Hamza Waqas and Amna Khan
The past few years have witnessed a consistent rise in student activism across Pakistan. Engagement and expressions of solidarity with existing social movements have made student groups more inclusive and influential, gaining widespread support in the mainland as well as the peripheries. As a result, various independent pockets of resistance have found a new home under the umbrella of organizations like the Progressive Students Collective. The collective has welcomed students from different academic backgrounds, helping them explore and share various nuanced ways through which they can engage in politics.
Of these means of political participation, protests garner the most attention on social media, by virtue of being far more visible than other forms of dissent.
People who have little exposure to student politics and activism in general often tend to focus, both their praise and criticism, entirely on the ‘optics’ of protests and rallies. There seems to be an obsession with ‘numbers,’ coupled with a misguided dismissal of these events as ineffective means of resistance.
Those who participate in these rallies, however, can attest to the fact that there is far more to protests than sloganeering and placards. The Student March for example, in addition to providing an inclusive platform for disenfranchised students to voice their concerns, has incorporated performance art – such as theatre, poetry recitals and live music – on more than one occasion. The performances that take place, like those by the revolutionary feminist theatre group Azaad Fankaar and Laal Hartal, have often been a central attraction at these gatherings. Not only do they succeed in resonating with an already inspired crowd, but in gathering the attention of the general public, they also end up communicating with an audience that perhaps misconceives the spirit of street agitation.
Whereas taking to the streets should be regarded as a sign of a healthy functional democracy, it is often wrongly associated with violence and hooliganism. Performance art such as theatre, therefore, allows powerful messages of resistance to be more widely approached, which speaks to the potential of art, not only as a source of inspiration, but also as an effective medium for dissent.
The tradition of art as a means for political commentary dates as far back as Ancient Greece, where playwrights often incorporated political satire into their work. The playwright Aristophanes is often credited as the pioneer of such a form of dissent, with his play ‘The Frogs’ being arguably one of the finest examples of the wonders and complexities of Ancient Greek comedy. During the play, the characters often recognise the fact that they are mere performers, they acknowledge the presence of and at times even insult the audience. By having characters that are aware of their own theatricality, it allows them to engage with us and each other in increasingly complex ways. It achieves this by having these absurd moments that involve sudden breaks in its own dramatic illusion – a technique often employed by the surreal British comedy troupe Monty Python, and more post-modern left-leaning performers such as Stewart Lee. In addition to its contributions towards the nature of theatre itself, particularly the use of humour and direct engagement with the audience, ‘The Frogs’ also laid the early foundations for expressions of dissent within drama. The play is littered with, often very direct, references to politicians and their questionable role in the Peloponnesian War (405 BC), alluding to the crisis of leadership being faced by the Athenian society. The use of satire as a form of political expression, along with incorporating elements of meta-theatre both have the potential to serve as valuable lessons for contemporary writers and performers in using art as a mode of resistance.
A modern example of what can be described as ‘progressive’ drama is “An Enemy of the People” by Henrik Ibsen. The play tells the story of a man who, with the purest of intentions, tries to inform the townspeople about a potentially life-threatening public health crisis. The solutions proposed by him are rather costly, but undoubtedly have the potential to save lives. The protagonist’s findings are perceived as a threat by the local administration of the town, the mayor in particular, and subsequent attempts are made to silence the protagonist. By labelling the protagonist as “An Enemy of the People”, the local administration instigates the public and encourages them to violently harass and assault the protagonist and his family. In the final scene, the protagonist holds his family close, with cries of hatred coming from a mob outside his door in the backdrop, he reaffirms his commitment to the truth and refuses to back down. Parallels can be drawn between the political atmosphere in contemporary Pakistan and the events depicted in the play, with regards to the backlash the Left often has to face for standing up for those ignored by the state or speaking out against injustices committed by the state. Academics and scholars are ridiculed, harassed, threatened and are accused of being ‘anti-state’ in order to sway public opinion against them, and yet, more often than not, they stand tall despite having to face such violent animosity.
A Doll’s House, another of Ibsen’s works, illustrates the role of the patriarchal ideal in suppressing women’s right to exercise agency over their own lives. It highlights the underlying oppression hidden behind the “loving” institutions of marriage and family – represented by the protagonist’s relationship with her husband, in which she is constantly belittled and infantilized. The controversy generated by the original conclusion of this play, wherein the protagonist sheds the chains of domesticity and learns to prioritize herself as an individual, is eerily similar to the outcries against female autonomy in contemporary Pakistan. Such a nuanced understanding of the deeply rooted nature of patriarchy can therefore be deemed timeless, relating not only to the circumstances under which it was published in 1897, but also to the power structures which prevail today.
From ancient history to the modern era, resistance art has been a significant part of our collective global literary heritage. Pakistan undoubtedly has its own great contributions, which is evident in its rich history of progressive writers and poets. Indigenous literary figures such as Ghani Khan, Ustaad Daman, Habib Jalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Saadat Hassan Manto, as well as contemporary writers like Mohammed Hanif are just a few renowned examples of people who consistently spoke truth to power – through their work and, at times, through direct political action.
An integral contribution to this tradition of expressing dissent through literature has been put forward by dramatists. In addition to the classic works already mentioned, the efforts made by theatre groups in Pakistan to inspire the general public into activism are worth noting. One such initiative which has challenged mainstream narratives, both historically and contemporarily, is the Ajoka Theatre and Institute. Initiated as a form of resistance against the dictatorial rule of General Zia-ul-Haq, this organization has produced numerous performances intended to promote critical thinking. These include original works – such as “Teesri Dastak”, which highlights the dangers of falling back into oppressive practices in attempting to change the system – and adaptations of indigenous and international classics – including “Toba Tek Singh” by Saadat Hassan Manto and “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Uri” by Bertolt Brecht, in the form of the play “Bala King”.
Continuing progressive traditions within dramatic art, Brecht wrote his most popular works – “Mother Courage” and “The Life of Galileo” – around the rise of fascism in the Interwar Period. After narrowly escaping from the clutches of the Third Reich in February 1933, he fled to America only to be accused of being a communist, which, during the height of the Red Scare was a very dangerous allegation. In his essay “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties”, Brecht defines fascism as “the most shameless, most oppressive and most treacherous form of capitalism.” He argues that those who are against fascism and yet are in favor of capitalism are like those who “wish to eat their veal without slaughtering the calf.” Brecht’s life as well as his work are testament to his undying commitment to anti-fascist revolutionary literature. He is recognized as a leading theoretician of what he called ‘Dialectical Theatre’, the purpose of which was to force the audience to see the world as it is.
The fusion of foreign classic literature with our local political context not only demonstrates the increasing solidarity between global expressions of resistance, but also allows the audience to connect with history in a way that inspires critical thinking. The parallels between Brecht’s resistance against Nazi rule and Ajoka Theatre’s dissent against General Zia’s dictatorship highlight the efficacy of drama in interacting with the public in an effort to trigger political thought. Investing in televised productions, in addition to staged performances of its plays, only contributes to the achievements of Ajoka Theatre in reaching a wider audience.
These works can serve as a source of inspiration for activists as well as aspiring young progressive performers and writers. Through narratives grounded in social realism and political satire, literature not only has the potential to raise awareness in a thought provoking and gripping manner, but it also has the ability to instill empathy and hope. By engaging with and celebrating these powerful tales of resistance, both indigenous and foreign, we can help cultivate a culture of meaningful creative dissent. The general apprehensiveness about protests as a form of political expression can be effectively tackled by these alternative forms of expression, which are more welcoming to the public, allowing the Left to generate a more mainstream appeal.