Acting under a burqa

The play premiered in Lahore. The audience loved it; the media too was full of praise. But when we took it to Islamabad, the controversy began

Ajoka, the theatre group I was born into (courtesy its founders, my parents), has been admired and despised for its bold and controversial plays. There have been plays about despotic dictators, about hypocritical preachers and corrupt politicians, wife beaters, honour killers and misogynists. You name a horror story, and Ajoka has a play on it. But the play which took the cake rudely revealed all without revealing even a toe was none other than ‘Burqavaganza’.

As the name suggests, Burqavaganza used burqa as a metaphor for covering not only the bodies of women but also hide the truth, beauty, reality. Bribery, deceit, corruption and terrorism, everything was targeted in the play. According to the brochure of the play, ‘it was an outrageous musical extravaganza’. The striking element of the play was that all actors wore burqas; women, men, politicians, terrorists, shopkeepers, police officers and lovers. It was the first play in which the faces of the actors were covered from the beginning to the end. Even at the time of the curtain call, when actors lifted their burqas, they were wearing masks of well-known national and international political personalities.

I was the burqa-clad lover in the play, wearing a designer burqa, who is in love with a girl wearing a beautiful, attractive burqa. The whole burqa-clad world was trying to deny the lovers a meeting place. It was great fun, dancing on the Bollywood parody purda and burqa songs, playing stupid games and delivering cheeky lines. I had loved being a clown at school (mostly the butt of my pranks were the hapless teachers). Now was my chance to mock the conservative mindset.

Day one: we start off with our usual warm-up exercises. One of the actors turns up late. His name is duly noted. Of course, that’s just to scare everyone to be on time, but no one knows that. From body, we move to the voice, starting with the lowest possible note to the highest. A few a cough, some proudly display their singing prowess while some are just plain bad. Our choreographer takes over and shows us the first few steps to one of the dances. There’s a lot of bumping into each other, and a lot of falling. I go for a glass of water. On my way back, I get a chance to see everyone. The sight is not pretty. But the song was fun, a parody in fact, with everyone thoroughly enjoying it.

Initially, I did not know what to do with myself. I considered myself an ‘intense’ actor. I was proud of not needing fake tears, of screaming at the top of my voice like a Punjabi hero or speaking as low as possible like Amitabh Bachan. But here, there were no(seemingly) intense dialogues and no painful back-story. To top it all off, my face would not even be visible! I was in a fix as to how to emote when my very expressions would not be seen. As the rehearsal progressed, I realised I had to utilise two things I did have at my disposal: my body and my voice. For the first time, I started to notice the ebb and flow of my voice. I moved away from the naturalistic, or method style of acting which I enjoyed so much. The play was not only a simple burlesque comedy but also a hard-hitting satire, with larger than life characters. The characters were not important, what they pointed to was.

The play starts off with the two lovers in a park, sitting on two chairs at a safe distance from other veiled people in between. What follows is a comedic but meaningful scene of both trying to talk through speaking, calling and messaging, but are interrupted again and again by those in between. The hilarious exchange is followed by an even more farcical dance on an Atif Aslam song. The dance is cut-off of by a rude policeman in an unformed veil. At the station, everyone is being searched, but a serious problem arises; how to tell who is who? The police try to unveil them but the accused burst into a song, ‘purday mein rehnay do’ (keep it under covers). During all the commotion, the couple manages to escape.

The first proverbial stone was thrown by Samia Raheel Qazi, who tabled a motion in the august house and the Minister for Culture Ex-General GG Jamal happily obliged by announcing a ban on ‘Burqavaganza’

While all this is happening on the stage, two bearded and turbaned religious TV scholars are giving silly answers to stupid questions in a mock TV show. The questions were like: ‘how many holes there should be in a veil’, ‘how many times a husband should visit the third wife’ or ‘what should be a Muslim’s response to a non-Muslim neighbour saying Assalam-o-Alikum?’ The answers, lifted word by word from that sanctimonious book of wisdom ‘Behishti Zaiver, are side-splitting. In an amusing incident, an adviser to the man very close to the disqualified prime minister accompanied his daughter (who had to write a report about Ajoka) to a performance of the play. Out of respect, he was invited to sit in the front row. When the play ended, he came out fuming and accused the playwright of making fun of religious injunctions. “But I have put those answers verbatim, without any comments,” was his tongue in cheek answer. “But everyone in the audience was laughing,” the adviser commented. “The blame then lies with the audience,” said the writer with a straight face. Another religious activist expressed anger at the depiction of a Muslim evangelist, ‘Hijab Hashmi’, who mixes sermons with rap singing.

The play was premiered in Lahore. The audience loved it; the media too was full of praise. But when we took it to Islamabad, the controversy began. The first proverbial stone was thrown by Samia Raheel Qazi, the illustrious fully covered daughter of Jamaat-i-Islami Amir, Qazi Hussain Ahmad. She happened to be an MNA (elected on a women’s reserved seat). She tabled a motion in the august house and the Minister for Culture Ex-General G.G. Jamal happily obliged by announcing a ban on the play. The ban became international news. “Dawn” made it its banner headline; others wrote editorials. Media in the UK, US, Turkey, Canada, Australia etc. carried the news. A heated debate ensued in the social media. The matter was challenged in the high court. The main issue was whether ‘burqa’ or face veil is an Islamic dress or a cultural attire and whether it can be a legitimate target for a satirical play. The debate and controversy, in fact, helped achieve the goal of the play,i.e. to make people think and discuss the issue of the right of women to choose their attire.

We decided to defy the ban, but the hall owners were reluctant to give their space for fear of reprisal. We approached late Asma Jahangir, the Chairperson and founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and she readily agreed to offer the HRCP hall for the performance. We were informed that we could carry on performing the play, the Ministry will look the other way. The play was banned once again in 2009, this time by the PPP government. The PNCA decided to stop Ajoka a few days before the scheduled performance in Islamabad. Ajoka decided to respond dramatically. It agreed to do another play, but at the last minute, Artistic Director Madeeha Gauhar went up on the stage and announced that the play being presented was in fact ‘Burqavaganza’. Before the organisers had time to react, the first scene had already started.

After the performance, I went outside for a stroll. I was met with a crowd of some Jamaat-i-Islami type students, who had taken one of the plays flexes and were busy putting it on fire. As they yelled slogans, I quietly observed the ritual, standing right beside them as they burned a poster with me on it, thankfully they hadn’t seen my face on the stage. “Saved by the veil,” I thought.

The matter was brought before the Senate Committee on Culture where The Culture Ministry presented a report claiming that Ajoka had ridiculed the dress of a neighbouring country, i.e. Afghanistan. The play has since been performed a few times under a different name. An English version was recently performed at Berkley University, and San Francisco and the script has been subject to academic research and analysis. The controversy aside, I remember my Burqavaganza experience very fondly. Apart from acting in a landmark, path-breaking play, it was my only chance of wearing a burqa. Donning a face-veil for over 90 minutes was an eerie experience, and quite suffocating. I used to wonder how our conservative women can stand wearing the burqa all their lives. Hats off to the likes of Samia Raheel Qazi.

The writer is a director/actor; and a core member of Ajoka Theatre Pakistan. He has been involved in spreading awareness on socio-political issues through theatre

Published in Daily Times, February 28th 2018.