Alhamra’s Hall II was packed this Sunday night. Not only the stairs and the space between the stage and the audience was full; there were long lines of viewers outside the hall, and the doors had to be closed because there the hall was full. This play was first written by Shahid Nadeem and presented by Ajoka in 2001. Madeeha Gauhar was the original director of the play. The play ‘Bulha’ is one of Ajoka’s most popular plays since many years, and the audience proved this once again by not just turning out in huge numbers but also by the response it gave during the performance. The traditional music, hard-hitting dialogues, soul-searching poetry by Bulleh Shah and the incisive script drew cheers, claps, and loud adulations from the crowd many times. The music served as the soul of the play, and the Khawar Qawal Party did full justice to it. The main singer, Fida Hussain, or Khawar as he prefers to be called, gave Bulleh Shah’s lyrical and poignant verses a new lease of life The play was thankfully in Punjabi, and everyone did full justice to their role. They all spoke lucid Punjabi without a speck of insincerity or struggle with the enunciation. The credit for this goes to Ajoka, where writers don’t just capture the voices of Punjab but also ensure they are presented in all their authenticity. The play deals with the life of Bulleh Shah or Bulha as he referred to himself in his poetry. The poet-saint who belonged to an elite Syed family in Lahore decided to spend most of his life in Kasur. Initially, he became a disciple of Shah Inayat Qadri and later a teacher in his own right. In Kasur, he was at odds with the orthodox Islamists who didn’t agree with the Sufi traditions of Islam, particularly qawali and dhamal. The play opens with the death of Bulleh Shah. His jinaza (funeral) is brought on to the stage. The two orthodox qazis stand on a high pedestal and deny Bulha a funeral. They believe Bulleh Shah to be un-Islamic. The two narrators, Sona and Chandi, attempt to convince them otherwise. And through this arbitration, they relive Bulleh Shah’s extraordinary life in flashbacks. In the play, Bulleh Shah’s spiritual journey begins with being taken up as a student by Shah Inayat. During this time, he gets into arguments with the orthodox qazis and Banda Singh Bahadur. He outwits the qazis and gathers more supporters. He starts gaining popularity in Kasur, among the commoners, who begin to appreciate his spiritual prowess. However, convincing Banda Singh Bahadur proved to be impossible. Bahadur, originally never met Bulleh Shah but became aware of his teachings later on. But in the play, they meet more than once, and each scene is more impassioned and dramatic than the other. Banda Singh Bahadur was a Sikh military commander who helped establish the Sikh rule in Haryana during the late 17th century. At the age of 15, Bahadur left his home to be an ascetic and became a disciple of Guru Gobind Singh. He was initiated into the Khalsa and became a warrior. He assembled a fighting force and struggled against the Mughal Empire. However, on his path to power, he became a brutal robber and murderer to avenge his Guru’s death. Bulleh Shah requests him to become humane and non-violent again. In their last meeting, Bahadur was being dragged in chains as a prisoner of war. Bulleh Shah lived during the latter half of the Mughal Empire some three hundred years ago. This period was marked by regional conflicts chaos. This mayhem was depicted by a troupe of dancers in the dim lit intermediary scenes. They comprised of Thomas Yousaf, Kashif Jan, Sunil Anayat, Bilal Mughal, Luka Calvin, and Kamran Khokhar. The performers seemed to be well-versed in sword fighting and acrobatics. They also performed in some of the qawalis. The play interprets Bulleh Shah’s internal struggle for peace and spiritual growth. He seeks solace in his mentor’s company and solitude. However, the two most compelling scenes were Bulleh Shah’s enforced exile from Kasur at the end of the play and his arrival at the brothel of Muradi Begum. This is where his famed kaafi “Tere Ishq Nachaya kar thaya thaya” which drew a round of applause from the ecstatic crowd, was played. The music served as the soul of the play, and the Khawar Qawal Party did full justice to it. The main singer, Fida Hussain, or Khawar as he prefers to be called, gave Bulleh Shah’s lyrical and poignant verses a new lease of life. The only woman character in the play was Muradi Begum. Nayyab Faiza played the role with the subtlety it required. She made for a convincing prostitute and follower of Bulleh Shah. She conveyed her great regard for the poet-saint through her eyes and expressions. The two narrators were Sona (Kamran Mujahid) and Chandi (Qaiser Khan). Both of them had the vital task of introducing, melding together and concluding the play through dialogues, verses and sometimes even dance performances. They did this job with enthusiasm and made the play more entertaining. Naseem Abbas played the role of Bulleh Shah’s guru Shah Inayat. Abbas was measured and precise in his performance. Despite being the teacher in most of the scenes, he resisted the urge to overshadow Bulleh Shah. One of the most inspiring characters was Banda Singh despite being a villain. This character was portrayed by Sibte Hassan who spoke in a distinct (though slightly clichéd) Sikh accent. His body language had the agility and boisterousness of a soldier. Usman Raaj played Bulleh Shah. He performed with remarkable comfort. He sang all the verses eloquently, and many of the heartfelt one-liners received massive applause. He presented the delicate scenes with sensitivity and the dramatic ones (like his dialogues with Banda Singh and the confrontation with the qazis) with panache. The play was staged on the last day of the Madeeha Gauhar Theater Festival. A brief concluding ceremony followed the performance. The members of Ajoka, including the young actors, paid tributes to Gauhar. Shahid Nadeem, her widower and co-founder of Ajoka, said that the group works very hard to train performers who need to be taught acting, singing, dancing and even voice modulation. He noted that Ajoka has now initiated a training institute to teach acting, directing and also writing. Nadeem thanked Gauhar’s family, Ajoka’s team and the Alhamra Arts Council for helping in the festival. The writer is based in Lahore and tweets as @ammarawrites. Her work can be found on www.ammaraahmad.com Published in Daily Times, September 4th 2018.