|HER WORLD||Sunday, March 14, 2004, Chandigarh, India|
Theatre of love and freedom
AIWC: 75 and still going strong
Spirit of enterprise
Theatre of love and freedom
Huma Safdar, an art teacher in Lahore Grammar School, has put her skills and beliefs into staging fine Punjabi plays with high school girls. She has inculcated a pride for language and literature among the English-speaking elite chips-and-coke generation, says Nirupma Dutt
IT was in Lahore a few decades before the Partition of Punjab, that an attempt was made at bringing Punjabi theatre on urban stage even though the land had a long tradition of folk theatre. For the urban stage it was theatre in English or Urdu. Interestingly, contemporary urban theatre with original plays in Punjabi is less than a century old. Modern Punjabi theatre owes its origin to an Irish actress, Norah Richards. Professor Richards came form England to take up the assignment of a professor of English in Dayal Singh College, Lahore, in 1911. His wife, Nora Richards accompanied him. She was an Irish actress connected to Abbey Theatre and a friend of Lady Gregory.
Robustness of Punjabi life and the earthy tones of the Punjabi language charmed Nora. In 1914, she announced a drama competition on the condition that the play be original and written in Punjabi. The prize was a gold guinea. Her student I.C. Nanda won the guinea by writing the first play in Punjabi called Dulhan (The Bride) and staging it. Norah, a source of inspiration for Punjabi theatre, chose to stay on in India and died at Andretta in Himachal Pradesh where she remained active in theatre. Even today she is remembered as the grand dame of Punjabi theatre.
Urban theatre in East Punjab developed with Balwant Gargi. Harcharan Singh, Atamjit and later Neelam Man Singh as well as Kewal Dhaliwal are making significant contributions towards the popularisation of Punjabi theatre. The situation was not so in West Punjab where Punjabi was pushed to the wall. Lahore had and still has its tradition of Punjabi plays but these are of Sapru-House variety which showcases lewd comedies of the Kurhi jawan guvahandi pareshan. Lahore too has a theatre called Tamashbin which is popular for its double entendre plays.
In midst of such a scenario, Lahori women took up the cudgels to do serious theatre in Punjabi. Madiha Gauhr’s Ajoka theatre is well known. Only a few months ago, she took Delhi and Chandigarh by storm with the staging of Bulleh, based on the poetry of Baba Bulle Shah. However, on a recent visit to Lahore, one came across yet another talented woman director, Huma Safdar, who has steadily and surely been enriching the lot of Punabi theatre.
Ask the beautiful and soft-spoken Huma what her theatre is all about and she smiles and says: "My theatre is all about love and freedom." Ah! Love and freedom such simple and beautiful words indicating an ecstatic state of being. Yet, these words are packed with pain if viewed in the context of the troubled history of Punjab."
Freedom of choice and love were the tools employed against the feudal order of warring tribes by the legendary lovers of the land of five rivers as well as the Sufi poets who sang of these legends. Huma got serious notice as director of Heer Damodar. Huma says, "Heer by Damodar is the earliest written version of the Heer-Ranjha epic. Although Heer by Waris Shah is more popular, yet the Heer by Damodar is an equally powerful lyrical dramaliterary merit. The spiritual love that Heer and Ranjha share enables them to defy social and religious sanctions. The system reacts to their union with violence. The public has a constant presence in the play and as it progresses they identify with the couple and the answer is a revolt against the establishment. The end of the play poses the most pertinent question for Heer and Ranjha leave together, never to return. And we find ourselves asking why could they not live among us?"
Huma, a painter by training, graduated with distinction in Fine Arts from the National College for Art, Lahore. As a student in politically repressed times (1984) she became active in theatre and women’s groups formed all over the country. She actively worked for a decade and a half with Punjab Lok Rehas, a group committed towards raising consciousness, rediscovering roots, traditions and folklore. As an art teacher in Lahore Grammar School, she has put her skills and beliefs into staging fine Punjabi plays with high school girls. She has inculcated a pride for language and literature among the English-speaking elite chips-and-coke generation. Her productions include Heer Waris Shah, Sassi Punnu and Ik Raat Ravi Di, a play set in British times and penned by famous poet Najm Syed. Syed is mentor to Huma and other liberals in the country that has all too often fallen prey to the fundamentalism of mullahs and dictators. As a language activist, Huma was responsible for the introduction of Punjabi in the school where she teaches.
Married to painter-poet Akram
Varraich, Huma is a mother to 15-year-old Rawal. She is planning a
play with professional actors but she says, "My joy is to work
with students and I put them through an intense two-month workshop
before the play is staged and every student gets a chance to do
everything. When asked if she would like to bring a play to the Punjab
across the border, Huma says, "My plays so far are just too big
involving a large cast. When I do a smaller play I will certainly like
to take it there." However, she has visited India a number of
times in her capacity as an artist and activist.
AIWC: 75 and still going strong
THE All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), founded by an Irish lady Margaret Cousins in Pune in 1926, is a non-government organisation (NGO). It has come a long way from being focused merely towards women’s education.. Not only did the AIWC lend a helping hand in times of calamities including war, famine, earthquakes, floods etc. but remained in the forefront to bring about significant legislative reforms to improve the lot of women.
This pre-Partition organisation geared itself to cope withnational emergencies and law and order problems or natural calamities including Partition, three wars (1962, 1965 and 1971) floods and terrorism.
Their devoted ranks formed ‘night-squads’ during wars, collected funds, arranged blood transfusions, stitched parachutes, and provided medical aid to the needy. Workers of the AIWC made and distributed clothes for lakhs of homeless in post-Partition India as it re-dedicated itself to the primary task of changing the social as well as psychological make-up of society towards woman.
It was no surprise to see them celebrating their diamond jubilee on completion of 75 years with much pride and gusto.
To further their goals the organisation committed itself wholeheartedly to improving the condition of women who had been left ravaged by struggles. The prevalence of retrogressive social practices like sati, ill treatment of widows, child marriages, female infanticide, burqa, denial of inheritance impacted women.
Eminent personalities like Sarojini Naidu, Vijaylakshmi Pandit, Kamladevi Chattopadhyaya, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur Muthulakshmi Reddy, Begum Sahiba of Bhopal, Rani Lakshmibai Rajwade and others led the organisation from the front. The AIWC has almost 500 branches nationwide and over one lakh members. Indira Gandhi had formally inaugurated the AIWC branch of Amritsar in 1969 after the local chapter got permanent premises.
The national organisation has the coveted achievement of being instrumental in bringing forth several legislative reforms to benefit women. These include the Maternity Benefits Act, Suppression of Immoral Trafficking in Women Act, Prohibition of Dowry Act in 1961, Equal Pay for Equal Work (1958, 1976), inheritance of property, adoption of child by a single woman, divorce and remarriage, maintenance from husband and son, monogamy in family law and others.
The local chapter in Amritsar has made significant strides towards social, economic and environmental causes sanctioned by union ministries under various schemes. The focus has been on making women self-sufficient, financially independent, dignified and capable of fending for themselves and their families through vocational courses. In addition to this, the AIWC undertakes rehabilitation of women, family welfare and counselling. It also has the provision of creches, a consumer store, dispensary facilities, child guidance, AIDS awareness and legal literacy. A Shaheed Pairvar Fund for widows of victims of terrorist violence has also been established by the organisation. Special projects for the aged are "Adopt a granny" programme, in collaboration with Helpage India, apart from running a physiotherapy centre that charges minimal fees. The latest in their roll of honour is free computer education for 60 girls. A host of other vocational short courses in tandem with the current trends plus placement services are part of its facilities for girls from economically weak sections.
The local chapter is perhaps the first NGO to be sanctioned a ‘round-the-clock’ helpline (telephone:1091) in Punjab. The chapter’s local team comprises eminent social workers who have jointly contributed to the success of its projects not only in the urban areas but also in the rural hinterland.
Founder-members of the Amritsar
chapter are Kunti Paul, Janak Puri, Rajwati Bhrany and Karuna Mehra.
At present, Ranjit Chatha is the president and Rajni Bhrany the
general secretary of the Amritsar chapter, while Vini Mehra is the
coordinator for all the activities of the organisation. Apart from
providing roti-kapda-makan, the key focus is on awareness
campaigns, including environment, conservation of water and
electricity, family planning, new farmland projects, education
facilities, vocational self-sufficiency besides providing legal
redressal in lokadalats.
Spirit of enterprise
"IT is ironical that the worst tragedy in my life brought out the best in me," says 72-year-old Asha Mattewal from Bhalla Colony (Chheharta), who started afresh in life as an entrepreneur at the ripe age of 60. Way back in 1992, her husband was killed at the hands of militants at their ancestral village Mattewal, near Amritsar.
"I had two sons but their business was not doing well. It was my husband who used to fend for the entire family. Even three months after his death, my family was still in a state of shock over my husband’s death.
The overwhelming question that bothered us was what to do now? Survival had become a problem. It was then that we moved out of the village to Amritsar in search of a livelihood. "
"I used to cry in solitude over the vacuum that loss of my life partner had created in my life, as well as the financial crisis that my family had to face, says Asha with moist eyes. One day, our neighbour's son, who used to call me Bhuaji saw me crying and consoled me. It was then that he suggested that I should try and do something to equip the family in the crisis. He inspired me to take my husband's place and earn and to feed them in his absence. He gave me some wool and suggested that I knit some pullovers for him. I made four pullovers for him for which I was paid Rs. 20 per piece. Those Rs 80 were the first time I had earned anything in my life. He gave me some more wool and this time too, I made four more pullovers for the same price. I felt it was less as compared to the labour I had put into the job. But nevertheless, I got some direction in life for which I will always be indebted to him."
"Then I started taking outside work too. Friends, relatives and neighbours saw my work and started giving me wool to knit sweaters and shawls for them. I was complacent that at last, I have got a breakthrough", says Asha with a confident smile.
"Gradually, news of my work spread by word of mouth. It was God's Grace that whosoever came to me once, would start coming to me regularly. I have never argued with my customers on price, nor have they ever tried to bargain. It is less like a business and more like a warm family affair. I never had to go anywhere to ask for work or to deliver or collect stuff. Respecting my age, my customers come to me on their own", says Ms. Mattewal, proudly displaying her hand-knitted sweaters.
Not only this, Asha has become a small-time social activist too. She has become the member of 'Punjab Istri Sabha' run by veteran politician Vimla Dang. On this, she says, "Besides doing something for money, it has given me great pride that I am doing something to help women in distress. We meet once every week and these meetings have given me a new inspiration to live and to help other women like me, live on their own."
Her business has been growing and she has even passed on her knitting skills to her daughters-in-law and granddaughters. Few months back, she even bought a shop, close to her house in Bhalla Colony.
Now she has expanded her business. She has started buying her own wool and along with making pullovers and shawls on order, keeps some pieces ready for sale. This has really given a boost to her business as well as her morale.
As for the name of her shop, she has simply named it "Shri Ram", portraying what she holds deep inside - immense faith in God! Now everybody around knows her and vows her. She has always kept aloof from useless gossip and arguments. "I would rather like to stay in my shop and knit sweaters or read a book. As it is, I get too less time to spare for meaningless things. I leave for my shop at 7 or 8 in the morning and come back by evening. Then I take my two chappatis and get down to sleep.
"Though the memories of my tragedy are still fresh in my mind and still pain me to tears, but I am complacent with the feeling that I have put my life to some use, have been able to do something for my family and my own soul."