Review: Naatak Play: Jis Lahore nai dekhya.. O jamyai nai on Friday, March 11, 2011

You must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty; the ocean does not become dirty. - Mahatma Gandhi

Words of wisdom that highlight the many trials and tribulations that face the characters in Naatak's 35th production, "Jis Lahore Nai Dekhya O Jamyai Nai" (One who has not seen Lahore has not lived). That humanity that the Mahatma refers to, is put to the test, both as a creative work by Asghar Wajahat and as a play here by Director Monica Mehta Chitkara. Naatak's "Jis Lahore..." with its flavorful choice of words in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu, delivers a tapestry of emotions and struggles that few have spoken about, in the years since the partition of 1947. The characters here are flesh and blood in the humor they use to communicate, in their good-hearted gestures and in the venom they spew in the name of hate. The play flies high in versatility and truthfulness, while successfully ponders over what was and what awaits us in our own perceptions of humanity.

"Jis Lahore..." tells the tale of a Muslim family (The Mirzas) that migrates from Lucknow to Lahore and is allotted a haveli vacated by a departing Hindu family. As they arrive, they find an elderly Hindu woman (Ratan Ki Maa) living in the haveli, claiming rights and refusing to leave. Through her genuine care and affection, the Mirzas gradually settle in the haveli along with her and drop ideas of pushing her out. All the while, there is constant friction between Pehelwan and fellow Muslims; the elderly Maulvi and Hidayat Hussein over the ways the Mirzas should be treating Ratan Ki Maa, a Hindu living with Muslims in the same haveli. Caught between her desire to live in Lahore and the hatred spewed by the likes of Pehelwan, Ratan Ki Maa, dies a sad and sudden death. The proceedings result in Maulvi, Hidayat Hussein and several others banding together to implement Ratan ki Maa's last rites. In a shocking turn of events, Pehelwan losing sight of many realities, kills Maulvi to assert himself of being a true Muslim. 

The success of any storytelling, be it in any art form, lies as much in the pen as it does in the performer. Naatak's "Jis Lahore.." is a perfect testament to successful storytelling. Its stellar cast, including Ranjita Chakravarty (Ratan Ki Maa), Ravi Chopra (Maulvi), Aditya Thakur (Pehelwan), Vijay Rajvaidya (Sikandar Mirza), Sunny Moza (Hidayat Hussein), elevate the play to a higher plane, with their passion, clear diction and towering presence. Each of them present the challenges of partition and its effect on the people of Lahore with incredible understanding and panache. The supporting cast, Sindhu Singh (Hamida Begum; Mirza's wife), Anushee Sondhi (Tanveer Begum (Tanno); Mirza's daughter), Pearl Driver (Hidayat Begum), Shan Langade (Aleem) and Sriram Iyer (Anwar), add much sheen to the dramatic and emotional proceedings. Whether it be Ratan Ki Maa's affection or Anwar's violent Muslim beliefs, Mirza's helplessness or Maulvi and Hidayat Hussein's clear moral lines, it is under the careful eyes of Director Monica Mehta Chitkara and Producer Manjusha Gangadharan that "Jis Lahore.." shines bright throughout. 

Naatak, which celebrates its 15th year in staging plays here in the Bay Area, continues to be the powerhouse for theater here, also because of its strong work ethic and never-say-die attitude. Their extensive crew comprises of departments in stage and graphic design, set construction, Props, Lights, Sound and Music, Costume and Makeup and Super-Titles. Cumulatively, it is no surprise that Naatak has grown from strength to strength and delivers classy versatile stage presentations with little to no competition in as many years. 

The Partition of India in 1947, which occurred shortly after India won its independence from the British, saw what is considered the largest mass migration in human history of some 10 million people. Over 1 million died due to the violence and fighting during these turbulent times. A Muslim majority state (Pakistan) and a Hindu majority state (India) was the goal of this partition, but what resulted was the western region of Punjab, war-torn into two. Plagued by their desires to stay and by the mayhem forcing them to move, the brutal violence that followed and its memories have long been forgotten by both Hindus and Muslims. Naatak had other intentions; both via staging this play and through another important display.

A Naatak first attempt was presenting the real-life experiences of Ret. Major General Ravi Chopra and Professor Om Juneja caught during the terrorizing Partition era with an adept moderator in Naatak's own Rajiv Nema. Their vivid descriptions of the lost or dead; scattered relatives desperately seeking information on the whereabouts of their loved ones; bone chilling travel conditions (especially a frightening account by Professor Juneja of happenings on a train during Partition), stays with the audience much after the experiences had been narrated. Professor Juneja's sad declaration rings true even today that generally, people do not wish to speak about the Partition or share their experiences because of the bitter nature of the events or just something they wish to forget. On that account alone, Naatak deserves applause for giving survivors like General Chopra and Professor Juneja a platform to share their perspective on mostly forgotten times in India's and Pakistan's history.

Naatak served a delicious slice of humanity with the dirt intact; just the way the Mahatma would have described it; the way Asghar Wajahat would have penned it, the way Major General Chopra and Prof. Juneja remember it and the way someone like me can relish writing about it.