The organisers had found themselves in a similar bind in 1998, after then prime minister Nawaz Sharif announced the controversial ‘Shariat Bill’ (Constitutional Amendment 15) which would have given him unlimited powers to decide what was right or wrong according to Islam. At that time, at stake was the Fourth International Puppet Festival. But then, as now, Peer power prevailed.
A few groups did cancel their trip at the last moment; an Indian dance troupe was denied visas; and a Pakistani-American artiste who had to pull out because her sponsor, the US consulate, in line with America’s policy, struck a blow for democracy by denying required funds. But in the end, all went reasonably well, and the 11-day festival enthralled Lahoris by celebrating 100 years of innovation in theatre and dance-drama.
Besides 20 troupes from Pakistan, there were another 20 international theatre and dance troupes that took the stage at the Alhamra Cultural Complex. The foreign companies came from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Britain, Spain, Iran, Austria, South Africa, Finland, Egypt and Germany.
One of the most acclaimed shows was a remarkably improvisational dance piece, Urbanthropus/ Fata Mondana, by the Swiss group Da Motus. Unique in its presentation, precise in its choreography, and feline in its movement, Urbanthropus featured two ‘futuristic creatures’ moving noiselessly along the promenade of the Cultural Complex, dressed in skin-tight costumes that stretched over their faces, while an appreciative audience followed them, along with technicians with heavy-duty lights (see picture). The ‘creatures’ explained that Urbanthropus is an entity both archaic and futuristic, a digital humanoid with primitive behaviour. This being, living between past and future, and belonging to neither sex, yet possessing a certain erotic power, has something of a deep mystique, as if appearing in a dream.
The communicative power of theatre was in full evidence elsewhere during the fest as well, and the medium of foreign languages proved no barrier to understanding and appreciation. It also helped that many of the plays were variations of well-known works, such as Ha! Hamlet put up by the Swiss Theatre Compagnie, From the Darkness (Theatre Tanto, Austria) and Quijote (Bambilina Titelles, Spain).
Some of the Pakistani offerings, too, were received well. Particularly impressive were the plays Bala King (Ajoka Theatre) directed by the well-known Madeeha Gohar and scripted by her husband, Shahid Nadeem, and Raagni (Daastan Drama Circle).
Bala King, a Punjabi adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, is a critique of the present-day political culture, and especially relevant in the Pakistani context. The plot revolves around a company that acquires prime land and gets a subway construction contract by bribing the head of the tender committee. When a faulty underpass collapses, an investigation is launched. A local tough, Bala King, comes to the rescue of the accused, and establishes his stronghold in the area, thus beginning his spectacular rise to power, only to be later charged of grossly misusing his constitutional powers.
The other Pakistani production, | Raagni, was an adaptation of Nobel laureate Ariel Darfman’s novel, Death and the Maiden. Originally written after Chile’s transition from a long dictatorship to democracy, the play, set in an anonymous country, highlights the universality of the human predicament. It was an excellent portrayal of the trauma of an oppressed past that refuses to go away.
For the organisers, the Lahore show marked yet another success story, having earlier organised two others, besides the International Puppet Festival every two years since 1992 and the National Dance Festival in 1995. Perhaps the biggest compliment for the Lahore event came from a Sri Lankan participant. “This festival is only one I have seen that includes puppets, muppets, paintings, dances and theatrical performances. I simply love the combination in the West or elsewhere the focus is only on dance and theatre,” said choreographer Mudiyanse Dissanayke.
Next in line for the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop is the hosting of the first Sufi Soul World Music Festival in February-March 2000 and then the First Lahore International Film Festival in 2001. Those will be events worth looking forward to, military rule or not.