Sunday, November 30, 2008

ACHIEVEMENTS: Miracle Workers

Often a relentless sense of optimism, persistence and willingness to work is all you need to succeed, says Afia Mansoor

If you’re hardworking, enterprising and have a positive outlook on life, you have all the tools you need to earn your bread and butter and enjoy a decent standard of living. Sounds unbelievable? Read on and see how many people have proved this fact again and again.

Life perhaps gives all of us a chance to ‘make it’ as the saying goes. There are some who rise to the challenge and brave the odds to become successful at their enterprise. People belonging to the lower economic strata especially, need to be extremely enterprising, since the decadent state of public education and the difficulty in securing a decent job through merit ensures that the massive majority of the poor are trapped forever in the vicious circle of poverty.

This scribe talked to some entrepreneurs who started out with literally no financial resources, who belong to the lower income groups and who now manage to support their families respectably and have successfully evaded the poverty trap.

Kashif, a part-time employee in a government organisation, was financially broke eight years ago but had a burning passion to improve his family’s standard of living. He worked as a part-time computer operator in two companies, yet it was very difficult for him to make ends meet.He grew interested in the catering business and entered a partnership with a friend on commission basis. In three years, he learned how to cook as well as all the ins and outs of the business; he hired a cook and opened a small kitchen to sell a 15 rupee plate of biryani. The first day he sold 12 daigs and never looked back.As the business grew, he hired more cooks, got hold of a financier and three years later opened his new office with a custom-built kitchen. He says, “After eight years into the trade I have tremendous patronage from customers. I have come a long way and nowadays I am selling various three-course menus and have arranged food for events running into millions of rupees.

I have introduced my own improvisation on dishes like lagan gosht and shahi biryani which have gone down very well with my customers.”It has not been all smooth sailing as he explains, “I didn’t have any initial investment or monetary support which is very vital if you are opening a new enterprise. Once I lost all my money by investing in a barbecue set-up. Also, in this business you tend to sacrifice on family time as I usually get home at around 4 or 5am. However, our efforts have been gratifying as eight years ago, we lacked even the bare necessities and today I have a comfortable home, a car, my kids go to decent schools. What more could I want?”

Sultan, 20, is a tailor who learned the craft as an apprentice at the age of 14 and then decided to start his own work. He lives with his family in the servant quarters of a house in Lahore’s Defence area and this family has been very generous in permitting him to carry on his work from their house.Sultan’s modus operandi gives him the edge. He has a number of customers from whom he picks up the clothes, stitches them within two days and delivers them right to their doorstep. His clients vouch for his neat cutting and stitching.Sultan exclaims proudly, “When Begum Sahiba’s daughter was getting married she got me to stitch her daughter’s and the entire family’s clothes. I stitched some 80 dresses in a month, working as long as 20 hours a day at times. She paid me generously in return!”He continues, “I have kept my prices a little lower than the market rates and the fact that I visit clients at their home, even buy the accompanying lace or buttons for them and deliver the stitched clothes to their door saves them time and fuel and the hassle of running around after tailors.”

Bushra got married to her cousin when she was 16. In another six years she had four children. She lived in a little village near Sheikhupura where she tended to the needs of a large family. Her husband was illiterate and lacked any marketable skills. He drove a tonga and was not able to support his family due to the rising cost of maintaining the animal.Though Bushra’s in-laws were supportive, she found it increasingly difficult to fulfil the basic needs of her children. After all her backbreaking labour she still had no cash in hand to meet her expenses.

Seema, another villager, offered to teach Bushra the art of waxing which is a lucrative skill and in great demand by women who prefer to have waxing done at home rather than visit a parlour. Bushra, with her family’s consent learned the skill and was sent by Seema, along with her homemade wax, for the first appointment. Bushra was nervous but the client understood her predicament and encouraged her to go on. In fact, she paid Bushra more than she dared to demand. From that day, she never looked back. She would book appointments by using the local grocery shop’s phone who would charge her Rs2 for each call, but in spite of this investment she made a substantial profit.

For several years she persisted at the task, some times with no client for days. However, news of her skill and punctuality spread through word of mouth, and her reputation followed her even when she moved to Lahore. Her husband left work when they moved and now accompanies Bushra to every house. Today she is extremely proud of her journey. Sixteen years of rigorous labour have enabled Bushra to feed her four children, marry off her three sisters-in-law, and help her to financially support her brother-in-law’s family. She has educated all her children and is usually booked with appointments for the whole day. She says, “I have worked exceptionally hard to achieve financial stability. However, along the way I met some supportive people who gave me encouragement when I really needed it.”

Tamkeen is another ‘waxing lady’ in Lahore. Adept in the added skills of threading, facial, manicure, pedicure and massage, she is able to secure a good income each day and works only by appointments. She sends her children to a good school, swimming classes and is taking English Language tutorials herself to improve her communication skills. She has the added advantage of being able to drive, so she does not have to wait for male chaperones to accompany her to various homes.

One of the main success factors for each of these people was the availability of cell phones as this was the method through which they established and secured their business. Low calling costs have also helped these small-scale entrepreneurs who need to connect to their customers on a regular basis. Nearly all the entrepreneurs admitted that though some of their clients haggled over payments, they were largely satisfied by the money they made each day.The common factor between all the people interviewed was their relentless sense of optimism, persistence, and willingness to work hard and it is undoubtedly these traits that have made them successful. They all made adversity work for them. Perhaps this could be a lesson or two for people who end up blaming the system for their own shortcomings.

This article was published in The Review, Dawn Newspaper on November 27, 2008.


The Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop’s World Performing Arts Festival was an eventful fare this year. It was the theatre company’s 25th festival, it was held without a sponsor in trying times of terrorist threats and recession and three explosions took place during the festival, too.

Having experienced the first explosion, I must say I have also joined the increasing league of unfortunate Pakistanis experiencing terror firsthand. Thank God there were no casualties or serious damage. But more on the blasts later.

The festival was a pleasant montage of all kinds of performing arts and some of the performances were thoroughly enjoyable. On the fifth day, the Rifco Arts from the UK presented the hour-long comedy It Ain’t All Bollywood about a girl obsessed with the artificial world of Hindi films. She is eventually brought out of her self imposed exile by her childhood Irish friend who recognises her on his frequent trips to her house as the courier guy. A beautiful story, simple and aesthetic props, brilliant acting and humour made the play fun to watch.

The first of Abbas Jutt’s solo nautanki performance was scheduled in the Punjabi Cultural Complex’s auditorium on the night of the folk music concert. It was ironic that a talented singer like Abbas was scheduled to perform in the same time slot as folk artistes like Saeein Zahoor and Arif Lohar, but in a separate auditorium where only a handful of people came to hear him. The organisers should have accommodated him in the folk concert which would have given him a bigger audience. Abbas’s renditions of the folk tales of Sohni Mahiwal and Sassi Punhu in traditional Punjabi style were sonorous yet ill-placed before a nearly empty auditorium.

The Qadir Ali Baig Theatre Foundation from Hyderabad Deccan in India performed Raat Phoolon Ki, an unscripted 70-minute act of poetry, music and dance. Qadir Ali Baig was a poet and a lover of the performing arts, and many of his poems became songs for the Indias Hindi film industry. The play was produced by Begum Razia Qadir Ali Baig, directed by Mohammad Ali Baig and the poetry was recited by well-known actor Arif Zakaria. The combination dance was derived from various Indian classical genres and it was choreographed and performed by Dr. Alekhya Punjla and her troupe. The beautiful fusion music to which the dances were performed was composed by the famous santoor player Rahul Sharma.

The Aakar Puppet Theatre from India delivered a fabulous performance in the name of Dhola Maro. It was a Rajasthani folk legend of a princess and her beloved prince who comes to marry her defying all odds including a spell-casting envious witch, a horned monster and a huge python.The props were an exquisite representation of the rich and colourful Rajasthani culture and the puppeteers handled the string marionettes very skillfully. In one of the scenes, a single puppeteer balanced the prince holding the princess on a dancing camel. Other scenes like the puppets breathing, juggling a ball and doing a peacock dance completely won the audience over. Children loved the hour-long performance and many ran to the stage after the show to check out the puppets up close.

The Ariel Theatre from Bulgaria performed Clever Peter for young children. The story was based on the Bulgarian folk tale of an adventurous, trickster peasant called Peter who goes about helping the poor and wriggles out of difficult situations by using his wits. The technique used was hand puppetry and the two puppeteers did an okay job as they fumbled with the English at times.

The Hungry Heart Festival (India) performed As The Sun Sets. It was a story of a family coming to terms with the family’s patriarch Viraj dying of cancer in old age.The play explored human feelings beautifully as in the end the daughter realises her mother’s worth. The play had some really good acting by Prabha Tonk (wife),Anjali (aunt) and Danish Iqbal (servant).

A day prior to the closing of the festival, the National School of Drama, India, presented Azizun. It was captivating play set in the 1857 period of Kanpur. The play revolved around a courtesan called Azizun who is in love with Shamsuddin, a soldier with the East India Company. Shamsuddin decides to join the rebellion and when his frequent comings to the house of Azizun get noticed by the Company officers, she decides to join the rebels and her house is used for the secret revolt movement.The play was simply enchanting as the sets were put up on three sides of the camp making the audience feel as though they were sitting in a 3-D theatre. The script was a mix of pristine Urdu and bits of Hindi. Soul-stirring dialogues such as when Shamsuddin convinced other soldiers to join his revolt against the Company and said: “Tumhain khud mein aur khuda mein faisla karna hoga” were a treat to hear. The stage was set at different elevations hence Azizun’s house was actually a two-storied building. Another platform with stairs positioned behind the audience was used effectively for the revolt scenes.During the small length of time in which I managed to watch the performance, it felt like I was transported to another world. The music, the subtle and graceful dance and the language was magical. The play unfortunately could not conclude due to the explosions even though the actors brilliantly carried on through the earlier disruptive fireworks at the match in the nearby Qaddafi Stadium.

The Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop’s Come Back To The Coffee House One More Time Rafi Peer was also staged the same day. It was about Rafi Peer and the fact that he was far ahead of his time and believed in empowering people to be change agents themselves through the use of performing arts. The dialogue was a mix of Urdu, Punjabi and English, and set in different time periods. Rafi Peer’s ideology was narrated by the characters who themselves are trying to understand the depth of his thoughts long after he has departed the world.Directed by Salmaan Peerzada, the play made an ingenious use of props and there was attention to detail as when the coffee house setting was created there was the faint clink of real cups and silver in the backstage to bring in the real touch. Though some of the audiences found the play difficult to understand, according to Tasneem Peerzada (press director), the play was a new technique for the Pakistani audience who have not been exposed to its subtlety.

As we left the final performance and walked on the pavilion round the open-air theatre, the first explosion took place. It was definitely not a firecracker this time. But we knew it was a low-intensity bomb as the sound was not loud enough. As we stood with our back to the theatre, a woman in one of the handicrafts stall before us looked above us at the walls of the theatre and let out a most terrifying scream.

My husband and I turned around to look above us in what seemed like a moment cast in eternity as we thought there was a bomber right above our heads waiting to explode his explosives-laden jacket! But there was only smoke and dust rising and as the woman ran screaming towards the theatre, people panicked and started running towards the exit points. Some RPTW staffers got hold of the woman as she fainted and it transpired that her young son was in the theatre for the concert. What was commendable was the calm that the RPTW staff showed in treating the lady. A worker announced that the sound was that of a gas cylinder exploding, perhaps in a bid to pacify the panicking crowd.

As we left the premises unhurried, the scene outside had changed to scores of ambulances, a news coverage van, and police contingents moving into action. The second explosion took place when we were leaving the Qaddafi Stadium’s exit gate and it had been a good 20 minutes since the first one took place. Later, it saddened me to know that three people were injured, not due to of the explosions but in the panicky stampede that ensued.

This article was published in Images, Dawn Newspaper on November 30, 2008

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Maria B.

Maria B. the woman is a fine confluence of art and enterprise. Her fashion house by the same name is the only one in Pakistan that has a standardized sizing system, comes up with 5 new collections each year, exports 3 product lines, does textiles and couture bridals under one roof, markets 5 different product lines and is headed by Maria; a trained designer.

The enterprising woman knew what she wanted since the beginning. In 1994, she was offered a place at the prestigious St. Martin School of Fashion in London but chose to be at the Pakistan School of Fashion Design where she went on to top for four consecutive years. The staunch patriot defends her decision back then saying, “I wanted to stay in my country and be close to the people and fabrics I was to work with later. The PSFD was also syndicated with the La Chambre Syndicale in France which is the best fashion school in the world, so I didn’t need to go elsewhere.”

Her brilliance manifested while she was still in school. As a third year student in 1997, Maria represented Pakistan along with some of her batch mates at the prestigious ‘Les Etoiles de la mode’ – World Young Designers Award held in Belgium. Competing against 22 countries, Maria finished among the top three in the final world rankings. The five outfits she showed there were according to her a ‘symbolic representation of Pakistan’s evolution over the last few centuries’. One of the jurists who had worked with Versace had commented that ‘her portfolio was the best he had seen in years.’ The dye of her success was cast then, perhaps.

Back then Maria’s vision was ‘to become Pakistan’s first International brand in fashion’ and she had to start out in a country where her field of specialization was nascent. Her unique selling proposition and her individual philosophy has been in her words, ‘to provide high fashion with affordability’. According to her, “10 years ago fashion in Pakistan was in its infancy. I was the first graduate from a fashion school and my vision was to develop the ready-to-wear market. I wanted to make fashion accessible to women and not be a garage studio aunty designer making bridals. I graduated with honors from college and decided to make a difference. I went for daring cuts, international silhouettes and incorporated the latest trends into our traditional clothes. It was instant success mashaAllah. I became so confident that I opened my second shop in Karachi and that became a better commercial success than my first shop in Lahore. The key was to educate the clientele in Pakistan and it was not easy back then. There was no media exposure and no FTV. The biggest hurdle was to train women to look beyond embellishments and focus on trends and cuts that suited them. One success led to another and today Maria B. is the largest retailer of women’s designer wear in Pakistan.”

Her success is phenomenal from a business point of view. What started out ten years ago as a shop in Lahore with 10 employees is now a million dollar company; the only Pakistani designer label to have reached out to the maximum number of women through its diverse product range, affordable pricing and distribution across 4 cities in Pakistan with more outlets in the pipeline.

The spirited entrepreneur’s label holds the unique distinction of designing, manufacturing and retailing a wide range of prĂȘt, couture and unstitched lawn. According to Maria her company’s production is the highest among the local fashion industry for these three lines on a monthly basis. The label is internationally stocked in Manchester, Birmingham, New Delhi, Abu Dhabi, Orlando, Washington, New York, New Jersey and Dallas. Maria B. is the only Pakistani Designer Label with a franchise and store in London making it the first Pakistani designer brand to go international. Maria B. is also the only Fashion House in Pakistan that sells online and gets shipping orders from as far as the Netherlands.

Her success can perhaps also be attributed partially to her philosophy of ‘making high fashion affordable. She recalls how she used to frequent a boutique in Karachi when she was in her teens and found the clothes very expensive. Says she, “The manager of the boutique used to treat me like a nobody because I couldn’t buy the stuff on my own. It really put me off and I used to tell my mother that I’d open a shop one day that would have clothes for everyone. That everyone would be welcome in it.” That is the culture she has tried to develop in her shops all over the country. Her reasonable price ranges have attracted women from various demographics to her clothes. In fact women from the middle income strata prefer her lawn fabric for its price and quality.

Introducing lawn and recently the voile fabric has been a wise business decision for Maria who saw it as a great way of bringing high fashion to the streets. She brought out lawns in 2006 when there were only three other designer lawns being sold. Today her prints are highly sought after despite four more competitors in the scene.

Maria’s consistent triumph through her career is an inspiration for both business and fashion students. She has lectured frequently on entrepreneurship at LUMS where the MBA students are required to do a case study on her. She has also conducted workshops for PSFD students besides being on PSFD’s Board of Governors and acting as Jurist for the school’s events.

Not content with lapping her prior achievements and basking in their glory, Maria keeps coming out with new brands each year. Her latest offering is the Mgirl brand for young women with a global fashion sensibility. She states, “Mgirl will be the new fun and fearless brand by Maria B. I saw the need to create a western brand within Maria B. as the younger generation is now dressing with a global sensibility, and there are no accessories available in Pakistan. Mgirl is a pioneering brand with a vast product line ranging from shoes, bags, belts, clothes, scarves and jewelry down to even rings and brooches.”

For Maria to achieve her first goal of going international has not been enough. She says, “whenever I fulfill a goal, I have 10 new goals lined up ahead. My new goal is to become a lifestyle brand within the next ten years, inshaAllah, and to retail across 5 – 6 countries in the next decade with a full line of accessories, shoes, bags, eastern and western women’s wear, menswear, children wear, home furnishings… the list goes on, and on.”

She takes a great deal of care to ensure controls with the aesthetics of her work. is concerned, for in 10 years and with a tremendous number of lines and designs being produced under her label; she still is the only one designing at Maria B. The rest are all textile designers. The 33 year old declares confidently, “I have had designers off and on for the production and pattern side but never for the creative end. I have always maintained creative control but now my systems are ready to take a new creative team of designers who can start taking control.”

“What thrills her most,” I ask, “the art or the enterprise?”

‘Actually a combination of both.’ She responds, “Allah has blessed me with a creative mind and the gut of a true entrepreneur. One cannot succeed as a designer unless you can manage the business end of your enterprise. The reason behind the success of Maria B. is the combination of a creative sense and a business acumen”.

A staunch patriot, Maria is actively involved in streamlining the procedures for the Pakistani fashion industry and wants to see its structure and approach changed for the better. She says, “We have to wake up from our egoistical slumber”, she states emphatically, “we stand no where in the international scene. We are a divided lot and if it were not the Pakistan Fashion Design Council, I would see no hope for fashion in Pakistan. But the council is the best thing that happened to the industry. I’m one of the founding members of the Council and we are all working to make fashion an industry, and promote the business of fashion in Pakistan".
The edited version of this article was published in Libas International Magazine Vol. 3 2008.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Amidst the bomb scare and the recession despair, the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop’s (RPTW) World Performing Arts Festival kicked into action in Lahore from November 13.It was a tall order putting up the show this year with no corporate sponsorship, phenomenally expensive air fare and a tremendous risk of terrorist attacks. However the RPTW has managed to put a brave front and decided to give their best to this, their 25th festival. The only consistent assistance from the previous years was the collaboration with the Royal Norwegian Embassy and the Lahore Arts Council.

What was also notable this year was the complete disengagement with government officials. Last year’s show was inaugurated by the then Lahore Governor who also attended some of the performances. The year before that, former President Pervez Musharraf had cut the ribbon.

This year the management decided to make Begum Rafi Peer inaugurate the festival and described her as the “biggest VIP as she is the mother of the seven Peerzadas managing the event and has attended every festival since the past 25 years.” However, Faizaan Peerzada, the president of the RPTW, hoped for good support from the government in the provision of extra security.

When probed by as to how the RPTW had managed to put up a festival of such a huge scale despite the lack of sponsorship Faizaan said that his company ha had invested in acquiring its own lighting, sound, props and camps which slashed expenses almost by half. He said that the corporate that had been sponsoring the show since the past several years could not do so this year due to recession. Its ironic though as the said corporate has literally bombarded television and billboards throughout the city with its new campaign ads. Surely, priority lies with making the buck while there’s the chance and patronising the arts becomes a preoccupation for affluent times.

Coming back to the festival, despite the issues of travel advisories by international embassies, some 300 delegates from 10 countries made it to Lahore this year. Overall, some 24 theatre performances have been staged over the course of the 11-day festival that ends today by artistes from Pakistan, India, UK, USA, Afghanistan, Germany and Italy. The genres include an assortment of mime, street theatre and stand-up comedy among others. The 14 puppet performances include string, hands and shadow techniques with artistes from Ireland, Netherlands, Bulgaria, India, Iran, Czech Republic, France and Pakistan performing. A highlight this year was the Uncle Sargam Show which was missed during the past festivals.
The concert nights held under a specific theme each night included performances by Ali Azmat and Overload in Rock Night, Strings in Pop Night, Tina Sani in Ghazal Night and Abida Parveen in Mystic Night among a host of other performers.The dance performances have been dominated by India this year with five groups from the country performing genres of Bharat Natyam, Kathak and the Rajasthani folk dance. The Pakistani entries include Sheema Kirmani, Fasihur Rehman and Wahab Shah.

A total of 31 films were originally scheduled for screening during the festival with entries from Pakistan, France, Turkey and a major chunk from India’s parallel and commercial cinema such as Gandhi My Father, Chameli, Main Zinda Hoon, Dharavi, etc.

Despite, however, some great performances, the festival has not managed to pull crowds in this year and perhaps this can be attributed to not only security concerns but also the steep ticket fare (Rs500 per head for a concert night and for international performances). The Youth Performing Arts Festival held only last month had witnessed long queues outside the venue in Lahore along with jam-packed performances. However, the WPAF, despite having professional performances by international groups, has only managed to draw a handful of art aficionados. The management, realising the importance of drawing families, included folk puppetry in the schedule by the fifth day. Usually it has been an important part of the festival from the start and the cheaper tickets facilitate the people more.

There have been great crowd-pullers though like the stand up comedians Sadia Mirza from the UK and Azhar Usman from the US. While Shazia Mirza’s 60-minute performance was subtle and amusing, it was Azhar Usman who had the audience rolling with laughter. The bearded comedian who has grown up in Chicago has parents from Patna in India and hence has been exposed to desi culture. He whiplashed the quintessential desi trait of bootlegging famous brands into great imitations of ‘Tommy Hilfinger’, ‘Abhibaas’ and ‘Nice’. His anecdotes of facing discrimination, of desis distorting English pronunciation (specially the Ws and the Vs) and of desi aunties was hilarious. The comedian brilliantly handled comments from the audience, spinning a cannonball of humour back to a particular smart aleck who tried to get the better of him. The audience loved him and raised a cry for an encore.

The Jack and Joe Theatre from Italy and Germany performed Life Back about the mundane antics of two friends, one of whom is resurrected on the anguished pleas of the other. Though the performance was fine, it was the stage effects that really caught my attention. In one of the sequences, golden light thrown on to round mirrors hanging from strings tied to the ceiling created a dazzling effect into the dark hall. When a semi-reflective silver sheet was added to the background it created a surreal look. In another, the use of a falling feather, golden light, bubbles in the air and cigarette smoke looked very poetical.

Afghanistan’s Aftaab Theatre presented Tartuffe (with English subtitles). Adapted from the play by French playwright Moliere, it was directed by French director Helen Cinque. The group will also perform in India and then in Paris. Tartuffe is about a priest who manipulates his way into a nobleman’s house and attempts at having a licestious affair with his wife.

Despite this year’s annoyances of scheduling glitches and a higher performance ticket fare, the RPTW management must be commended for holding the show in the dire circumstances. The festival is a great platform to expose the public to the universal messages of life from art around the world. And it works both ways. In the innocent words of the Italian puppeteer Elizabetta Potasso who is engaged with the ‘all women’ French Compagnie Filles en Tropiques that uses its income for the welfare of street children in developing countries, “It’s important for me to come to Pakistan in this festival despite the circumstances. Otherwise who will tell the people back home that you guys also have two eyes, two ears, two legs and arms and you also laugh on the same jokes as we do.”

This article was published in Images, Dawn Newspaper on November 23, 2008.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Young At Heart
With the heat and humidity taking a bow for this season in Lahore, the cultural scene is all set to pick up; amid tight security of course.The Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop (RPTW) held its week-long 7th Youth Performing Arts Festival at the Alhamra Cultural Complex in the third week of October in collaboration with the Royal Norwegian Embassy and assisted by the Lahore Arts Council.
The response to the event turned out to be better than expected despite the air of despair that seems to have enveloped the country along with incessant power breakdowns. Admittedly, even the organisers were afraid of putting up the show due to the security risk and publicity was minimal to avoid unwanted attention.Some 13 schools, colleges and universities participated in the event that culminated with an award ceremony for the best entries. Admission to the event was free and it was heartening to see families flock to the performances. The event perhaps lacked only in punctuality as most performances were delayed by at least half an hour. This was due to the amateur artistes taking too long in getting ready to perform. Also, as the crowd turnout was more than expected, seating arrangements became inadequate and some events held in the tented camps saw people in huge queues lined outside the entrances.
Coming back to the entries, 10 musical bands participated in the gig night, five dance performances, seven mime performances and 18 plays in all. The 30 short films screened at the festival also included documentaries and music videos.
Ajoka Theatre staged Hotel Mohenjodaro about a flourishing society decaying due to selfish collusion, sectarianism and the swollen egos of those at the helm of affairs.Other notable plays in the festival included 3 Jones by Alif Adaab of the NCA about three upcoming heroes of Happy Town in the Wild West. The play was hilarious and the techniques used included shadows, video projections and stage drama. It was followed by a puppet performance titled The Smooth Puppeteers. The Maas Foundation presented Permeshar Singh based on the short story by Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi about a Sikh who saves a Muslim boy from Partition riots and thereby his religion. The play was applauded generously by the audience who related to the theme of humanity and love for all.Beaconhouse National University’s Char Gram Performing Arts Society presented Aath Bajay, a funny story about a young man who wants to become a professional cook but his family does not approve. He eventually wins his mother’s support when she is convinced that he would commit suicide otherwise. The play portrayed our society’s narrow mindedness to creativity unconventional pursuits in a comic manner. The play was well received.

The Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi presented a creative performance called 8 Openings about eight individuals from completely different backgrounds who narrate their life experiences. Not knowing each other, yet their story is interlinked, something which is only revealed to the audience. The play had an interesting set concepts which included a very slickly shot video.The most hilarious play was by the GC University Faisalabad titled Heer Ranjha 2008, a modern take on the legendary folk tale. Heer was played by Rizwan Daawar who also directed the play. The sight of a guy dressed up as Heer and dancing to the late Malika-i-Tarannum Noor Jehan’s Mahi Aave Ga had people rolling with laughter. Jokes about rising prices, power breakdowns, mobile phones and teenage crushes were enjoyed by all and sundry, so much so that even the judges couldn’t keep a straight face.
The play by the Institute of Space and Technology, Islamabad titled Ibn-i-Kabeel oddly justified suicide bombings as a reaction to corruption in society. Madeeha Gauhar commented on the play by saying, “I was shocked that these students upheld the heinous act of suicide bombings by saying they were justified. Nobody under any circumstances whatsoever can be allowed to take innocent people’s lives. Coming from an educational institute of the country’s capital, this was very disturbing indeed. It was even more shocking to see the audience applauding the play which shows how twisted and negative we all have become, and how the TV news media has shaped our collective understanding of such situations to brutal immunity rather than empathetic action.”

The University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore’s Basti Daad was an enjoyable performance and the actors performed brilliantly, making one forget that they were amateurs. The play was about a small railway station that was soon to be closed down for trains due to thin traffic. It focused on the thoughts of the staff and the few passengers coming to the station faced with an uncertain future. The play made a beautiful symbolic reference to Pakistan.
Something notable in most plays (except for adaptations) was the frequent mention of inflation, power shortage, the dysfunctional judiciary and weak-willed politicians. The performers were discerning and witty on the collective morass befalling the country, such as in the play Leray Chor by the Islamabad-based Pattan Lok Natak. The story was about a thief who steals clothes from a policeman, a cleric and a politician and mingles with the common people to go unnoticed. The people finally identify the thief among them and give him a good thrashing.
On the contrary, western adaptations performed without adapting the story and setting to local flavour failed to find favour with the audience.

The article was published in Images, Dawn on November 9, 2008

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Mystic from Pakpattan - Amatullah Armstrong

The narrow winding alleys that ascend up to the darbar of Baba Fareed Ganj Shakar in Pakpattan are abuzz with qawwali, the beat of dhol and shopkeepers calling out from tabaruk shops. It is a surreal world. Made even more so by the presence of an enchanting tall, white woman seated most comfortably before the langar khana; a place where free food for devotees is prepared.

The woman is Amatullah Armstrong. She is an Australian by birth but has lived in so many times and places all over the world that she seems to be above time and place. She is an acclaimed author and a Sufi dervish who came to Islam after 7-years of intense search for what she describes as ‘truth and the true direction of life’. Nothing about her is ordinary.

She tells enchanting stories of how she saw a whale giving birth in the Pacific Ocean while being protected by a circle of dolphins, or how Paulo Coelho met her with warm regards and compliments in Poland where she and her qawwal husband were his guests. Her books have been published in various languages and she has a terrific fan following with people yearning to know more about Islam and Sufism. Listening to her timeless tales in the darbar of Baba Farid seemed liked an incredible experience.

Smiling, she relates her story of coming to Islam that took her through dozens of countries around the world. “It was a long journey. I remember the first seeds were perhaps sown by my father who was a big lover of the poetry of Omar Khayyam. My father was a very dashing and romantic man and the way he read Khayyam’s poetry had a big impact on me. The seeds were watered further when a teacher at the school in Sydney taught me a poem ‘Abu Ben Adhem’ when I was 8. It was about the great Sufi master Ibrahim Adham; the king of Balkh. That poem had a remarkable influence on me for the rest of my life. There was a period of draught for the seeds during my teenage years, the hippie years and my Beatle fan years. I went to an Art School and married a man I had met there against my parents’ wishes. Over the years I got disenchanted by the superficiality of the Art scene with the constant ego battles and the rat race and we moved to the countryside. Exposed to the nature I began scratching the surface of various philosophies like Hari Krishna and Zen Buddhism.”

Her fascinating journey took shape when she moved to France with her first husband in 1978. She says, “In France, beautiful catholic places like the Notre Dam cathedral showed that people there took Catholicism very seriously which was not the case in Australia. I used to go to all these cathedrals but funnily I never related to the concept of Trinity. Jesus Christ was always such a beautiful, beautiful man for me and I couldn’t comprehend him being the son of God. I always connected to God alone. In retrospect, being in France played an incredible role in my journey. When I used to walk in the woods, sit at the hill top with my dog and behold the splendor I was so much in love with Allah even before I became a Muslim. It took me so many years to realize that Allah had been calling me for a long time but I never really listened.”

Amatullah took up studying religion fervently while in France. She kept trying to find a way of connecting to God. Meanwhile, her first husband was a struggling artist so the couple kept running into and out of money. Always on the look out for adventure one day they decided to buy a bicycle each and cycle all the way to Italy to visit the basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi because she had great regard of the Saint. She recalls, “On our way to Assisi, we ran out of money around Corsica and decided to stay there for a while till we had enough money. My husband found work at a building where the Morrocan laborers came to know of us and persuaded us to go to North Africa rather than Italy. So we cycled 5000 miles towards North Africa. My beloved dog died the second day of our reaching Africa and I was devastated apart from being physically exhausted. I asked my husband to take me to a Church because I needed help. A Church we found in Tunis had its doors locked and I thought that was the last chance Christianity had with me because I desperately needed to get into the Church and could not.

Some days later in Tunisia we went to a Souk and I needed to buy a souvenir. The man who took us through the beautiful ancient Souk kept turning back towards me and looking straight in my eyes said in French again and again, ‘It is God who directs’. I was fascinated by the Muslim man’s message because it came at a time when I was emotionally shattered. I went back to Australia with a urge to look into Islam which I had never ever done before for the images of repressed women and violence always kept me off. I looked through books and studied whatever little material I could find and each time I would read a verse from Quran Sharif my heart would say this is it. I was able to keep aside all the magazines which had propaganda about Islam in Iran during the Revolution and look at the religion objectively. I was enamored by works of the Sufi masters like Shaiykh Abdul Qadir Jilani because its essence was exactly what I wanted.”

After two years of intense study of whatever she could find on Islam, Amatullah went to North Africa again when her husband got commissioned to work in the Sahara desert. She says, “When I came to the Sahara, I was yearning to be a Muslim but my head was making ten million excuses. I was asking myself how l would pray back in Australia, how I would cover my head. But it was meant to be.”

While traveling through the Sahara by bus they stopped on the way for refreshments and a passenger got off to say his prayers. “The sight of the man prostrating in complete submission in the middle of the desert was like a bolt of lightening. I was entranced. In a flash I realized, this was what I was supposed to be doing. He came back to sit in the bus with the desert sand on his forehead and I was finished by the sight. I had a massive spiritual overload. When we got back to Algiers in a grotty little hotel I had a total collapse. Two years of yearning, crying and praying for guidance in my own way had got me my answer with a thunderous force. For the whole day I thought I was going to die and kept reciting la illaha illa lah in my delirium and found out much later that this was what the Muslims were required to say when embracing Islam.”

Amatullah was drawn to Sufism with a burning obsession. She read everything related to it and listened to Sufi music from around the world. She began listening to the Sabri Brothers from Pakistan and started enjoying their soulful renditions. However her coming to Islam was just the beginning of her journey towards Allah. Her first husband supported her through everything but the marriage didn’t last. He told her perhaps she never was his to begin with. She had a higher purpose.

While in Australia, Amatullah had a dream in which she saw a strange man sitting amid dervishes and telling them that she belonged to his (Sufi) Order. It was a very vivid dream and Amatullah recorded it in her diary and forgot all about it. Three years later she received a packet of videocassettes from her Australian Spiritual Guide and as she saw the Qawali of Sabri Brothers playing she was thunderstruck. The dream she had seen three years ago had the famous Ghulam Farid Sabri in it who was now playing qawali before her. She had never met him yet recognized him from the dream instantly. The day she recalled her dream was the beginning of her onward journey.

She began searching for the man even whose full name she didn’t know. Several months later to her desolation she found out from a contact in the USA that Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri had died before she saw him in the dream. In her words, “My connection with his was spiritual, across time and space.”

After writing two books on Sufism which Amatullah credits to the spiritual guidance of Haji Ghulam Farid Sabri, she finally came to Pakistan where a visit to Baba Farid at Pakpattan (the patron Saint of the Sabri Brothers) felt like a powerful homecoming. She, a white woman from distant shores of Australia decided to make Pakistan her permanent home.

For ten years Amatullah lived in Karachi after marrying the youngest Sabri brother Mehmood Ghaznavi, another celebrated qawwal. She went to Pakpattan off and on for spiritual rejuvenation often staying there for several weeks at a stretch. To her, Pakpattan is like home where she is accepted and loved as the ‘gori malang’. But despite being 60 years of age, and having found fulfillment upon fulfillment in life, Amatullah’s journey goes on.

She feels her next destination on her incredible spiritual Journey is South Africa where ‘she is being sent by Baba Farid to meet her new spiritual guide by the name of Ebrahim Schuitema’; a Caucasian Sufi Shaiykh who guides through the Shahdiliya Order of Sufis.

The incredible woman continues with her great quest defying physical boundaries to reach farther metaphysical heights.
An edited version of this article was published in Libas International Magazine Vol 3: 2008.
Photo by Ramla Akhtar.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Freak Show

“A puppet may not necessarily be a human or animal figurine. Even the swirl of a sash in the air can convey an expression and hence become a puppet,” said Faizaan Peerzada at the recent theatre-cum-puppet performance at Lahore’s Museum of Puppetry.

The show was unique as it was performed by students of the Punjab University, Beaconhouse National University and Interactive Theatre (Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop) in collaboration with two German puppeteers, Heiki Ikkola and Sabine Koehler. Both the Germans had been hosted by the RPTW to train more than a dozen Pakistani students on the skills of puppetry in theatre.The group of students performed a ‘freak show’ every Sunday at the museum and at the commencement of the workshop came up with a performance of skits that they had devised over the length of the training.

The show was aptly named The Newspaper Man and Other Oddities. Most of the skits focused around mundane situations of life depicted in a humorous way, and paper was crafted into puppets or props. So the same sheet of paper swiftly became a cigarette or a peacock or a snake or even a camera. Objects like a brick, broom or pen were used with sound effects in the background to convey simple themes.Not all performances were immaculate and refined but the students seemed greatly motivated and were generously applauded.

However, one could not comprehend the story behind some of the skits. It would have been better had all the students chosen simpler themes like the one with the fashion photographer who does a lousy job of shooting her model; or the young girl addicted to drugs which eventually finish her off. Skits like these went really well with the audience some of who shared the sentiment that the simpler themes were both well-enacted and well-received.This should be considered by the students when performing in future as all professional puppeteers coming from abroad in Rafi Peer festivals make it a point to use simple and easy-to-understand ideas.

The better performed skits were placed towards the end of the show. An impressive one was the duel between two paper puppets with an actual fireball. The two puppets were handled with great skill by half-a-dozen students each making the movements of the puppets. But the audience were wowed by the ‘pyro puppetry’ sequence in the end when a huge eight-foot puppet made of paper on iron bars was lit with fire and made to dance on Nusrat Fateh Ali’s qawwali. It was a sight to behold! This act was handled by the German pros themselves since it required skill and caution.

The RPTW also took the opportunity to announce its new windows in the museum which included background props for puppets from around the world. One appreciated the amount of effort put into making the windows aesthetically pleasing.For instance the Uzbek puppets have now been given sandcastles in the background complete with turrets and domes, and the Rajasthani puppets have been given the darbar ‘putli ghar’ look. At a time when all else seems to be ruled by chaos, art initiatives such as these must be commended, especially when they involve originality and endeavour.

This article was published in Images, Dawn on Oct 26, 2008