Across the border

Partition retold: A Pakistani theatre group dramatises survivor stories to shatter myths

A collaborative interview-based project introduces audiences to a part of history that is often misrepresented.

A Pakistani amateur theatre group has attempted to tell the real story of the Partition by dramatising stories of the painful division of the British Indian Empire based on more than a hundred interviews with survivors.

The play’s title, Dagh Dagh Ujala (This Stained Dawn), refers to the opening line of the Urdu poem Subh-e-Azadi by renowned poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz. The poem, which was written in 1947 on the eve of Indian independence from British Rule, is popular on both sides of the border.

Currently being staged in the US, the play is part of a collaborative project – Voices of Partition – which emerged from a meeting between theatre artists from the US and Pakistan at an Islamabad coffee shop two years ago.

The Americans included Fulbright Specialist Kathleen Mulligan, an associate professor of Voice and Speech at Ithaca College in New York and her husband David Studwell, who is an actor and teacher. The third American was Rob Raines, the then cultural attaché at the US embassy in Islamabad.

Coming together

During her stints in Pakistan as a Fulbright Specialist, Mulligan became interested in collecting Partition stories and dramatising them. Raines knew a group which could be potential partner in this endeavour – Islamabad group Theatre Wallay (not related to the original Theatrewalay, the now defunct repertory company in Karachi started by famous television actor Rahat Kazmi in the 1980s).

Theatre Wallay members include teachers, poets, artists, writers, students and activists. Mulligan’s idea struck a chord with Theatre Wallay co-founder Fizza Hassan and senior member Safeer Khan.

“We wanted the same thing,” said Mulligan. “We wanted to get the stories before they were lost to us.”
Hassan had a personal connection with the Partition. Her family had migrated from India’s Panipat to Pakistan in 1947 and so she was acutely aware of the need to preserve the stories she had heard from family elders. “But I didn’t quite know how to go about it,” she said.

Fresh perspective

There were others in the group like Hassan who had Partition survivors in their families. However, they had never paid much attention to the past and the 100 interviews conducted as part of the project helped them gain a fresh perspective.

Her colleague Safeer Khan hails from a remote village in Kohat in northwestern Pakistan. The region was unaffected by Partition. No one from his family or village was forced to migrate and no migrant settled in their area. For group members like him, Khan said, the project “opened up an entirely new chapter”.  He said their perception of the Partition changed completely after listening to personal stories of the event.

Everyone associated with the project described the process of obtaining the narratives as intense.

“It was not easy to listen to such stories,” Khan said. “We needed to learn to detach ourselves, which was not easy, so that we could look at them from a distance, and select parts which we wanted to turn into monologues.”

Busting myths

The production highlights the myths shattered by the narratives, such as the idea that Hindus and Muslims were always at daggers drawn.

“We interviewed about 100 people, and almost all of them started their stories by saying that they enjoyed good relations with their Hindu/Sikh neighbours. In our textbooks, this peaceful co-existence is never mentioned,” said Safeer Khan.

The narratives also busted the myth that people were eager to migrate to Pakistan.

“From each story, it is very clear that nobody wanted to leave the land where they were born and raised,” he said. “They had strong bonds with those areas and they wanted to stay. But the riots, arson, looting, killings, forced them to leave. Many of them planned to stay away for a while, and thought they would go back when the situation was under control.”

Another revelation from the interviews was that people from different religious communities living together did not attack each other, but tried their best to protect those belonging to a different faith.

Refining the narrative

Mulligan and her former student Sarah Morrisette conducted a week-long workshop in Islamabad with Theatre Wallay on developing dramatic material based on the interviews with the survivors.

Theatre Wallay members then conducted similar workshops at universities and colleges in Islamabad and other cities around Punjab. They taught students to collect stories and create monologues from interviews with family members and others who had survived Partition.

The group initially found it difficult to gather the material, with family elders and others they approached hesitant to talk. “Why me? I’m just an ordinary person” or “I don’t remember much. I don’t really want to talk about it” were common responses.

But when the interviewers began approaching the issue by asking about childhood memories, the elders started to open up. “Almost everyone in Pakistan has a Partition story,” said Mulligan.

In April 2015, the third stage of the project kicked off when Mulligan and her husband returned to Islamabad and worked with Theatre Wallay to create an original piece of theatre based on the interviews.

The next step – the real test – was to perform before audiences in Islamabad and Lahore in April this year. “The show ended with thunderous applause,” reported the daily Dawn in Islamabad.

“Everything was made to look so real. They showed us how Partition truly happened and how dreams were shattered,” said Salman Hyat, an audience member quoted in the article.

Audience members included Partition survivors who had been interviewed for the project. “They appreciated the play a lot, and were really happy that their stories made it to the final performance,” said Safeer Khan.

The next stage

Theatre Wallay’s US tour, which started in the Boston area, ushered the Voices of Partition project into its fifth stage. For the American performances, the actors converted the dialogues – originally in various dialects of Urdu and Punjabi – into English.

“Translations are difficult,” said Irfan Malik, a poet, playwright and theatre director from Lahore who attended Theatre Wallay’s performance in Boston. “Languages have their own idioms, cultural connotations and emotional force.”

The task was made more difficult by the production’s reliance on monologues as a dramatic device instead of on-stage interactions. The production features beautiful background music, minimal props and seamless, deftly executed scene transitions. Murals from well-known artist Jimmy Engineer’s Partition series provide an effective backdrop for the stories that unfold.

The production received extended applause from full houses at both its performances at Grace Vision Church in Watertown in the Boston area on October 24.

“I wish I had brought more friends and family along,” said Aquila Kapadia Aswat from Karachi and the daughter of the late actor Latif Kapadia. “We need these stories to be told.”

In residency at Ithaca College for a week, the 11 group members on the tour were scheduled to perform there on October 30 and 31. Also on the itinerary were condensed versions at the State Department in Washington, DC., on November 2, and at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia on November 3.

Hassan said she would love to take the play to India, adding that the Alliance Francaise in Delhi has expressed interest in taking the idea forward.

Theatre Wallay also wants to collaborate with Indian theatre activists. “But that would demand a lot of resources, commitment and effort from us as well as from those will join us from the other side of the border,” said Hassan.

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