100 years of theatre | Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

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100 years of theatre

Echoes of a century of drama at Kinnaird College Lahore

By Sarwat Ali

As part of Kinnaird College’s centenary celebrations ‘Echoes: Bazghasght’ was staged on the premises of the college. When an institution is one hundred year old, the celebration is a recount of the salient features, some milestones and those remarkable individuals who helped in founding and establishing the institution.

The pageant was as if a continuation of the two presentations made earlier, on the 50th and then on the 75th year celebrations. The main symbol of the pageant was the tree emphasising continuity of life interspersed by a few scenes from three productions, ‘Anarkali’, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and ‘Insect Play’.

The colourful production was augmented by the very discreet use of live music by Rutti Cooper, Zara Zafarullah, Gaitee Joshua, Moin Khan and Sabir Khan.

The presentation at the 50th anniversary was conceived and produced by none other than Mrs Najmuddin. Of all the colleges, particularly women colleges in the country or what was known as northern India, Kinnaird College has been quite consistent in staging plays over its long history.

The venue where the pageant was held has been named Hladia Hall after Hladia Porter, the first teacher to have valued the importance of theatre. She took it to a more serious level and it was under her supervision that plays started being staged more regularly by the 1940s.

The baton of this initiative was taken over as a challenge by Mrs. Najmuddin who then set it up on more professional lines. As a tribute to her contribution, the dramatic society of the college is now called the Najmuddin Dramatic Society.

Farrukh Nigar Aziz, another theatre luminary, had actually organised a number of theatre festivals in the 1960s and 1970s and had called them the Najmuddin Theatre Festivals — as a tribute to her commitment to theatre. One production of ‘Oedipus’, directed by Mrs Najmuddin with Ishrat Ghani playing the leading role is still remembered by many for its outstanding thespian qualities.

These colleges which were modelled on the institutions in Britain had vibrant societies that promoted extra-curricular activity, including debating and theatre. All the missionary colleges and those set up by the government known predictably as government colleges, made an extra effort to promote theatre as part of their extra-curricular activity to broaden the base of education and to groom graduates as well rounded personalities.

Muslims in the subcontinent were against the formal education of girls but gradually with the establishment of Aligarh, particularly its girls’ section, despite strong opposition, even militant at times, this taboo had started to erode at the edges.

Kinnaird, the most prestigious college, had very few Muslims girls even till Partition, and it was only after 1947 that the numbers increased to fill in the slots vacated by the departing Hindus and Sikh girls.

For Muslim women going to college, performing arts were probably the last option that the families wished their daughters to take up.

Kinnaird College, being the vanguard institution, decided to have a more enlightened approach, and thankfully has persisted with it despite nationalisation and a growing conservative environment. It has produced many women who have gone on to make a name for themselves in fields that were not considered to be the preserve of the so-called respectable women.

Over almost half a century, the reins of the theatre in the college have been in the steady hands of Perin Cooper Boga. She, along with Kauser Sheikh and Shama Salman Khaliq, nurtured theatre, making it more diverse and vibrant. Though Perin Cooper has had a penchant for dance and dance-like movements, it has been balanced by the conceptual design of the production, especially in the hands of Kausar Sheikh, Munawwar Malik and Shama Salman Khaliq.

Graduating from the usual fare of Shakespeare (Tempest, Merchant of Venice) and a few other classics (School Of Scandal, Dr Faustus), the list of plays done has been both long, impressive and required formidable directorial and acting talent for its execution. Plays like Blackout, Cross Purpose, Caucasian Chalk Circle, Venus Observed, Insect Plays, Our Husbands Have Gone Mad, Pygmalion, Ivory Door, Black Rain Falls, My Fair Lady, Anarkali, Ring of Recognition (an adaptation of Shakuntala) have demonstrated a wide enough range and maintained a quaint balance between classical and modern theatre.

It has also ventured into original plays with Where Have All the Flowers Gone, an anti-war play based on the writings of Sara Sulehri, Fauzia Mustafa, Sofia Jabeen, Feryal Gauhar and Aila Munir.

Many of the alumni have gone on to contribute to the performing arts after graduating. Yasmin Taj (Tahir), Naveed Rehman (Shahzad), Shamim Ahmed (Hilali), Muneeza Faiz (Hashmi), and Madeeha Gauhar to name only a few.

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