The popular legend of star-crossed lovers Heer-Ranjha is said to have played out in Jhang - in Pakistan - on the banks of the River Chenab in Punjab. It has been enacted numerous times on stage and screen. Heer and Ranjha rebelled against their parents and society to be together, eventually choosing to die rather than live without one another. A cliché? That depends on the context. When adolescent girls in Pakistan pick up the tale, the connotations are different.
Pakistan has an oppressive society, especially for women and girls. And in this legend, the girls find a lesson on love, freedom and the right to choose. Lahore-based artist, activist and theatre director Huma Safdar, 44, saw the potential of love legends a decade ago when she worked with adolescent girls on a theatre production of the legend.
Much of Sufi poetry, love legends included, is an allegorical statement against the established order and the bigotry of institutionalized religion. Safdar says, "Sufi poetry has been used in Pakistan to defy tyranny and fundamentalism. The love legends, especially, give us powerful stories of brave women who choose to mould their own destiny. These work as powerful material to build the personalities of adolescent girls." To this end, she involves the entire cast in everything from the readings to the building-up of the play. She allots roles only towards the end, so that "every girl knows the play, and knows it well".
Safdar, a painter by training, graduated with distinction in Fine Arts from the National College of Art, Lahore. As a student in the dictatorial Zia ul-Haq regime (early to mid-1980s), Safdar became active with the theatre and women's groups that sprang up all over the country in protest against the repression. She even courted arrest a number of times with other women activists. Safdar comes from a politically active family - her father Safdar Rasheed and uncle Anwar Rasheed were members of the Kisan Mazdoor Party - and the decision to join protest politics came easy to her.
Looking back, Safdar says: "Although I had set out to be a painter, activism intervened. Those were times when it was very important to take the message to the people and theatre was a more potent medium than fine arts." She joined Madeeha Gauhar's Ajoka theatre group as an actor. Later, she formed her own group, Lok Rehas, committed to raising consciousness on social issues and rediscovering roots, traditions and folklore.
Besides this, Safdar also works as an arts teacher in the elite Lahore Grammar School for girls. About 10 years ago, she was asked to direct a play for the school dramatic society. Safdar, who is a language activist and has been working to get Punjabi its due status in Pakistan, decided that the play must be in Punjabi. The Pakistani elite does not speak Punjabi, preferring to converse in Urdu or English. So she picked the story of Heer-Ranjha as penned by Sufi poet Damodar. "The girls were not happy to begin with but gradually they started loving it. I am happy that I was able to inculcate pride for their language among these elite English-speaking girls."
This play brought Safdar much acclaim. Her training in visual arts enables her to create her scenes as though each image is to be framed. Speaking of her approach to Heer-Ranjha, Safdar says, "The public has a constant presence in the play and, as it progresss, they identify with the couple. The end of the play poses a pertinent question, for Heer and Ranjha leave together, never to return. And we find ourselves asking: Why could they not live among us?"
Urban Punjabi theatre is a new concept in Pakistan. Lahore, in fact, identifies Punjabi theatre with a tradition of bawdy comedy strung together with performances by the dancing girls of Heera Mandi, the sex trade area of Lahore. Directors like Gauhar and Safdar are changing this image and bringing to Punjabi theatre a respectability that allows girl students to step onto the stage.
Heer-Ranjha was a huge success with the audience and the students. So, Safdar took up the legend again - in another version, this one penned by the famous Sufi poet Waris Shah - and staged it two years ago. "That was a wonderful experience. The epic by Waris is interspersed with proverbs, sayings, folktales, history and poetry par excellence. In short, it is a compendium of Punjabi language, culture and consciousness."
This year, she staged 'Sassi Punnu', yet another love legend of the Indian plains, penned by Sufi poet Hashim Shah. Safdar recalls with amusement, "I met with resistance from the students this year as well. They thought Sassi was an obsolete legend told in a language no longer in vogue. But I read them the poetry and we started interpreting it. By the end of it, they loved the play." She has also produced 'Ik Raat Ravi Di (One Night for Ravi)', a play by noted poet Najm Syed, and which is set in the colonial period. Syed has been something of a mentor for Safdar and other liberals in a country plagued by the fundamentalism and dictatorship.
Safdar's efforts, therefore, work in two ways: inculcating a love for Punjabi and sowing the seeds of love, freedom and rebellion among the students. She has now been able to introduce the Punjabi language from Class V onwards as part of the curriculum in Lahore Grammar School. This is remarkable, for there is not a single Punjabi medium school in Punjab, even though 60.43 per cent Pakistanis speak the language. Historically, Urdu has been thrust upon Punjab as the language of Muslim identity.
Safdar and her painter-poet husband Akram Varraich share common concerns about their society and about establishing a strong democratic tradition. The two are active members of Syed's Sangat group that reads, sings and interprets Sufi poetry as well as poetry written by the Sikh Gurus. And they are proud that their 16-year-old son, Rawal, chooses to speak mostly in Punjabi. Evidently, Safdar and Varraich bring their activism home.