Paying homage: Remembering the controversy that was Manto

Published: February 18, 2013

Ajoka Theatre brings ‘Kaun Hai Ye Gustakh’ to Nishter Hall, Peshawar. PHOTO: GAFFAR BAIG/EXPRESS

PESHAWAR: His writings were said to be against the ideology of Pakistan. He was not only persecuted by the state, but also shunned by the communist dominated progressive writers. He was denied a job when he applied for employment at a printing press. His stories offended some and left others speechless. He talked about sex workers and drug peddlers – topics that are considered taboo even in the 21st century.

Ajoka Theatre (AT) on Saturday staged a drama on the life of one of the most controversial short story writers, Sadat Hassan Manto, to mark his centennial anniversary. The play was held at Nishter Hall in collaboration with the Directorate of Culture, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

In the two-hour play, Manto is visited by characters from his own stories: Khuda ki Qasam, Khol Do, Kal Jo Ankh Meri Khuli, Naya Qanoon, Khuda, Licence, Toba Tek Singh, Letters to Uncle Sam and Thanda Gosht. These characters are used to portray Manto’s literary and emotional journey.

It kicked off with the song ‘Kaun Sunay Fariyad Hamari’ which described Manto’s journey from India to Pakistan. The horrific scenes of communal riots from his stories took the audience back to the turbulent times of the partition. These scenes were followed by the depiction of the hostile reception he received from the rigid left and the intolerant right wings.

Manto was known for his description of the partition and his fight against fundamentalism. In “Darhi, Munch, Burqa Unlimited”, his comments about Pakistan drifting towards religious extremism and explanations of Pakistan’s relation with the US are extraordinarily percipient.

As the drama unfolds, Manto becomes an alcoholic and is sent to an asylum where he finds the inmates more humane and sensitive than the people in the ‘sane’ world.

The curtains close with Majeed Amjid’s poetic tribute to Manto ‘Kaun Hai Ye Gustakh’ – also the title of the show – amid thunderous applause.

Naseem Abbas, a well-known artist who played Manto, was overwhelmed by the turnout. “We were not expecting a crowd like this in Peshawar. They appreciated every dialogue uttered on stage.”

The play was written by AT Executive Director Shahid Nadeem and directed by Madiha Gauhar. The troupe was also invited by the Indian Ministry of Culture, but the tour was cancelled following recent tensions between the two governments.

“The theatre in Peshawar can play a powerful role in social change if relevant issues like these are highlighted,” said Mehrul Nisa, lecturer of English literature at Edwardes College.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 18th, 2013.

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