The History of Theatre in Pakistan

DESIblitz will take a dive into the history of theatre in Pakistan to highlight it’s rich impact on culture and art.

The History of Theatre in Pakistan

There was a period of stagnation in Pakistani theatre

When one thinks of countries known for theatre, England, Greece, and even Italy spring to mind. The Europeans have certainly left their mark on theatre.

But what if, instead of these countries, we turn to Pakistan? Would you be shocked? Surprised? Or intrigued?

Widely speaking, South Asia is definitely known for art and literature. There are a plethora of classic works of fiction and pieces of art from South Asia.

The impact of South Asian art within the modern world is also quite well known. Bollywood, for instance, has seen a rising global popularity.

To name just one example, the successful release of the 2022 movie RRR saw a massive revenue of approximately £119,593,812.00 at the International Box Office.

The Guardian also emphasised in December 2022 that Pakistan has a ‘transgressive pop culture’ which has gone global.

Theatre itself has a long history in Pakistan, one which is deeper and more storied than it may be thought.

The Foundations of Pakistani Theatre

The History of Theatre in Pakistan

Theatre may have existed in South Asia since at least between the fifth and third Centuries BC. This would have been influenced by Hinduism, with the development of Sanskrit theatre.

Whilst the later Urdu theatre most certainly has not taken direct influence from Sanskrit theatre, it is worth noting specifically because it shows that theatre has had a long history on the subcontinent.

Urdu theatre is not nearly as old. It started developing during the 19th century.

It may seem odd to discuss developments that came before the Pakistani state, but commercial theatre specifically first appeared in the region in 1853, with Urdu drama.

It is vital to acknowledge this because when Pakistan did form, it was directly inspired by Urdu theatre and existing literature.

The rise of Urdu dramas was during the decline of the Mughal empire. Sanskrit theatre was also declining in popularity at the time too.

Inder Sabha (“The Heavenly Court of Indra”) by Agha Hasan Amanat was the first entirely Urdu play.

There appear to be contradictory reports, some claiming the play was produced in 1853, and others in 1855.

Either way, the show would have been during British colonial rule under the leadership of Wajid Ali Shah.

There are similarly contrary views as to whether Wajid Ali Shah had a direct role in its production or not, which is worth mentioning.

Regardless, the emergence of modern Pakistani theatre and its influences can be definitively said to be inspired by this particular play.

A key group of pioneers was the Parsis, who were active from 1873 to 1935. Parsi theatre and particularly the Parsi impresarios, were keen on using Urdu in their productions.

It wasn’t their main language, but they were aware of the Indian audience’s love for melodrama.

In turn, this propelled the popularity of Urdu theatre.

Parsis were influenced by a few places, but especially by British drama. Many plays were inspired by adaptations of Shakespeare.

The late Zia Mohyeddin, who was himself a significant figure in Pakistani TV and Cinema, argued that between 1860-1925 Urdu theatre was at its peak.

A few companies were prominent in this space, but Victoria Natak Mandli was the largest contributor to Urdu theatre.

Whilst Parsi theatre first developed in Mumbai, it spread throughout India – especially in North and West India.

Additionally, Gujarat was a hotspot. In fact, some successful Urdu theatre plays were translated from Gujarati.

One such example is believed to be the first Urdu play performed in Mumbai – Khursheed by Taj Sahib.

This specific play was written in that language by Edelji Jamshedji Khori. The Urdu translation emerged from Seth Behramji Fardoonji Marzban.


The History of Theatre in Pakistan

With the emergence of the modern Pakistani state, came a distinct culture and a separate development of theatre in the country.

There were the genres that developed in the cities, and folk genres from rural areas.

One place where theatre developed in modern Pakistan is Lahore. This was under both college productions and professional productions by Lahore’s Alahamra Arts Council.

Alhamra’s plays were often inspired by English plays, and many popular English plays were adapted into Urdu.

The influence of college productions should not be understated.

At the Government College University in Lahore, Patras Bokhari and Imtiaz Ali Taj were two people who contributed massively to theatre.

Bano Qudsia is also another name worth mentioning. She was a Lahori most known for the plays Tamasil, Hawa ke Naam, Seharay and Khaleej, amongst others.

A key difference between college and professional plays was how the college plays rigidly stuck to the script. The professional ones usually were quite adapted to suit local tastes.

Whilst folk genres were beloved by lower and middle-class audiences alike, urban plays were preferred by the upper class.

Another place that saw the development of Pakistani theatre was Karachi. Theatre flourished with satires such as those by Khwaja Moinuddin.

One comedy written by him was Lal Qile se Lalukhet Tak (“From the Red Fort to Lalukhet”).

Some folk genres include, tamasha, swaang and nautaunki. These folk genres typically used themes relating to “agriculture, land and peasants”, with a moral message revealed at the end.

Other folk genres involved performances mixing musical elements with the spoken word. One such genre was storytelling (Dastoon-goh).

This folk genre involved storytellers mixing different rhythms, ways of articulation and aspects of voice.

A couple of examples of this are plays like Hir and MirzaSahiban, which used traditional voice rhythms.

Puppetry was another folk style which has dominated these spaces. Hand, string and rod puppets are among the most popular. The oldest form of these is putli (the string puppet).

These folk genres survived outside of the city environment.

The Revival of Pakistani Theatre?

The History of Theatre in Pakistan

Between the 70s and 80s, it is commonly believed that there was a period of stagnation in Pakistani theatre. This was brought on by a decline in quality.

It was also down to the political and social climate of the time.

Two key factors were the censorship of Zia-Ul-Haq and the taking away of state support for theatre deemed religiously inappropriate.

Though this meant that theatre greatly suffered during this time, there was hope in multiple ways. For one, new styles emerged.

During the 80s, commercial comedy stage plays really took off. The most influential ones are those by Umer Sharif.

He became famous after the two plays Bakra Qiston Pe (“Goat on installments”) and Buddha Ghar Pe Hai (“The Old Man has Come Home”).

Sharif starred in those two alongside Moin Akhter, another incredibly influential name.

Juggat style of comedy, reliant on adlibbing and improvisation, also grew during this time in popular Punjabi theatre. A popular name of the time was Amanullah Khan.

A parallel theatre movement also emerged.

It is during this period that troupes such as Tehreek Niswaan and Ajoka Theatre gain popularity. They were known for their social justice and political commentary.

These popped up at the same time as the two political organisations; the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy and the Women’s Action Forum.

Ajoka Theatre was led by Madiha Gauhar and Shahid Nadeem, a husband, and wife couple from Lahore.

A key aspect of Ajoka was a reliance on informal spaces for theatre, as many aspects of their work had been effectively outlawed for performance on stage.

They used overt political commentary on a range of themes, including gender-based violence.

Is Theatre Still Relevant in Pakistan?

The History of Theatre in Pakistan

Theatre has had a revival in Pakistan since the early 2000s. NGOs and other private organisations were a major part of this revival, as they sought connections with foreign theatre groups.

Universities have also been a key part of the revival of Pakistani theatre.

Institutions such as Beaconhouse University Lahore, and the National Academy of Performing Arts in Karachi have been teaching it again.

Numerous institutions, with a refocus on youth theatre, have played a role in its revival.

Moves for censorship in commercial spaces also incentivised changes, as concerns of vulgarity and lewdness led to more family plays dominating the commercial sphere.

The plays of KopyKats Productions are a few of these popular family plays.

Whilst TV is often considered a big reason why Pakistani theatre was in decline, it is a very simplistic argument that forgets the larger social and political factors. Theatre actors also commonly act in both mediums.

Contemporary theatre in Pakistan is definitely important.

Overall, Pakistan’s theatre has developed immensely in the past 200 years and has persisted through various social and political changes.

With the present revival of theatre in Pakistan, it appears that this medium is in good hands.

Murthaza is a Media and Communications graduate and aspiring journalist. His include politics, photography and reading. His life motto is "Stay curious and seek knowledge wherever it leads."

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