Theater and Social Change in Pakistan: The Plays of Shahid Nadeem

By Kabir Altaf

Art does not exist in a vacuum. The artist lives in a particular social context and his or her work reflects the era in which it was created. Artists have long been concerned with exploitation and injustice. Rather than have their work simply reflect the society around them, many artists wish to use their work to change conditions on the ground. For example, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) believed that plays should not cause spectators to identify emotionally with the characters on stage but should rather provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the onstage action. Thus, Brecht used techniques that would remind the audience that the play was a reflection of reality and not reality itself. By highlighting the constructed nature of the theatrical event, Brecht hoped to communicate to the audience that their reality was equally constructed, and thus changeable.

Two of Brecht’s most famous plays are The Threepenny Opera and The Good Person of Szechwan. Both these works reflect Brecht’s concerns with the exploitative nature of capitalism.  The Threepenny Opera dramatizes the question: “Who is the greater criminal: he who robs a bank or he who founds one?” The Good Person of Szechwan is about a prostitute, Shen Te, who struggles to lead a life that is “good” without allowing herself to be trod upon and used by those who would accept and abuse her goodness. Her neighbors and friends prove so brutal in the filling of their bellies that Shen Te is forced to invent a male alter ego to protect herself, a cousin named Shui Ta, who becomes a cold and stern protector of Shen Te’s interests. Shen Te’s altruism conflicts with Shui Ta’s capitalist ethos of exploitation. The play implies that economic systems determine a society’s morality.

In modern Pakistan, a group that is producing work similar to Brecht’s is Ajoka. Led by director Madeeha Gauhar and playwright Shahid Nadeem, the group was founded in 1983 when Zia ul Haq’s martial law was at its peak. Since then, Ajoka has been producing plays focused on human rights, the plight of women and the increasing Islamization of Pakistani society. A representative selection of Nadeem’s plays have been translated into English and published as Selected Plays of Shahid Nadeem.

Nadeem’s plays address various topics, ranging from the plight of women in Barri (The Acquittal) to exploitation by village pirs in Kala Meda Bhes (Black is my robe) and the struggle against religious fundamentalism in Bulha and Burqavaganza. Three plays that are particularly powerful are Barri, Bulha, and Burqavaganza.

Barri was written in 1987 in the context of General Zia’s Hudood Ordinances, discriminatory “Islamic” laws that were used to punish women and caused gross miscarriages of justice. The play revolves around a middle-class activist, Zahida Zaman, who is arrested for going on a hunger strike in protest of the family laws. She is placed in a cell that already contains three other women, Jannat Bibi, Jamila and Marium. Throughout the course of the play, the audience learns the stories of each of these women. Jannat Bibi is in prison for a crime that her son is supposed to have committed. Jamila has been convicted of murdering her husband while Marium has been imprisoned on charges of dancing in public. Jamila tells the audience that she was married at 14 to a man who was almost as old as her father.  She fell in love with a younger man and asked her husband for a divorce. He refused and physically abused her. She managed to run away with her lover, but was caught and returned to her husband’s house where she was chained to the bed. When her husband thought that she had accepted defeat, he untied the ropes. That night, Jamila killed her husband with an axe. Because he would not grant her divorce, the only way for her to save herself from a loveless and abusive marriage was to kill her husband.

In Marium’s case, she was imprisoned on charges of dancing in public and was given a three- month sentence. However, at the time the play takes place, those three months are long over and Marium is still in jail. In addition, she is pregnant. When Zahida expresses surprise at Marium’s pregnancy and then asks who the father is, Jamila says that she still doesn’t understand. Marium has been repeatedly raped by many of the prison officers and the child could be anyone’s. The prison officers tried to force Marium to get an abortion, but she refused. Finally, Marium is subjected to a forcible abortion, under the guise of a medical checkup. By the time Zahida returns home from jail, she has learned about the many injustices that are visited upon women. She also realizes that while, in theory, prisoners have legal recourse, no such rights exist in practice.

Bulha, first performed in 2001, is about the life and times of the Punjabi Sufi poet Bulleh Shah.  The play revolves around the disagreements between the Mullahs and their orthodox interpretations of Islam and Bulleh Shah’s Sufism. The play opens after Bulleh’s death, when the Qazi (head of the Islamic court) refuses to allow the body to be buried in the city graveyard until it is determined if he is entitled to a Muslim burial. It then proceeds in flashback to show Bulleh’s life and his struggle with the Mullahs. During his lifetime, the saint was accused of heresy and exiled from his city. After his death, the religious authorities refused to lead his funeral prayer or to bury him in the city’s graveyard. Through the struggle between Bulleh Shah and the orthodox representatives of Islam, Nadeem comments on contemporary tensions between liberal and fundamentalist versions of Islam.

Like Bulha, Burqavaganza concerns the increasing Islamization of society. Written in 2007, in the context of the Laal Masjid episode and the moral policing of the female students of Jamia Hafsa, the play is a farce that uses songs and humorous situations to highlight contradictions in society. Because the play treats the issue of the burqa in a comedic manner, it was banned by Pakistan’s National Assembly for being “disrespectful” to Islam. In the play, everyone, both men and women, wears a burqa and carries out all normal activities. For example, people are shown exercising in burqas. It also satirizes religious talk shows where mullahs give rulings on important issues such as whether women can wear nets with their burqas. There is also a character based on Osama bin Laden called Burqa bin Batin.  Finally, the play is interspersed with parodies of well-known Bollywood songs. For instance, “choli ke peechay kya hai” becomes “parde ke peeche kya hai.” Through showing characters engaging in all activities while wearing the burqa, the play makes the point that wearing or not wearing the garment has no impact on people’s behavior.

While Nadeem’s plays all deal with extremely serious issues, he uses music and humor to keep the audience engaged. Almost all his plays contain music, from Sufi Qawaalis in Bulha to film-song parodies in Burqavaganza. Thus Nadeem’s plays combine entertainment with important social messages, continuing in the tradition of Brecht.

One is often asked if theater can actually lead to social change. After all, Brecht’s plays were written in the early twentieth century, yet the exploitation of laborers and the excesses of capitalists still exist one hundred years later. Similarly, Ajoka has been performing plays in Pakistan for over twenty years yet it seems that society has become more fundamentalist over time. Thus, many people would conclude that these plays have had little or no impact on their societies.

I would argue against this notion by pointing out that these plays serve an important function by raising awareness of the issues. However, without concrete action and political institutions, theater alone cannot bring about change. People need to select political parties that share their values and will work towards implementing the kind of changes that they want to see. People also need to come out on the streets and protest for causes they believe in.  The function of art is only to inspire action. Brecht did not want his audience to passively identify with his characters and reach a catharsis at the end (the purpose of theater according to Aristotle). Rather, he wanted them to confront the issues that he was raising and to be inspired to go and work towards changing social conditions. Similarly, Ajoka does not produce plays purely for entertainment, but to serve as a liberal voice countering the increasing conservatism of society and to inspire concrete actions. The artist can only raise his voice and point out the problems that he sees in his society. He depends on others to work to change conditions on the ground. We must first confront the issues facing our society, before attempting to change them.

Kabir Altaf attended the Lahore University of Management Sciences and graduated magna cum laude from George Washington University with a major in Dramatic Literature and a minor in Music.


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12 Responses to “Theater and Social Change in Pakistan: The Plays of Shahid Nadeem”

  1. Reader Says:

    Simply loved this post.
    Thank you so much for sharing this with us Mr. Kabir.

    I love to watch dramas, telefilms and plays based on social issues. And I am particularly interested in Zia-regime and other issues like poverty, prostitution, controversial religious or cultural practices, relative morality etc.

    Please recommend me some more plays and dramas based on sensitive social issues. (Topics about women, transsexuals and homosexuals will particularly be appreciated)

  2. Kabir Says:

    Hi Reader,

    I’m glad you enjoyed my post.

    Some TV dramas I can recommend based on your interests are:

    1) “Maryada”– this is a Star Plus soap (now canceled) which deals with various problems faced by women including domestic and sexual abuse. There’s also a gay storyline.

    2) “Humsafar”– a completed Pakistani serial that deals with a husband’s suspicion of his wife.

    3) “Mere Qatil Mere Dildaar”– another Pakistani serial that deals with a woman who faces sexual abuse from her in-laws.

    • SouthAsian Says:

      Kabir: I am not sure why you referred Reader to such jejune soap operas. Why not to something like, say, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America?

    • Reader Says:

      Thanks for the suggestions Mr. Kabir.
      My mom happens to watch these all the time.

      I am sure that they will be full of interesting stuff as you have suggested these. However, there is this one little hitch. Watching soaps requires a lot of time, which I unfortunately lack.
      Also, I do have an idea about the serials you have suggested (thanks to my mom). And I guess these are about personal domestic issues. I was hoping for more sophisticated plays that target “really controversial” practices.
      For example, the Pakistanis are always at the end of their tether when they hear the word “homosexuality” or “transsexuals”. And when they are asked about the reason of their hatred or disgust, they cannot come up with a single solid reason. After observing countless such people I have come to the conclusion that “intolerance for abnormal” is some sort of trait implanted in the mind of each typical Pakistani at an early age.
      I also belong to such a society and it took me a lot of time and effort to overcome these prejudices of mine. Now I want my folks to be the same. I want to raise awareness in every Pakistani. I want to help them get rid of their prejudices. I want them to accept people who are a bit different from them and give them their proper share of respect.
      And I believe there are only two ways to reach into their minds and change their views.
      Literature and media.
      I often write about these issues. And I was hoping that you could suggest me some really moving plays that depict the life of the people “living on the outskirts of the normal society”; people who are a bit different from the others yet who exist and whose existence should be acknowledged with respect and dignity.

      • Kabir Says:


        As far as I’m aware, there are no plays on Pakistani TV that directly address the issue of homosexuality. I’m not sure about stage plays, but I would guess that there aren’t many of those either. I think homosexuality is still such a taboo issue in Pakistani society, as it is something that goes directly against our religion. It will probably be a long time before we can openly discuss the issue in Pakistan.

        • Reader Says:

          Sadly yes.
          But I think it is rather unfortunate that this is happening. People do need to understand these issues and “think with open minds”.
          Nearly whole of the Pakistani population does not understand the complexity of issues like homosexuality. Some people have been trying to raise awareness in the masses but they always receive a very negative feedback. I heard that some NGOs started working for Gay rights in Pakistan lately. Let’s hope that they have not been bombed by the Mullahs yet.
          Yesterday, I saw Shahid Nadeem’s Bullah and Burqavaganza. Both were really interesting. I particularly enjoyed burqvaganza (I have a knack of enjoying things more when they are banned and controversial). Bullah was even better. I have developed quite an interest in Sufism after watching it.
          I hope some directors muster up enough strength to make dramas on topics of my concern

      • SouthAsian Says:

        Redaer: Drama is the weakest literary genre in South Asia (in Urdu, without a doubt). Poetry is the strongest followed by the short story and the novel with playwriting trailing at the rear. If you talk about drama in South Asia, you would invariably be directed to Shakuntala by Kalidasa which was a good 1500 years ago followed by a big temporal leap to Agha Hashr amongst the Urduwalahs. (The reasons for this are for another time.) I would be surprised if you find what you are looking for in this genre.

        If you are open to literature in general, you might start with Ismat Chughtai’s Lihaaf which dates from the early 1940s. It is now available in translation as The Quilt (in case you can’t read Urdu) and is also, I understand, the inspiration for the Deepa Mehta film Fire. After that, you might sample Wajida Tabassum (her Utaran was the equivalent of Ismat’s Lihaaf) and Fehmida Riaz.

        The desire for young boys is quite common in the Urdu ghazal. Here is the classic she’r of the great Mir Taqi Mir:

        Mir kya saada hain beemar hoey jis ke sabab
        Usee attar ke londe se dawa lete hain

        • Reader Says:

          Lihaaf… How could I have not read it. It is really a masterpiece.
          I was actually checking if some Urdu writer had touched these topics when I found it and I was quite surprised that Ismat Chugtai was bold enough to write about such a thing in 1940s.
          You said that drama is the weakest literary genre in South-Asia. However, what I have heard is really contradictory. I have heard people admiring the old dramas of PTV. Many great actors and personalities have emerged from PTV dramas.
          However, I think those times are really gone. To be honest I agree with you in this regard that the standard of drama in South-Asia has fallen considerably over the past years and nearly all of them are following the pattern of soaps.
          Rarely I find any dramas or tele-plays covering the topics of my concern. (But that does not mean that there aren’t any because I did find a few good ones lately)

          I do agree that short stories and poetry are the best medium to discuss these issues. Some one recommended me to read Abu-Nawas if I am interested in ‘homosexuality and Islamic History’. I hope it addresses the issue.
          In the end I wholeheartedly agree that short stories, novels and poetry are indeed the best way to address these issues but the whole problem is that not a very large population reads such things, although every one do watch dramas. Let’s hope that someone musters up enough courage to introduce these issues in South-Asian drama industry.

          • SouthAsian Says:

            Reader: TV only arrived in Pakistan in the mid-1960s. I don’t consider teleplays to be part of the literary genre in which one would place Sophocles, Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Goethe, Moliere, Voltaire, Pinter, Tennessee Williams and the like – what sacrilege. They are more akin to films and similarly forgettable like most of the latter.

            I have never heard of Abu-Nuwas but then neither of the two topics fall in the area of my interest.

  3. Kabir Says:

    I just looked at this post after a very long time. I can’t believe I wrote this nearly 6 years ago. I am in the process of moving my content from here to my own blog.

    To address Reader’s concern (all these years later), I think homosexuality is still not taken seriously as a topic in Pakistani literature. In films and stage plays, usually the most crass gay stereotypes are employed. It’s better not to discuss them.

    Bollywood sometimes does a better job. In the recent (controversial) film “Padmavaat”, there are some references to the (ambiguous) relationship between Malik Kafur and Khilji.

    Still nothing like “Angels in America” has been produced in Pakistan (if we are talking about serious theatre) and I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

    • Kabir Says:

      Madeeha Gauhar passed away yesterday. This is a great loss to all Pakistanis and especially to theatre lovers. May god grant her family the strength to bear this loss.

  4. Majid Bashir Says:

    It is simply marvelous to read the article. I not only gathered information regarding bloody Zia regime and afterwards .I would also like to have some added information regarding Shahid Nadeem more plays if impossible.

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