When Zia Mohyeddin half-runs on to the stage on the night of December 31 every year in Lahore, it is pure theatre. The audience suspends disbelief and submits to the witchcraft of his presence. Reading his book Theatrics (NAPA 2012), I feel confronted with a man who could be performing Sophocles or Shaw or Hashr — flawless in rendition.
At NAPA, his pupils should enjoy his knowledge of the famous Parsee Theatre of Bombay that kicked off in the “brief reign of Wajid Ali Shah just before the middle of the 19th century (when the opera Inder Sabha vas staged) and lasted until the end of the 1920’s. The substantial dramatic output of these 75 years could not have been possible if it weren’t for the enterprising Parsee impresarios of Bombay”.(p.31).
His yardstick of excellence is unsparing but he lets in Agha Hashr Kashmiri. When Hashr’s heavily sanskritised scripts were attributed to hired hands, Hashr challenged his detractors to a munazira, to be conducted in Hindi. No one picked up the gauntlet.
Zia, on his next genius: “Charagh Hassan Hasrat is remembered today as a renowned journalist, but he was a fine etymologist. Luminaries like ZA Bokhari and Rafi Peer often turned to him to verify the correctitude of a word or an expression. Hasrat had never written a play, but every line he ever spoke sounded like a quotation from a dramatic text. I wondered if he had acquired his mannerism from watching Hashr’s plays”.
Now comes the purple patch about how we get our Urdu readings wrong: “When the Parsees tackled the text in Urdu (a foreign tongue to them), they followed the pattern of the English actors, that is to say, they spoke their lines sonorously, over-inflecting the rhyming words and laying undue stresses on line-ending words. This style became the hallmark of Urdu acting for generations. When non-Parsees — towards the end of the 19th century — entered the arena to play leading parts, they, too, took up the bombastic style”. (p.54).
It is in his discussion of comedy, he talks of Moin Akhtar: “His true metier was to portray dotty, quirky eccentrics, outcasts; men blinkered, soaked in their prejudices and mockingly assertive. He had a penchant for portraying characters far removed from the rational approaches to life. To such characters he brought an inward glow. He appeared to be at ease residing in their souls, but, given an opportunity, he could step into the inner core of extroverts with equal facility. He was the only performer in our part of the world who gave earnest thought to Garrick’s observation that Comedy is a serious business”. (p.174).
About reading, which remains underdeveloped in Pakistan despite some popular exponents, Zia lets you in on some secrets: “You have to make an enormous effort to tear your eyes from the page. At first, you feel you dare not do it for fear of losing your place [on the page] and yet you must make an attempt. You must realise that in order to make any kind of an impact, you have to take the words into your mind, look up from the page, speak them to the audience and then look down for more. You have to acquire the knack of wrenching your eyes away from the text to make a direct communication”.
Will Zia Mohyeddin be remembered? Perhaps not in the toxic annals of our ideology but in our hearts through those recordings that will contain his unrepeatable genius. But the fate of the actor is in the breath that dominates the stage awhile before evaporating forever.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 23rd, 2012.
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