Thursday, November 30, 2006

Dastan in Pakistan

Pakistan offers an unusual experience for Indians. It has a flavour different from India; we savour it, and yet it is not different enough to alienate. A chance to visit Pakistan is always welcomed.

Though I have visited Pakistan twice before, I debuted as a professional on this trip. It began with a chance conversation with Usman Peerzada at the Bonn Biennale Theatre Festival at Bonn this summer. I had just finished my performance as part of the Agra Bazaar troupe and had reached the Opera House for my dinner. As I walked past the delegates in the foyer to the corner where the buffet was laid out, I heard Madan Gopal Singh, a Sufi singer and a fellow performer, call out my name. He said, "Come, let me introduce you to this gentleman." The gentleman was Usman Peerzada, CEO of the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop group which organizes the World Festival for Performing Arts in Lahore every year. Usman briefed me about the festival, his passions, his family, his father, and everything that inspires him. He extended an invitation to me and we bid good bye with a promise to meet in Lahore this November.

So on November 08, 2006 at approximately seven in the evening I stepped into the probing tentacle connecting the airport terminal with the airplane. As we, a group of eleven people, walked out of the magnificent Allama Iqbal International Airport's building on to the driveway, the air was redolent with excitement. We turned around to look at the airport's fa├žade and I must admit I have not seen a more tastefully done airport in the subcontinent. The volunteers to receive us were warm, smiling and at once made us feel at home. There is one thing in particular I've noticed about Pakistani people. They give an awesome reception when once they get to know you are an Indian. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed that I start feeling guilty that we may not reciprocate such warmth when they'll visit us.

The drive on The Mall was pleasing. I've often heard comparisons between Lahore and Delhi. Well, partially they may remind of each other but I think Lahore reminds me more of Bangalore. We call Bangalore a city of gardens and that what Lahore is. However, the canal really makes Lahore unique. Like the aorta it pumps character in to the city of Lahore.

We drove straight from the airport to the Al-Humra Cultural Complex. The open air theatre is a sight to behold. The red brick building, reminiscent of the Colloseum in Rome, was draped in banners, posters, coloured flags. The adjacent premises had camps erected as performance spaces but the most happening spot was the Food Tent. Dining out there was like what they say in New York – if you stand at Times Square for ten minutes, you'd probably run into people from all races. The festival's edition this year has 700 artists participating from 40 countries. And that was palpable when we stepped into the Food Tent.

The Peerzada's are a family of exceptionally talented people but what really makes them stand out is their unique skill to pool in their individual talents into a formidable enterprise educating, performing, supporting, promoting arts and culture in Pakistan. They're truly the cultural ambassadors of Pakistan. We were greeted by the blue-eyed handsome Imran Peerzaada. His silver locks and charming smile immediately arrested us and put us at ease too. The next couple of hours saw us running into all the Peerzada's including the sisters, and the next generation that includes the indefatigable Aleena and the handsome and charming puppeteer Shehriyar. Over the last weekend I have firmly come to the opinion that the Peerzada's have some secret recipe, a magic potion, which keeps them fresh, high-spirited and charged 24X7.

The performance that we brought to the festival is an adaptation of an Irish play by Brian Friel called "Aristocrats." Sabina Mehta Jaitly, our director, adapted the play into the Indian context – a Muslim Taluqdari family – and rechristened it as Mirza Bagh. The play unravels the highs and the lows of the landed Muslim aristocracy in post-partition India. Our performances were slated for the 10th and 11th November. And with bated breath we opened the play on the evening of November 10th. But when people came up to us and said they loved the play, we felt redeemed. Though I didn't know many in the audience but some were introduced to us. One was Salima Hashmi, Principal of Beaconhouse National University, author, painter, curator, the list is endless. She doesn't need any introduction in Pakistan. It was a privilege to meet her and I was particularly excited as I may get to play Faiz Ahmed Faiz's role, her father, in a play when I return to India later this week. There can't be a better person than her to acquaint me with the great poet.

I also met Shahnaz and Fakir Syed Aijazuddin. Shahnaz has been in correspondence with friend and fellow Dastaan-performer, Mahmood Farooqui, in India for over a year now. Shahnaz has been working at translating the epic Dastan-e-Amir Hamza into English while Mahmood and I have been performing Dastangoi in India for the past year. Thus it only made sense for us to meet and spend time together. They graciously invited me to their magnificent house for dinner and I had one of the most memorable evenings in Lahore at their place. We talked about everything that was dear to our heart and parted on the note that we have to get together again next weekend with a little Dastangoi mehfil or baithak of our own.

Besides, acting my other passion is poetry. With few friends I run an online writers' community called Caferati. However, what started two years back as a very local endeavour has mushroomed into a fledgling international community of writers and poets and we have three wonderful writers from Lahore as members of this forum. Back in India we have a Caferati practice that we meet at least once a month and share our writings. I thought it was perfect for me to utilize this trip to Lahore to meet the fellow Caferatians. So, I called up Sajjad Khan, a brilliant upcoming writer and asked him to organize the read-meet event. Come Sunday afternoon and I walked into his house with my beautiful cousin Nida, a graphic designer and a photographer, to be greeted by seven exceptionally talented young Pakistani writers. We sat over Sheesha and coffee and read and heard some heart-moving poetry.

I have been in Pakistan for just five days but I seem to be having the most memorable time I've had had for long. When we segregate people for long, the lines between fact and fiction blur. Our curiosity leads us to lap up any information thrown at us and in order to know the other, we start relying on anything offered – second-hand accounts, hearsay, stories, etc. and we create as what Amitava Kumar calls "textbook enemies." We can deconstruct this enemy only if we encourage people to people contact. That is the only way to see the human in the other.

Murtaza Danish Husain

November 13, 2006

Lahore, Pakistan

PS: A variant of this piece was published in the November 17, 2006 edition of The Friday Times in Pakistan.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Painting

Palette knives, multitudes of them, tenderly smudge a viridian sky in my dreams. I wake up with a start. The stark white canvas stares at me. Ah! My masterpiece – my Self-Portrait, my Sunflowers, my Last Supper – still awaits me. I do not know when I became a painter. I don’t even pretend to recollect it. Failure is nostalgic, success amnesiac. So, we take it that I’ve always been a painter.

My house overlooks a T-junction. It is at the mouth of the T-junction, overlooking a street. The street is, as any other street would be in a mofussil town in India. Faceless, splattered with patches of brown – cow dung flattened by tires, human steps, and the oppressive heat – flanked by flowing sewer, littered, and cattle squatting randomly. And then all sorts of vehicles to transport humans – cycles, carts, rickshaws, autos, taxis, lorries, cars – stifling its slender shape. Finally, completing the picture are the ugly shops, with their soot-covered tarpaulin awnings, lining its both sides with greedy shopkeepers spilling out on the pavement with their cheap wares. The Bazaar.

I sit here wondering what should I paint. And then the epiphany strikes. Oh damn those viridian skies and swaying green grass! Why not paint the bazaar in front of me. So, I pick my sable, palette, mahlstick – all the paraphernalia at my disposal and start painting the scene across my window. It takes me days but I am seized by this vision that the street throws at me. Slowly and painstakingly I capture the street. It shifts, changes colors, throw varied images but I wait everyday for the afternoon – just that right hue – to start work on my painting again.

After many tireless afternoons, I do finish my painting one-day. It is a snapshot of the world outside my living room’s window. But something is amiss. The painting betrays me. I keep standing, staring at the painting, a sable caressing my cheek as I wonder what must I do to transcend this painting into an extraordinary one. Ah! How about an accident. Yes. Perfect. I show an accident in the middle of the street. I immediately get to work. I paint a head-on collision between two cars. Smashed with their bonnets crumpled. Next to the cars a body lies covered with a white shroud and an anxious crowd next to it. Morbid but I guess I’ve got what I wished. I leave the painting on the tripod to dry.

Days pass by. The painting adorns my living room. I marvel at my creation. But soon it becomes another fixture in that room. I am no more seized by the morbidity it paints. I become oblivious to its existence. I don’t even look at it as I go about my chores.

Then one afternoon a bang wakes me up. I immediately rush to the living room’s window to see what has happened. But what I see shake the wits out of me. The scene outside is an exact replica of my painting – the street with a head-on collision in its midst. They’ve laid down a body next to the cars, as it was in my painting, and covered it with a white shroud. The crowd surrounds the scene. There is chaos. I am transfixed. Did I paint the future?

It takes me a while to gather my wits. I am still shaken but I decide to go down and check this mess out. I rush out on to the street and run towards the accident site. Everyone is rushing towards the accident site. No one knows what happened exactly. I reach the spot. The crowd has swelled now. I jostle my way through and reach the helm of the crowd. I ask a person or two but they just shrug and keep staring at the body. Finally, I muster courage and bend down. I look around at the faces. They’re as eager to see the face. I lift the shroud: Dad.

© Dan Husain
April 22, 2006

PS: I saw this dream fifteen years back.

Monday, March 13, 2006

At The Threshold of Cinematic History

“I am fed up with this perpetual auditioning business! If they are so fucking dissatisfied with me why don’t they just show me the door?”

Sonny sat there in the studio with a glum face. Jaw line hardened, he exhaled smoke. He felt his ribs burn as he exhaled. The studio was deserted. Only one bulb shone. He could see his shadow fall across the floor, ending where Francis’s shoes were. This was turning out to be a harrowing experience. He could cope with poverty. Often he had to borrow money to reach an audition venue. But that was fine. It didn’t deter him because he believed in his ability as an actor and was certain that one day he’d get both recognition and money. The dream kept everything alive. However, this was not remotely close to what he envisaged about his life as an actor.

He was very young when Dad divorced Mom. Mom moved in with Granny and since then it has been a tale of survival and subsistence. Mom had to do odd jobs to keep the family together. Sonny found school boring and sought pleasure in school plays and theatre. Finally, he dropped out of school and took up acting as a career. He had early disappointments but an entry into Actors Studio affirmed his faith in his abilities. His tutor there was supportive of him, believed in his dream and taught him finer aspects of Method Acting. The apprenticeship at the Studio fructified into two award winning stage performances and a contract for a movie. This was followed by another movie, though it wasn’t a box office success, it got him critical acclaim. Perhaps, that acclaim got this audition for him.

But now it was heading nowhere. He has already been auditioned five times for this role. He would have welcomed this rigor otherwise. But they were screen-testing him with scenes where he couldn’t really showcase his talent. They were deliberately offering him meek portions: scenes where his role was marginal. The grapevine was abuzz that nobody – right from the producer, the studio heads to the fellow cast – wanted him. The other day when he finished the audition someone quipped from behind the camera,

“Hey midget! You’d be better off as a prop on a stage!”

He wished he could spit on that person’s face. And then the other day he had a fellow cast patronizing him.

“Sonny! A rejection doesn’t mean you’re a bad actor. Maybe you don’t fit the bill!”

They all thought he was meek for the role. They thought only an established actor could do justice to this role. The only person who believed in him was the director, Francis, who stood in front of him right now consoling him and encouraging him to not give this up in a huff.

“This is ridiculous. These people don't want me, and I don't want to be around when they feel this way. Besides, I think they might be right. I think they want a movie star which I am absolutely not!”

“Sonny! I am aware of all this! But I am the director. It’s my vision in the end. And I assert that you’re the best suited for this role. Leave this to me!”

“But how long can you hold fort? Everyone is against me! Right from the producer to the fucking clap-boy! They snigger and sneer at me and to make things worse, I screen-tested on a scene that didn't really allow me to show my chops! I beg you, Francis! No more auditions, no more screen tests. I can live without this part!”

Francis leaned forward and patted Sonny’s shoulder.

“Cool your heels Sonny Boy! Just do your bit and leave the rest to me!”

Five days later Alfredo James Pacino got the role of Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie “The Godfather”. The rest is history.

© Dan Husain
March 7, 2006

PS: Excerpts taken from Pacino’s interviews and articles written on his struggle to get this role.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Secret Treasure Hunt

This is the first short story that my daughter has written. She is eight years old and lives in Detroit, Michigan, USA with her aunt. She sent me this story on e-mail and requested me if I could put this on my blog. The pictures are taken from the internet.

The Secret Treasure Hunt

Once upon a time in far away land there lived a girl named Sabat. Sabat’s parents were so poor that they did not have a lot of food. But Sabat had everything that she wanted. But the thing she liked most was her friend Madison.

Sabat and Madison lived next to each other. They also helped each other like getting water from the river, doing homework and all the other stuff. Sabat always thought that she was missing something but she didn’t care.

One hot day, Sabat and Madison planned going to the forest. They got everything they needed and put them in their backpacks. Madison had secretly got a map from her mom’s trunk and took it with her. When they were ready they started walking in the forest.

Madison had stolen a treasure map from her mom’s trunk. When Madison came back she showed the map to Sabat. Sabat said, “Lets go on a treasure hunt. It will be much more fun than just walking around and looking at the forest.” So they headed for the secret treasure.

Madison and Sabat followed the path and did what the map told them to do. Sabat and Madison had a little trouble finding their way but they knew that they could do it.

Madison told Sabat that there were some other girls whom she knew that lived in the forest. “Great!” Sabat said, “Maybe we can live with them for a while.” Madison also told Sabat that they knew where the secret treasure might be.

Sabat said that she also knew these girls who lived in the forest and knew where the treasure might be. Sabat said that the girls’ names were Lindsay, Mary G, Mary R and Kirsten. Madison was so shocked that these were the girls she knew.

Since they knew the same girls they went where they lived. Now they didn’t need any directions because they knew where to go. While they were walking something jumped out from the trees and scared them. It wasn’t an animal, it wasn’t a creature, plus it wasn’t a big giant monster. It was just Lindsay, one of the girls they were friends with.

Lindsay said that she could take them to the girls since they had moved to other side of the forest. Now Madison liked this because she always liked it when people helped each other. So on and so on, as you know they came to the other side and met other girls.

Kirsten jumped and came running to Madison and Sabat. They ran to her to and when they reached each other they gave each other a big hug.

When they were done hugging they stared the treasure hunt. They followed the yellow path in the middle of the forest. Then they stopped because the map told them to stop. There was no stop sign so they crossed a yellow line they heard creepy noises.

Lindsay quickly said, “Oh! Oh! Its the boys.” “The boys!” Sabat said. “This is not good”, Madison said. But the girls kept on walking, they weren’t afraid at all. Even though they heard noises they still weren’t afraid at all. Madison and Sabat saw the boys sneaking at them. So they told the girls and the girls saw the boys. The boys saw the girls.

That’s when the boys said their names. There names were Mitchell, Matthews, Pace, Arya, Noah and Casey. The boys looked up at the map really curiously. Then Mitchell came up to us and took the map. Then the boys said, “Ha, Ha! You can’t get this map back from us. We’re too strong.”

The boys ran away with the map. When they were gone the girls thought of a plan. The plan was that the girls should team up together and try to get their map back. So they can find the treasure. Soon the girls agreed with the plan and tried to do the plan.

Madison, Kirsten and Sabat teamed up together with everybody and they tried to get their treasure back. But one of the boys spotted them. The first plan failed. Then they thought of another plan.

The other plan was to sneak up on them and get the treasure back. When they tried that they failed again because another boy spotted them. When they were all together in the middle of the forest something started twinkling and in front of them appeared a nice little fairy. The fairy said, “Hi” and told her name. Her name was Mrs. Byrd. Mrs. Byrd said that she was going to help the girls. She raised her wand and said these magical words, “Bobbidi Bobbiddi Boo.” When she was done the boys turned into frogs. The girls and Mrs. Byrd lived happily ever after in the forest.

© Sabat Zahra Husaini
February 14, 2006