Sunday, May 27, 2012

Ilaaj-e-Zid-Dastyaab Hae

The following is a review published in the 25th May to 31st May edition of The Friday Times.

I hear The Globe performance was much better received than the Lahore one, for which I am very happy. The reasons I can envisage for that are:

1. That Nadia Jamil's inclusion did indeed make a significant difference to the overall quality of the play (since Omair Rana was excellent anyway, their chemistry will hopefully have transformed the master and slave relationship between the two leads to that between two stubborn equals).

2.  That some slight changes in the way the last speech was delivered may have been incorporated (assuming not too humbly, after this critique was published). A friend informs me the last speech was indeed delivered ironically in the London performance.

3. That the sentimental nostalgia that watching a slice of Pakistan at The Globe evokes in the hearts of expatriate Pakistanis is enough to overlook most everything else.

Curtain call

The Set

Above are two pictures I took from the poor quality camera on my iPod Touch.


Pakistan's contribution to the Globe Theatre's World Shakespeare Festival, an Urdu translation of Taming of the Shrew, has been the subject of much hype in the local press for nearly a year. So, to satiate curious Lahoris and to give themselves a practice run, Theatre Walley staged the play on the 9th of May at Alhamra Hall no. 1 ahead of their 25th of May performance at The Globe.

When I reached the venue at 7pm the audience was being ushered in, to my surprise, without a ticket check at the gate. As it turned out the organizers had waived the entry ticket, blissfully unmindful of those who had paid the Rs. 1500 in advance, because the main lead Nadia Jamil had pulled out due to illness. This conveyed the unfortunate impression that the production prized one television actor's star power above the rest of the team. Add to that the non-functioning air conditioning, and the director's poor form in making an introductory speech, claiming Nadia Jamil's absence had halved the impact of the performance, and the evening started on a sour note, even before a single dialogue had been delivered. I can't be sure if the director's introductory remarks did anything to appease the audience, but I am certain they can't have helped the morale of the replacement leading lady, Maria Khan, or the rest of her cast just as they were about to walk on to the stage.

All this compounded my trepidation at Pakistan staging the most misogynist of Shakespeare's plays. Having suffered through its condensed version at school, I was not quite sure how the production would deal with the play's deep misogyny that George Bernard Shaw once indicted as "altogether disgusting to modern sensibility."

The evening started on a sour note, even before a single dialogue had been delivered

Which beggars the question: how did Pakistan get saddled with Taming of the Shrew? According to the play's director, Susannah Wilson, who attempted to answer this question before the performance began, it was chosen specifically for its 'strong' female lead, perfect for Nadia Jamil. This suggests that participating countries had a say in the decision making process. If true, then Taming of the Shrew is an odd pick against the numerous other options with strong female leads in Shakespeare. Shrew is either considered an aberration in the Shakespeare canon or 'interpreted' as ironic and non-serious. Literary critics, who (much like religious scholars) are adept at explaining away anomalies in revered texts, interpret the world of the play as deliberately unreal. None of these approaches to the play, however, seemed to have made their way to the translators and directors of this particular venture. The 'Induction'- an introductory scene in the original text-is vital to an understanding of the play as heightened fantasy removed from reality. Oddly, this production chose to do away with the Induction, embedding the plot's sexism ever more deeply into the play's texture.

Osman Khalid Butt's antics kept the younger members of the audience particularly entertained

Coming back to the evening. With the director finally off the stage, the curtains parted and revealed an amateurish painting of inner Lahore as backdrop, along with a small cardboard cutout of a truck. This poverty of imagination in production values led me to hope that the minimalism would also manifest itself in more cutting edge ways. But that was not to be. The effect of the captivating beginning, with a slickly choreographed burst of ensemble bhangra, was squandered away for most of the rest of the play. There were nice little flourishes here and there-the incorporation of Indian classical dance movements to narrate certain aspects of Kiran's (Katherina) personality, Mekaal Hasan Band's masterful job with the live score and Osman Khalid Butt's antics that kept the younger members of the audience particularly entertained (their laughs, I suspect, were also owed to memories of Humsafar spoofs).

Omair Rana, seasoned as ever, proved why he is invariably the best bet for a male lead with his stage presence and remarkably authentic Pashto accent, more realistic than veteran actor Salman Shahid's Punjabi one.

All this, however, was not enough to keep a constant stream of people from exiting the hall at various stages during the performance. The removal of the language barrier may have aided in better understanding the plot but it also stripped the play of the lilting rhythms of the iambic pentameter, Shakespeare's sly punning and insights into human nature that elevate his comedies. In the absence of these, the production should have amped up on visual gimmickry or creative direction to stave off the predictability. Unfortunately, it failed to do either.

The last two Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) productions of Taming of the Shrew, in 1978 and 1995, relied on directorial discretion to make the play more palatable to modern audiences. Without interfering with the original text, and using the Induction to their advantage, the RSC situated the 1978 play in the male lead's dream, thus relegating its misogyny to the male fantasy sphere. Whereas in the 1995 RSC version Katherina's controversial last speech advocating the subjugation of women was delivered non-seriously. However, in Pakistan's 2012 incarnation, Kiran delivers this speech with all the righteousness of a Friday sermon. I cannot imagine Nadia Jamil doing it any differently, given that the tone of such a major soliloquy is determined by script writers and directors, not the actors themselves. I, and most people who left the hall disappointed, expected better from the highly regarded and seasoned team of this production.

The biggest measure of a stage play's success is its impact on the audience, and in this 'Ilaaj-e-zid Dastyaab Hai' turned out to be decidedly underwhelming. One can only hope that Ms. Wilson is right and that Jamil adds a pizzazz to the performance that will lift the whole production out of mediocrity when it is taken to the Globe. Otherwise one can only hope that the fact of it being in Urdu will save the day (and faces) of all those involved.

Friday, May 4, 2012

National Anthem 101

News that certain schools in Karachi have done away with the ritual of singing the national anthem every day generated some interesting debate on Twitter--about national pride, the meaning of education, the role of schools and then finally and inevitably the national anthem itself. Predictably the issue of an earlier national anthem by Jagannath Azad was raised. There is something so romantic about the idea of Jinnah assigning the task of writing an anthem for the newly-created Muslim state to a Hindu that I can understand why it has caught on so amongst Pakistan's mostly beleaguered liberals. Add to this Hafeez Jalandhari's (probably well deserved) reputation as a bigoted right winger and there seems to be even more reason to despise the national anthem as yet another manifestation of Pakistan's trenchant religious biases. On the one hand there are the blogs that claim the Jagannath anthem theory to be gospel truth, on the other books have been written to debunk the claim. Till such time as I actually get around to reading the said books, I am obviously in no position to comment, so I shall move on to a tangential topic that arose from 'the anthem debate'--the fact that it is in Persian.

I have heard that one before. Having been born in a house where Urdu is the academic language of the household, it is possible that I find the anthem's Persianized Urdu less difficult than do other kids (or adults), but breaking it down into words and phrases, I feel it can be easily understood by someone with even a moderate command of Urdu. If that excludes those who have studied at English medium schools and have little interaction with formal Urdu for whatever reason, that does not the anthem Persian make.

Many of its words sound Persian because they are poetic words and Urdu poetry's tradition is deeply entrenched in Persian, considering two of its greatest poets (Ghalib and Iqbal) also have whole collections of poetry in Persian. Add to that Urdu's very nature as a language derived from other languages and its ability to easily absorb them, and the claim that the anthem is in Persian becomes even shakier.

So, to the breaking down of the anthem itself. Let's start with the first line:

'Paak sarzameen shaadbaad / Kishwar-e-haseen shaadbaad'

Paak: Commonly used word in Urdu meaning pure.

Sarzameen:  Meaning land. Another fairly commonplace Urdu word.

Shaadbaad: Definitely more Persian-sounding than the others, mostly because of the suffix 'baad', but let's take 'shaad' (meaning happy) first. You might not exactly say 'MayN shaad hooN' while conversing casually with friends, but elders can and do often give duas in this form. 'Beti shaad raho, abaad raho' does not sound linguistically archaic even today (that it ought to become socially archaic in its restricted context of marriage = abaadi is a post for another day). The word shaad, in fact, was quite ubiquitous in pop culture till about a decade ago when people still sat around dholkis to sing songs on mehndis instead of immediately launching into choreographed routines on item numbers. Think 'Hae mubaarak aaj ka din, raat aaee hae suhaani. Shaadmaani ho shaadmaani' to get some idea of the prevalence of the word. In case you were born in the era of the item number, here are Danny Dengzongpa, Tanuja (and that peculiar creature that is is the Bollywood child) proving the point to you:

Having written my house address as C1/10 GOR III, Shadman Colony, Lahore for the better part of my life also makes the word personally familiar for me (and I am assuming many Lahoris). Moving on.

Baad: Like I said, most commonly a Persian suffix but since Urdu is a language influenced by Persian, this suffix is also used in Urdu. Most standard example of this is zindabad, a word any Pakistani even remotely conversant with Urdu would recognize.

Kishwar: Meaning country. Word used regularly in Urdu poetry. Most notable example that immediately jumps to mind is the first shayr of 'Baang-e-Daraa'.

'Ae Himaala ae faseel-e-kishwar-e-Hindustan / Choomta hae teri peshaani ko jhuk kar aasmaan'
The above couplet by Iqbal also highlights another important point in the Urdu/Farsi debate--the Persian (appropriated by Urdu) 'tarqeeb' of joining two words with a zaer to create a compound word, such as kishwar-e-Hindustan, kishwar-e-haseen or azm-e-alishaan. This formation is particularly conducive to poetry, especially poetry that relies heavily on meter and rhythm to create sense and delight (think the ghazal). In the case of the Pakistani national anthem the terseness of this formation allows for the quick marching rhythm that Chagla's tune so handsomely captures.

Also think Ghalib:

Qaed-e-hayaat-o-band-e-gham asl mayN donoN aek hayN / Maut se pehlay aadmi gham se nijaat paae kyoon 

Haseen: Meaning beautiful. Commonly used by Urdu-speakers (as they are called). Less common in Punjab where khoobsoorat is the more everyday usage. Nonetheless, as Urdu as it gets.

Tu nishaan-e-azm-e-alishaan/ Arz-e-Pakistan / Markaz-e-yaqeen shaadbaad

Tu, Nishaan: o_O

Azme-e-Alishaan: Meaning great promise. Beautiful coinage, this. Obviously catchy and meaningful to a whole new generation of Pakistanis as demonstrated in its appropriation by the youth initiative, Azm-e-Alishaan

Arz-e-Pakistan: Arz meaning land. Kurra-e-arz is routine scientific terminology in Urdu today, easily recognizable and understood by anyone who can read a newspaper or watches Urdu news channels.

Markaz-e-yaqeen: Meaning centre of faith.

Markaz = F10 Markaz. Markaz-e-behbood-e-abaadi (don't know why that sprang to mind) and as a Google search revealed even Insaaf Markaz (interestingly doing away with the more Persian coinage Markaz-e-Insaaf which could just have been as easily comprehensible, in my opinion, but may have sounded less awaami). Hence established that to our ears there is a certain formality to the Persian formation and in more homely circumstances most people swap the order of the words for greater ease. That however still allows markaz-e-yaqeen to be as Urdu as it is Persian, just more formal and poetic Urdu.

I like the use of the word 'yaqeen' here, which is more diverse than 'eemaan' (not that eemaan would have fit into the rhythm). Yaqeen can mean religious faith but it can also mean just faith--faith in yourself, in your abilities. So, nice little touch there.

Pak sar zameen ka nizaam / Quwat-e-akhuwat-e-awaam

Nizaam: Meaning system. Easy peasy.

Quwat: Strength

Akhuwat: Unity or brotherhood (slightly tougher one). Still Urdu. Akhuwat and bhaaichaara often used together.

Awaam: Meaning common folk.This word is not just Urdu and Punjabi but I am guessing (hoping) Pashto, Sindhi and Balochi too since its English equivalent common man/commoner is so much less than all the nuances that awaam carries within it.

Combined, this line is a nice little nod to democracy, something ironically the country has always lacked. But the much greater irony is in Hafeez Jalandhari being the writer of these lines, the man who enjoyed a secretary level position in General Ayub Khan's government.

Qaum, mulk, sultanat / Painda tabinda baad / Shaadbaad manzil-e-muraad

Painda: Meaning long lasting. For the Sohail Rana generation this word is no stranger. Reminds me of Mona's tinkling voice singing Hum zinda qaum hayN paainda qaum hayN / Hum sab ki hae pehchaan, hum sab ka Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan/ Hum sab ka Pakistan, during the heyday of propagandist Pakistani milli naghmas--the Zia years.

Tabinda: Roshan. Lit. Lots of girls names in the anthem. I know a Pakistani girl called Tabinda. I know several Kishwars. Many of the words in Urdu are a part of a common heritage that can be traced back to Persian, Arabic, English, even Turkish. All living languages evolve and absorb words from other languages and make those words their own. Once these words get absorbed into a language they become as much a part of the language that has acquired them as they are of the original. That is a basic fact about the evolution of language.

Manzil-e-muraad: Meaning destination of dreams. Lovely.

                    Parcham-e-sitaara-o-hilaal / Rehbar-e-taraqqi-o-kamaal 

Parcham fluttering at Nanga Parbat base camp (taken by Jawad Zakariya

If you have never turned on PTV and heard the the phrase 'sabz hilaali parcham' ad nauseum, then, well...what did you ever do as a child? There's also the ruet-e-hilaal committee and the hilaal-e-ahmar which have helped 'hilaal' remain a commonly understood word. In case it still sounds too obscure and...Persian, it means crescent. 

Rehbar: Leader. Guide. Word common enough for TCF to use in its mentoring program for kids. 

Tarjumaan-e-maazi, shaan-e-haal / Jaan-e-istaqbaal / Saaya-e-Khuda-e-Zuljalaal

Tarjumaan: Meaning representative. Standard word in Urdu news. Vazeer-e-azam ke tarjumaan etc.

Maazi: Past

Shaan: Do I need to? A word simple and easily recognizable enough for a major corporation to adopt for its flagship product used by Pakistanis throughout the world. You know, the kinds that speak and understand...Urdu.

Jaan-e-istaqbaal: Ok, now this one is the trickiest. I had always understood it as 'jaan-e-istaqbaal' = istaqbaal karnay ke liye (in order to welcome). Turns out that's not what it is. This actually is the ONE pure accession to Persian in the whole anthem. Istaqbaal, as my father tells me, comes from the root word mustaqbil, so jaan here would mean literally 'the life of the future' or more metaphorically as central to the future.

Saaya-e-khudaa-e-Zuljalaal: Khuda-e-zuljalaal has ended up becoming unintentionally secular thanks to the Persian Khuda having lately been discarded in favour of the Arabic Allah. If Allah is the Muslim God, then Khuda can be understood to be the more neutral term for everybody's God. So, while 'may God's benevolent shadow always stay above our heads' may not be to the liking of the staunchly secularist, by the time this anthem came along the Objectives Resolution had long placed the sovereignty of Allah above all in the Pakistani constitution and so Jalandhari's saying the same in the national anthem is hardly an aberration. By and large, there are nods to faith in the anthem but it neither emphasizes nor blows it out of proportion, and I am grateful for even that much.

So, dislike Jalandhari if you will. He seems a particularly poor hero, particularly placed next to the fiery and romantic Jalib who, in one recording of 'Musheer' rants against the sellout Jalandhari and dedicates his scathing poem to him. But biography and dislike of a person cannot come in the way of objective assessment. And in the objective analysis not only is the Pakistani national anthem in Urdu, it is also a suitably grand one that manages to achieve what all anthems should--the rousing of patriotic sentiment and pride.

Ending with the version I have grown up with and which I never failed to stand up for as a kid. Too jaded to do that now. But despite it all, when I hear the anthem played in a crowd, I still cannot suppress that surge of pride, if at nothing else but at our magnificent poetic heritage.

Addendum: There are a couple of things I want to add. All of the above does not suggest that the anthem's Urdu isn't heavily Persianized, or quite a few words in it difficult enough for many people not to be able to comprehend immediately, especially if they have little grounding in Urdu poetry. But it is to dispel the myth that the intent of the anthem's poet was to write in Persian. Far from it. There is apparently a detailed defense of the anthem against precisely this accusation that Jalandhari himself published in one of the newspapers of the time. I wish it wasn't so hard to scour newspaper archives that old.

Another interesting fact that must have affected choice of words is that Chagla's tune came before the lyrics. Once the tune was approved the Pakistani government ran a nationwide competition for the best lyrics, which Hafeez one. 


Two corrections made in the above post thanks to @airtiza on Twitter