Major Ishaq Muhammed has a unique legacy in Pakistan’s Punjabi folklore as a symbol for the downtrodden in a society bent on making political compromises. As a leftist-leader, he went to jail on several occasions and mobilised one of the largest peasant movements in Punjab under the banner of ‘Mazdoor Kisan Party’.
As a cultural icon, he had connected with the working class, through his acclaimed theatre plays “Musali” and “Quoqnas”, which continue to be taught in Punjabi academia and still maintain their popularity. Since his passing in the late 1980s, his death anniversary has become a major cultural event. Every year, thousands of people flock to his small farm in Jaranwala, which is a remote village near Lahore, to celebrate his political and social significance.
In the past, many major poets, singers and theatre troupes such as Ajoka Theatre or Punjab Lok Rahs have performed regularly in the remote village where he is buried. This year, a group of Punjabi poets travelled from Lahore with the theatre group Sangat to perform an adaptation of poem “Kafee” by Bulleh Shah.
On Muhammed’s political and cultural relevance, a well-known activist, painter and the director of various plays based on Punjabi literature Huma Safdar said, “Major Ishaq played an important role in politics and culture. He was unlike the traditional political figures who are known to weave dreams of change but have no ideology to back it up.”
Regarding the play ‘Kafee’
Safdar, who is part of Sangat said about the use of Bulleh Shah’s poetry in the troupe’s performances, “We adapted Bulleh Shah’s work as he was aware of the class consciousness in our society and had written about the tax collector in his poetry.”
With a primary cast of seven female actors, the theme of the play explores the life of flower pickers and showcases the tension between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The play is divided over four stages and is over 60 minutes long. One of the lines “Ni kasumbra cham cham hairi hai” or “I am tired of picking these flowers” is a theme that resonates throughout the play. Safdar explained, “It is a rebellious and full-fledged, issue-oriented play, which answers the question of how we are going to change as a society.”
About the troupe Sangat
Sangat regularly tours across the province to rural and less privileged areas and ensures that their carefully constructed theatre plays connect with audiences at the grassroot level. When it comes to most of their performances, Sangat carries out their plays without typical modern amenities such as a sound system. The performances also include classical music which is played live so that it connects more with the audiences.
Another interesting fact about the troupe is that they shy away from media attention and would rather concentrate on promoting their political and philosophical context on a grassroot level. Still, their popularity has circulated through some of their live performances. Sara Kazmi, a Lums student who has been with the troupe for nearly two years and has performed in over 20 plays said, “The reason why we don’t interact with the media is because there is a greater need to communicate through live dialogue.”
What is street theatre?
Sangat’s performance can be categorised in the street theatre category. Street theatre is arguably the oldest form of theatre in existence. It entails performing and presenting in outdoor public spaces without a specific paying audience. The logistics of doing street theatre necessitate simple costumes and props and generally there is little or no amplification of sound, with actors depending on their natural vocal and physical ability. Street theatre is different from other more formal outdoor theatrical performances, such as performances in a park or garden, where there is a discrete space set aside and a ticketed audience.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 5th, 2012.