongst painters, sculptors, musicians, designers and architects who have all been quick to embrace my presence here in the typical Pakistani fashion I associate this country with.  With a whole new troupe of friends that feel as old as they are new, I spend the evenings either zipping between rooms chasing the action or heavily engaged in gup-shup, a typical Pakistani pursuit of chatting idly away over cups of teas and cigarettes, involving much laughter and teasing as basic essentials.

During the days I’ve generally been at the NCA campus.  Along with my time in the hostel it’s proving to be a necessary part of this project.  I’m finding that establishing genuine relationships across the college is becoming a vital and essential part of developing this company, equal to the workshops themselves.

You’re the guy doing the theatre workshops aren’t you?’, I routinely get asked.  ‘So what is it you’re doing exactly? … Ohokay’.

Steadily building these individual and group relationships is of course important for people to get to know and trust me, but also vice versa.  Undoubtedly the scope of this project is greatly ambitious and those of us who are so far involved with propagating it’s vision are as equally excited by this ambition, as we are by what we consider to be it’s realism.

A new generation of Pakistanis have grown up witnessing their country slip into times of increasing instability, none possibly moreso than the juncture the country finds itself at today.  Pakistan has been amongst the greatest victims of the War of Terror, outside of Afghanistan and Iraq.  Whilst simultaneously attempting to appease the Allied Forces, most likely for its own self-preservation and also providing refuge for the millions of Afghan refugees, so as to create some stability within it’s immediate region, it’s quite figuratively found itself between a rock and a very hard place.  It’s apparent partner in this battle against extremism, the USA, bombs Pakistanis as though it were a computer game played thousands of miles away with seeming impunity, making enemies not only of themselves but also of the Pakistani government and military institutions.  Pakistanis have had to cope with this impossible position whilst at the same time, still addressing the internal issues of what is still a young country; in the process of crystallising it’s own identity and future course.

The Lahore Agitprop Theatre therefore aims to be nothing less than a platform and vehicle by which young contemporary Pakistanis can engage with their country’s present and also it’s future.  Amongst the company’s aims is to create a youth collective who rather than simply being affected, seek also to affect change by using their skills as theatre practitioners to educate themselves and also their audiences.  Seeking the ‘ghost-narratives’ between mainstream news-stories and presenting them through the medium of the highest possible quality of theatre, The Lahore Agitprop Theatre Company will be a force of agitation in contemporary society, whilst propagating relevant and vital information.

Along with my Pakistani co-coordinators, I see this as clear as day.  I see, taste and feel the existence of this company and know their potential, both within Pakistan and elsewhere and so I walk around the NCA campus and hostel with this picture at the front of my mind, seeking to find those figures that can complete it.

Saying that though, I spent most of last Wednesday afternoon gup-shupping (see above) with the well-respected and much loved architecture professor, Mr. Arfan Ghani.  Entertained by his vicious sense of humour, we chatted at length enquiring about the effect of post 2001 US and UK aggression upon societies in the UK and Pakistan.  He spoke much about the naivety demonstrated by the USA and Allied forces, in little understanding the cultural complexities of their target countries and instead of extinguishing any religious extremism, have only fanned its flames.  I spoke much of the Islamophobia given rise to in the UK, setting the stage for extreme Conservative policies, which mark the beginning of a severe regression in the gap between rich and poor again, whilst simultaneously nurturing the soil for a new age of far-right activity.  Not the happiest of subject matters, though the tea and Arfan Saabs company sweetens most things.  Arfan Saab has a wonderfully endearing quality of calling everyone ‘Sir’, students, colleagues and guests alike.  I liked it and have adopted it for my own interactions with the people I meet here and maybe for after too.

The workshop that evening was a significant drop from the fifty who attended the evening prior, but at fourteen participants it was still respectable enough and I felt as though my core members were beginning to surface.  Time-keeping being the usual concern however, the workshop actually began at 6.30 instead of the agreed 6 o’clock.  It’s of course frustrating, not only because I’m coming from a country with obsessive regulations of time that are imposed upon every breath breathed, but also due to the fact that time is something we don’t actually have a lot of.  An indoor performance is due on Thursday 22nd March at 5pm in the main college auditorium, with an adapted outdoor performance for Friday 23rd March, Pakistan Day.  At one and a half hours a day, the time accountant within me screams silent panicked cries, which I’m trying to keep silent.

The workshop, albeit short, went quite well.  Working with the smaller number bred the beginning of a company dynamic.  Spending significant time upon physical and vocal warm-ups that also include basic yoga exercises, the participants created images to express various emotions and built tableaux-type pictures using their bodies alone, representing general themes of religion, war and politics.  Participants were then asked to raise a question to the rest of the group that they would liked to have discussed.  The first question was whether women were safe in contemporary Pakistani society?  All the members lined themselves up across a spectrum to indicate their position, with those that thought they were on one end and those that thought they weren’t on the other and everyone else arranged in between accordingly.  Once positions were taken, a lively discussion took place as participants felt desperate to justify their adopted positions.  Other questions discussed in this way were whether change could ever be take place in Pakistan by any one individual and also whether murder could be justified?  Most people were hopeful about the ability to bring about change, one participant said people here talk much and do too little, another interestingly pointed out a propensity for people to await a messiah-type figure to take that responsibility.  Allowing the participants to voice their opinions in a constructive and structured way was the beginning of empowering them in this company.  There were no right or wrong questions or answers, only a process of interrogation that we were all journeying upon together.  These discussions then lead on to improvisations created in groups that were critiqued for their theatrical quality, i.e. to what extent were they successful in engaging the audience with the theme?  This was actually cut short at 8 o’clock, when the lights went out.  They do every two to four hours; load-shedding its called.  It’s not such an issue at this time of year but when temperatures reach around fifty Celsius in the summer and the air-conditioning and fans take regular breaks in this way, it’s a whole different matter.  Shirts become the great litmus test across class at this time.  The wealthy have back-up generators and so the shirts on their backs remain crisp as they hop from air-conditioned office to air-conditioned car to air-conditioned home.  Everyone else has sticky shirts.

I’d intended to explore theme that evening, which we had done.  I was now keen to find an appropriate narrative structure.  I knew we were going to need parallel narratives.  I knew newspapers were to be involved and a TV and a Radio.  I didn’t know how exactly, I just had a semi-formed picture that needed filling in.  A newspaper vendor?  A street corner?  My anxiety had me up till late that night making notes and watching ‘Do The Right Thing’ for inspiration, or possibly just because I wanted an excuse to watch it.  I could see smaller stories spiralling out from a main central narrative, smaller, more intimate stories depicting the personal costs of newspaper headlines.  These spirals and the newspaper however were pretty much all I had, along with a few latent inexpressibles.

The following day, Thursday, was one week to our performance.  It could have been frightening, but was in fact one of the most magical of days.  I spent the afternoon watching my friend Sami and his class-mates construct a pavilion as part of their architecture assignment, with regular opportunities for gup-shup and tea with passers by.  It was one of those days when things just happened, just came together.  The kind of day that reminds you who’s in charge.  So with an hour to go to the workshop, I still wasn’t completely sure what we were going to do.  All I knew was we were going to need to start arriving at a story, some story.  Vishal Rajput arrived an hour before the day’s workshop as I’d asked, so we could chat about the play.  Vishal’s a recent graduate from the Film and TV department and now teaches there.  A young man of formidable talent and intelligence, he arrived with his usual non-assumptive, humble self; impressive qualities for someone I feel I always learn something new around.  Sat under the shielding canopy of embracing trees, Vishal’s towering form stooped as he picked grass, avoiding eye contact and in this manner presented his wonderful ideas, that through conversation grew speedily at a rate determined by my ticking watch.  Very soon I was clapping and leaping up from my crossed-legged position to take him by his hand and tell him intently, ‘it’s wicked mate…it’s wicked!

Story Brief

A news-office needs to print it’s special Pakistan Day issue.  As news stories are coming in, the editor becomes increasingly panicked as all the stories are far too negative to make the front page.  As his panic increases, he eventually breaks down and in the face of these incoming stories highlighting the country’s current critical phase, he writes his own front-page piece, a celebratory editorial echoing the same blinkered nationalism heard too often to mean anything anymore.

Though it’s set in a news-room, parallel narratives are employed as the news stories coming in are dramatised, highlighting their personal costs.  A radio will also be used as a means of delivering song and poetry, as will a TV, which will be used to impart background information around the issues portrayed. The TV, being the most graphic of the three media, will be seen to have a nervous breakdown and cease working towards the end of the play.

‘The Pakistan Day Issue’ will employ forms of Nautanki, Mime, Physical Theatre, Poetry and Song.

Just as I’d finished leaping from the eureka moment between Vishal and I, Babruk arrived with his friend Zahid.  Babruk is a third year architecture student.  A striking young Pathan man with long, thick black hair and goatie beard, which together with his quiet demeanour and gentle walk, gives him the air of an apprentice wizard.  His gaze is usually on the ground when he walks and he walks lightly, as though not to overly exert his weight upon the patch of earth below him.  He doesn’t talk much, though when he does I find it’s always worth listening to.  We’ve had long, interesting conversations and his intelligence has always struck me enough to know that I want his involvement in whatever form.  Being in the middle of a difficult time with his studies though, I’ve tried not to demand too much from him and asked him instead to join the ‘pre-workshop-play-structuring-chat-thing’.  His friend Zahid is an artist who he said I should meet.  I relayed the story to them fresh off the press and they lit up also.  Zahid, with the look of emaciation that demands respect in an artist, took studious notes in his sketch-pad.

‘What do you want from me?  When do you want it by?’

These are the questions I obviously want to hear.

‘Whatever you want to give.  This is going to be your company.  All I ask is that you consider what it is you’d like to say about the society you live in.  I don’t live here so I don’t really know.  You do.’

Zahid recited a poem he’d written in Punjabi that floored me.  I’d gone from leaping to nursing a torn heart.  I’ll try and have it translated to share with the readers of this blog.

‘It’s something I wrote once when I couldn’t say what I wanted to in a painting.’

‘Can we have it please?  For the performance?’

‘Yes. Please do.’

With a promise of writing a scene for us too, he’d left in the same flash as which he’d arrived in.  Left bouncing between clouds of elation, my excitement dissipated slowly as I spent the next thirty minutes waiting for my participants with a story in my head.  Another late start, another empty thirty minutes that just vanished between then and the performance, we eventually began and I felt myself racing against an unforgiving clock for ninety minutes.  The electricity went out at 7 o’clock that evening, though we soldiered on in the dark and created our opening sequence, as well as the beginnings of two out of our three major scenes.  Progress was being made.

That evening was particularly memorable and topped the day off wonderfully. Nothing in particular happened.  Everything happened.  I returned tired, elated, excited and nervous.  The Lahore Agitprop Theatre’s inaugural performance was only a week away.  We had our story though.  And I liked it.

Returning back to the hostel in a rickshaw through roads of Lahore lit only by swerving, speeding vehicles, I met Babruk again at the hostel canteen.  Over daal and roti we chatted about the story and envisioned scenes together, examined metaphors and symbolisms, spoke about how best to use all these disparate forms I have the pleasure of working with.  How they can best serve the narrative and emotional arc?

‘You here to get into acting?’

‘Sorry mate?’

Two of his friends had just sat at the table without me noticing

‘You here to get into acting?’

‘Nah mate.  I’m delivering theatre workshops’

‘How are they going?, asked Cho Cho, the other one, who on a previous meeting had inferred they weren’t going to do well.  That theatre generally doesn’t.  That I should be focusing on making videos.

‘They’re going well man. Really well. We have a story.’

‘Why are you doing them?’


‘Why are you doing them?  The workshops.’

‘I’m…we’re…creating a theatre company.  The workshops…it’s to create a new theatre company.’

‘What’s the point?  What’s different?  We already have theatre companies.’

By now I was beginning to feel on edge by the direct questioning.

‘Yes you do.  And they’re great.  I’ve worked with one of them myself.  But I’m suggesting there isn’t one here that’s youth lead.  This company will directly address social…’

‘…But there’s already a company here that works with social issues and they do it brilliantly.  Their plays are brilliantly written.   Why would I want to join this one?’

He poked.  And he poked.  And he poked.

‘Coz you get to say what you want here.  You lot.  The members.  Young people don’t do that in the others!’

The two looked at each other, then at me.

‘OK!  YES!  We’re in!  That’s what we wanted to hear.  We heard you were doing this workshop when we were sat just over there.  That’s why we sat here mate.  That’s what we needed to hear.’

Then, without any prompting whatsoever, they began dispensing their rules.

‘See look.  Theatre here.  It’s different.  It just is.  It’s like the traffic see.  If you can drive in Lahore, you can drive anywhere mate.  It’s the same see!  If you can make theatre here, you can do it anywhere!  See they come looking for you to slip…you can’t have an off moment…here…the audience has come to witness your downfall…they’re here specifically to hurl abuse at you…you’ve gotta keep it rapid, keep it quick…don’t give them one loose moment…not one…shoes mate!  Shoes get thrown as soon as you slip…directors have thrown shoes a their own performers mid-show…’

I watched more than I listened.

You’re nervous now with just two of us here…You are aren’t you?  Nervous?  Aren’t you?  Imagine a whole filled auditorium.’

‘Doesn’t bother me.’

I was lying.

‘See it’s all about your performers.  You need the best. Who have you got?’

I showed my cards.

‘They’re good.  They’re really good…you need us though.’

‘You gotta keep ‘em laughing…I once took my pants off on stage’

‘He did.  Got a right laugh.  You need us.  We’ll sort it out.’ 

‘Come tomorrow then.  5 o’clock.  Most participants arrive at six after their societies.’

‘Give us a fixed time.  We need a fixed time.’


‘We’ll be there.’

They stood to shake my hand as they left.  Babruk had already gone halfway through their flow to attend to his work.  I stood shortly after, dazed from the intensity of that exchange and walked over to sit with Daniyal and Umar.  Daniyal is also an architecture student and a particularly talented Nautanki exponent.  He left halfway through the day’s workshop and I thought to ask him why.  Explaining he was tired, we spoke at length about the play, discussing what ideas and commitment he could give.  I explained how much I wanted him to be a part of this company, told him how valuable his contributions had been already.  He listened intently and replied with resolve.  It is a difficult time for most students as they’re preparing to have assignments examined.  Just as I was about to leave, Umar asked me to sit.  Umar’s the guy I met on the steps, whom I mentioned towards the end of my last blog post and described as a ‘soul-shattering singer’.

‘Your Baba’s much older than mine isn’t he?  I can feel him.’

When I spoke to Umar earlier that day about his possible involvement with the project, I asked him to consider the character within him, which he accesses when he sings.  If you’d have heard him, you’d know what I meant.  He told me it was a ‘Baba’…an old man, a mystic, content in his own world, a place separate from the rest of society.  His Baba has a lot of pain he told me, he cries.

‘Our problem is self-respect.’  He’d told me earlier.  ‘German Shepherds are shampooed in the homes of the elite, while the servants who feed them are treated as sub-human.  My Baba cries.’

Commenting that evening on what must have been a noticeable anxiety, he assured me,

‘Your Baba is older than mine and I can feel your pain.  But Allah always rewards effort and he’ll reward yours too.  I know this.’    

Soothed, I’d heard just the words I needed to.  As we walked back into the hostel, we saw Cho-Cho storm into someone’s room, imposing both himself and his banjo upon them, while another hostelite, Ramzan, scream-sang in accompaniment. Umar and I joined the jam session as the room-host played his Chitrali-Sitar, Umar sang and I accompanied with very basic Tabla.  We played for possibly an hour but it seemed timeless.  We following songs and allowed each other to lead the rest in improvisation and eventually, as with most jams, it descended into noise, or the ‘experimental jazz’ phase of the evening.  Cho-Cho the Djinn was now on Tabla, beating, rather than playing.

Someone slammed through the door, shouting angrily that the noise be stopped, expletives describing indecencies with mothers and sisters punctuating the message like fireworks.  Cho-Cho and the intruder had a long, hard, staring contest.

Cho-Cho eventually broke the silence with ‘We have a guest.’  The intruder left.  Cho-Cho was riled.

The atmosphere here had obviously been exhausted and then bled, but that wasn’t going to stop Cho-Cho and I as we then hopped into another friend’s room, Ramzan the ever-smiling miniature-painter, where I just stood and watched his mastery take form whilst smoking cigarettes.  Ping-ponging around the hostel like this, Cho-Cho and I eventually grounded ourselves into the stillness of night, after a long fight against it, by praying together in the hostel mosque.

Just as I was preparing to sleep that evening, the earlier ‘intruder’ knocked on my door to apologise for his outburst after the jam session, explaining he wasn’t well and so wasn’t thinking properly and felt ashamed to have made a guest feel uncomfortable.  He hadn’t actually said anything to me and I wasn’t even his guest.  He’d never invited me to the hostel or to that room.  In fact nobody here has, but that’s how manners are enacted here, how love is dispensed.

I knew quite early on that I’m going to miss everyone here when I leave.

The two at the table earlier, who promised so ardently to arrive for rehearsals the next day, never did.

Avaes Mohammad is a playwright, poet, performer, research chemist and Muslim Institute Fellow. To read more about his adventures in Pakistan click here. You can also check out his work here.