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Kalidas at NAPA in Karachi

By Sehba Sarwar

Sehba Sarwar's first novel Black Wings was published in 2004 (Alhamra Publishing). Her essays, poems and stories largely deal with issues of gender and displacement, and have been published in anthologies and magazines in Pakistan, India and the United States. Currently based in Houston (USA), she regularly returns to Karachi (Pakistan) for writing inspiration and is working on a new novel. —Editors

National Academy of Performing Arts (Karachi, Pakistan)

During the fifties in Pakistan's early years, people gathered in coffeeshops around Karachi and other cities to share stories, engage in intense political conversation, and plan political action. During my childhood, my mother was active in theater, and our house, thanks to my parents, was open to exciting Urdu poets including Faiz Ahmed Khan, Kishwar Naheed, Fehmida Riaz,

and Ahmed Faraz. We also hosted music sessions with Mehdi Hasan and dance performances.

After General Zia's 1977 military coup and Bhutto's hanging (1979), art became controversial. Under Zia's Islamization (with Zia placing Pakistan as a key arms broker in the war that Reagan/ USA waged against the USSR in Afghanistan by funding the Taliban) dancing, singing, performing and even writing became risky, and many artists chose self-exile or were imprisoned.

Currently, even as Pakistan struggles toward democracy—a path made more difficult by the recent assassination of Benazir Bhutto—now President/ ex-General Pervez Musharraf supported the arts: Two years ago, he funded a new National Academy for the Arts (NAPA) in Karachi. Envisioned by artist Zia Mohyeddin, who serves as NAPA's Chairman, the institution is based at the remodeled Hindu Gymkhana, a beautiful 1925 building. NAPA is revolutionary in Pakistan, offering a bachelor's degree in classical music, classical dance and theater—art forms that are slowly being revived in the country. Today some of Pakistan's best known artists—including Arshad Mehmood, Rahat Kazmi, Talat Hussain, and Khalid Ahmed—serve as NAPA instructors.

On December 20, I attended the closing night of the stage performance of Shakuntala, presented by Third Year NAPA students, and directed by theater instructor Zain Ahmed, the son of Samina Ahmed, a Lahore-based performer who herself has been part of many exciting performance groups. Given Pakistan's bloody history with our neighbor India, the choice of play itself was unusual for Pakistan: Shakuntala is an adaptation of a 2,000-year-old play about a Hindu princess by playwright Kalidas. This was reason enough to make sure one didn't miss the production, but I left satisfied not just with the theme but also with the production.

The play was presented as a collaborative performance, where 14 performers enacted solo roles and sometimes as a group. It was exciting to see a traditional play with a hero/ heroine converted into a larger canvas with no single performer playing a lead role. With an open stage and few props, the 45-minute performance was compelling. Using light, body movement, music, glitter and a six-foot silk cloth, the actors were able to recreate the motion of water, transport on an elephant, and collective joy and grief.

In an informal conversation with Zain at my cousin Haris' house (after attending a public prayer ceremony for Benazir Bhutto), I complimented Zain on his production.

íThe group performance was my idea,ë he said. íAnd the images created were by the students. So in effect I created the frame as a director and they filled in the content.ë

Check out a review in Pakistan's leading English newspaper, Dawn.

To read more about NAPA, read this article in The News.

Published Jan 16, 2008   Copyright 2008 Sehba Sarwar

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