Commemorating the 103rd birth anniversary of the great short story writer Sadat Hasan Manto in Kolkata with an evening of poetry, film and theatre
Last week, intellectuals, activists and ordinary people in Kolkata gathered for an evening steeped in poetry, dramatic readings, theatre and film, plastered together as a composite whole with passion.
The focus was Saadat Hasan Manto, commemorating his 103rd birth anniversary, and mood was fostering peace between India and Pakistan. The Paschim Banga Natya Academy was alive with people eager to learn more about the literary giant, and imbibe his works through readings, film, theatre and discussion.
One of the main organisers of the evening was Little Thespian, a theatre group dedicated to uplifting Indian theatre and reviving its passion by staging socially relevant plays. This group had earlier celebrated Manto’s centenary in 2012.
Titled ‘Manto : A Retrospective’, the evening brought alive India, Pakistan and horrors of Partition. At the same time, in stark contrast, it also brought alive the spirit of Aman Ki Asha. Eyes moist, the audience listened to the Aman ki Asha anthem in rapt attention as the programme commenced.
Kolkata’s senior-most journalist humanist Geetesh Sharma presided over the evening alongside founder and Chief Editor of Kindle Magazine and Guest of Honour Pritha Kejriwal, Dr. Fuad Halim, a medical doctor who runs a non-profit health organization for the poor, and S. M. Azhar Alam, co-founder of Little Thespian.
Geetesh Sharma spoke about ‘Be-lagaam’ Manto – unharnessed Manto, one of the greatest short story writers, who never conformed to societal norms and traditions and wrote extensively about prostitutes, pimps as well so-called elite society.
It was the audience response to the Aman ki Asha anthem that deeply stirred my soul. Some audience members stood up in respect. Some were actually tearful, while others were also clearly emotional. Whether it was the lyrics, the haunting melody or a reminder of the sheer pathos of the Partition and the divide that prevents people from meeting coming fresh, or a combination of all these factors, the anthem got people thinking and empathising with Manto. As is well known, Manto was deeply bruised by the reality of the Partition.
Introducing the song as an Aman ki Asha volunteer, I said, “Aman ki Asha is not an NGO, but a platform which is akin to an umbrella for all the other forces, working towards strengthening relations between India-Pakistan. I hope this evening people shall take back a bit of love and empathy towards Pakistan and Pakistanis. The animosity on both sides of the border, is it inherited or acquired? I ask who are you? Theatre lovers, art and literature patrons, or Manto fans? Well, you might be all of these or none… but you definitely are a peace supporter! I salute your spirit of joining us here to celebrate India-Pakistan!”
I recited a Hindustani nazm I had written for this day and read out a brief note on Manto, his idiosyncrasies and a peek into his personal and social life.
This was followed by dramatized readings of Manto’s stories in English and Hindi presented by an eclectic mix of prominent Kolkatans. Eminent theatre personality Saira Shah Halim, celebrated actor and award-winning film director Ashoke Vishwanathan and noted Tollywood actor Bobby Chakraborty presented five of Manto’s soul-warming stories. Saira’s calm, powerful tone was impeccable as she read the ‘Dutiful Daughter’. Bobby Chakraborty did a mesmerising, dramatised reading of ‘Toba Tek Singh’, walking, standing, screaming and even breaking into tears as he read. Ashoke Vishwanathan read a romantic piece, emoting more through his eyes than his voice. The performance drew thunderous applause from the audience who couldn’t seem to get enough.
Little Thespian’s performance based on Manto’s ‘Thanda Ghosht’ was soul stirring. The husband-wife team of S. M. Azhar Alam and Uma Jhujhunwala who co-founded Little Thespian, totally immersed themselves in their respective characters. The depth in their acting and strength of their narration juxtaposed against the rustic set brought their characters alive.
The evening ended on a high tone with the much-awaited Pakistani film screening, ‘Lazzat-e-Sang’, a film on Manto written by Mudassar Mahmood Naaru and directed by Muhammad Nazim. The 35-minute movie is based on three of Manto’s short stories and incorporates Manto’s famous court trials, with Manto’s character played by Waseem Haider.
Ruchhita Kazaria, an Aman ki Asha volunteer, was one of the organisers of the Manto event in Kolkata. She is a former journalist with the Education Times, Times of India and The Asian Age.
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