Image: Aiman Mukhtiar, At Prithvi Theatre, Juhu

Just before the pandemic struck, Pu, Dhanno and I had become rather disenchanted with going to the theatre. The severe difficulties of mounting an expensive production with a large group of actors in a very expensive city means that a lot of plays being performed here have become ‘spoken word pieces’. And often that meant a complete lack of ‘theatre’. 

Motley’s ‘Aurat, Aurat, Aurat’ could very well be a ‘spoken word piece’ given that it is not even a play, or a story but selections from Ismat Chugtai’s autobiography ‘A Life in Words’, and three other personal essays, ‘Ek Shauhar ki Khaatir’, ‘Aadhi Aurat Aadha Khwab’, and ‘Soney ka Anda’. 

But Naseeruddin Shah proves just why he is revered in the theatre. Under his direction, a train coach, a patriarchal society, shadowy, a pedestal, a cot, a train window are set up not so much by the clever use of minimal sets, but by the playful, dynamic blocking of the actors. The masterful cast, Seema Pahwa, Bhavna Pani, Trishla Patel, Jaya Virlley, Prerna Chawla, Shruti Vyas, Saahil Vaid & Dhruv Karla weave in and out of their characters, playing Ismat’s many selves through the years and the people she meets along the way and describes. Ismat-Aapa’s presence hovers over the stage not only through her sharp words, but with her old photographs on a big screen. 

Ismat Chugtai’s feminism is jaunty and it reflects in the selection of the pieces – her learning to ride a horse, a train journey where she is harangued by the other women in the coach about her single status and how she gets back at them, the number of well-meaning men and their pontifications on what women are and what women should be, a woman crushed by the birth of several daughters. 

Her humour and her spirit are amplified by the detailed fleshing out of all the characters even in the briefest snapshot that we see them for – a young couple in the background slyly holding hands while the women hound single Ismat, a bundle of clanging vessels on the top railway berth that threatens to fall on Ismat’s head any minute, the young mistress of the house spouting feminism while her female help, including a very pregnant laundress and an arthritic, bent over old maid serve her. 

Ismat’s writing has lost no value in all these years, the feminist concerns she raises are as unanswered today as they were then. As is the use of Faiz’s hauntingly beautiful nazm composed while he was a prisoner of the regime in Pakistan between 1951-1955, accused of conspiracy to overthrow the administration and replace it with a left-wing government. Seems familiar? 

Faiz’s nazm – 

chashm-e-nam jān-e-shorīda kaafī nahīñ 
tohmat-e-ishq-e-poshīda kaafī nahīñ 
aaj bāzār meñ pā-ba-jaulāñ chalo 
dast-afshāñ chalo mast o raqsāñ chalo 
ḳhāk-bar-sar chalo ḳhūñ-ba-dāmāñ chalo
raah taktā hai sab shahr-e-jānāñ chalo
hākim-e-shahr bhī majma-e-ām bhī
tīr-e-ilzām bhī sang-e-dushnām bhī
sub.h-e-nāshād bhī roz-e-nākām bhī
un kā dam-sāz apne sivā kaun hai
shahr-e-jānāñ meñ ab bā-safā kaun hai 
dast-e-qātil ke shāyāñ rahā kaun hai
raḳht-e-dil bāñdh lo dil-figāro chalo
phir hamīñ qatl ho aa.eñ yaaro chalo

(A rough translation by me – forgive the mistakes.

Moist eyes and an agitated soul are not enough.
Harbouring a secret love is not enough.
Let’s come out into the market with our fettered feet.
Let’s come out with our hands stretched wide, dancing in a trance.
Let’s come out with our dusty heads, our blood stained clothes.
Everyone in the the city of our beloved waits for us –
The rulers of the city and the crowds of common men
The arrows of accusations, the stones of condemnation
The unhappy mornings, the failed days.
We are their only friends.
There is no innocent one left in the city of our beloved.
There is no one worthy of being executed.
Put away the treasures of your heart. Broken hearted, let’s go.
Once more, let us go to get executed, my friends.)

I haven’t done any theatre myself, but am familiar with the process of extensive rehearsals for my films. At some point, if everyone has given the material enough thought, everything clicks in place and the performance/film seems effortless. Motley’s ‘Aurat, Aurat, Aurat’ moved with the smoothness and the coolness and the insouciance of a strawberry yoghurt sliding down your throat. 

Image: Aiman Mukhtiar, At Prithvi Theatre, Juhu

Sometimes, we feel exhausted by the amount of work, the drive, the ability to withstand rejection, needed to continue doing ‘small’ work. Watching something like ‘Aurat, Aurat, Aurat’, thinking of all the voices in it and their lives, Ismat Chugtai, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Naseeruddin Shah, the cast, the crew. And not to forget Prithvi Theatre, Shashi Kapoor, the spot in the middle of the cafe where he used to sit until ever after, in the evenings, his children keeping the legacy alive, the bookshop Paperbacks@Prithvi that was crushed by the uprooting of a ficus tree by  Cyclone #tauktae up and running again. What is this if not ‘once more, let us go to get executed, my friends’?