FOR many months now, a group of women in Lahore has been fighting to protect its freedom of expression. These young women are actors who have been earning their living by performing in stage plays. They contribute dances that have sometimes been described as obscene. Should they, shouldn’t they be allowed? People have been constrained to ask the court.
The women dancers who are being sullied by one and all are heirs to the drama that became an integral part of Lahore’s cultural life in the last few decades. They are actually the ones who have hijacked the brief held by the very talented and incorrigibly funny Amanullahs and Mastanas who pioneered a particular brand of stage drama in the city.
Bad or good, evil or virtuous or obscene, labelling it should be left to the critics or the lawyers or the prudes. Let’s simply define it as a crisp form of entertainment that had the potential to leave the satiated immune to subtler, deeper and more enduring varieties of entertainment. Of course, it involved explicit references to something as basic but as sublime as sex. A bit like the dose administered by the aggressive doctor who is forever inclined to give steroids to his desperate patients at the expense of milder and more durable curing agents. Or like Twenty20 cricket which we love but which deprives us of the pleasure of the buildup that comes with a 50-over game, or if you are really into the classical, the Test match.
For years, evening after evening, the Amanullahs held the audience in thrall until they themselves realised that the time had arrived for them to play second fiddle to even crispier successors rising from within the company. As the monotonous show limped on during this transition period, the audience, long fed on instantly effective doses, anxiously asked for more. This is when the women dancers who had thus far been cast in supporting roles stepped out of the shadows to take centre-stage. They had a singular advantage over the heroes: they could act out what the men could only narrate, even if as graphically as they actually did.
This was to the chagrin of the long-ruling kings of the Lahore stage. A campaign was launched which had the leading men falling hard on the new practices as being impure and obscene. Old tactics were applied with at least one of these men now preferring to go around with the title of ‘Haji’. Their cries had little effect on particular connoisseurs they had themselves nurtured over the years.
The dances were in sync with time and so much else that the instant world had perfected. The practices of the aggressive doctor and aggressive batsman were just two manifestations of the trend. Just at that moment, so many in other professions were being moved by the force of circumstances to venture a blunt statement regarding their thoughts.
Some years ago, a journalist went looking for a feature on Saadat Hasan Manto, the celebrated short-story writer who had suffered his own puritan critics. Manto had his home off Lahore’s Hall Road and as the journalist searched around for inspiration and analogy he was genuinely amused by the fare put up by the electronic market that now thrived in the area where the writer lived. There was flesh all around, packaged in gaudy wrapping. It seemed that the striptease version where the climax was of secondary importance had gone badly out of vogue.
The Hall Road sellers of entertainment found their nemesis — allegedly in the Taliban. Last year, the traders arranged a grand cremation ceremony where ‘objectionable’ material was incinerated in full view of the media. The job was purportedly done at the instance of those who have taken the art of blunt expression to a new level. It is not sufficient for them to try and convince or cajole the majority that disagrees with them, and conventional tools of coercion are of no use. They specialise in the bare-all act of suicide bombing. This is how they get the attention of one and all, from misled citizens to the wayward Hall Road cold meat sellers.
Gone also are the days when people sitting on the re-write desks would chuck out words as boastful and immodest as ‘revealing’. The expression has become obsolete since little else is resorted to currently and the emphasis is forever on revealing fast and on staying ahead — the ‘high art’ of striptease restricted to the hawkers at the traffic signal who are always mindful of just how much they show.
The ‘in’ line is, chaddo ji, mitti pao (let bygones be bygones). As journalist Khalid Hasan, who was really brilliant besides being a veteran, lay breathing in a hospital in the US, alive, we were conveyed the news that the preparations for his funeral had already been completed. The rate at which we are going, one can only hope and pray that they will make a confirmation before hastily putting us to rest a while later. Asha’ar Rehman, Daily Dawn