IT’S hardly surprising that Danish Husain keeps talking about his love for “text”. The theatre artiste’s passion for literature surfaces while discussing his theatre group The Hoshruba Repertory — formed in 2012 with “the intention of bringing alive challenging and invigorating literary texts” on stage — and its productions. The group staged Samuel Beckett’s classic monologue Krapp’s Last Tape in March, 2012, and Ira Lewis’s dialogue-driven play Chinese Coffee. For his latest stage production, Ek Punjab Ye Bhi, Husain has adapted four stories of Ali Akbar Natiq — considered to be one of the brightest contemporary Pakistani authors.
Husain came across Natiq’s writing during a visit to Pakistan some years ago when Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s daughter Salima Hashmi gifted him the book Qaeem Deen, a collection of the author’s stories. These contemporary tales from western Punjab, completely unknown to the people of our region left Husain with a myriad flavours. Though he made his inclination to develop a play on Natiq’s stories apparent nearly three years ago, that plan was realised last November and Ek Punjab Ye Bhi opened during the Prithvi Theatre Festival. “There is always an incubation period before the text comes alive,” says Husain, who picked four of the most dramatic pieces from
Being a storyteller and an artiste, he is attracted to certain kinds of stories. “No artiste is devoid of politics,” says Husain, who returned his Sangeet Natak Akademi award in October as it is “becoming increasingly difficult” to speak up in public places. The actor-director says, “My philosophy is to be with the oppressed. The way our social system is, no one can be away from politics.” On a lighter note, he adds, “Anyway, no one knew I had received the award till I returned it.”
Though Natiq writes in Urdu with a smattering of Punjabi, Husain is confident the audience won’t find it difficult to comprehend given the influence of cinema across the subcontinent. However, he had to tackle another challenge: how to present them on stage. “These stories are meant to be read in solitude. I did not want to make it either a purely storytelling session nor dramatise it entirely,” says the 44-year-old, who has chosen a bit of both for the production. In the play, the actors oscillate between being storytellers and characters.
The play’s design evolved when the cast began making sense of the text. Since the landscape of the stories is common, there is very little change in the setting. The costume is influenced by the Punjab province and the music is Punjabi folk with a western touch. “These are slice-of-life stories that talk about of human frailty, vanity and honour killing, among other subjects. Much after the audience has watched the play, the layering in these stories will start sinking in,” he says.
Husain can be called an accidental artiste, who stumbled into the world of theatre after two banks that he was employed at folded up and he lost the job at the third one he had joined. With no game plans and pay cheques, he devoted his time to theatre. He worked with thespians such as MK Raina, MS Sathyu and Habib Tanvir, among others. However, a more intense dalliance with words began after he met Mahmood Farooqui in 2005. A year later, he made an impressive appearance with Farooqui in the latter’s production of Dastangoi, which aimed to revive the lost art form of Urdu storytelling.
After staging Dastangoi for nine years, he moved to Mumbai with offers to write screenplays and the desire to do more proscenium theatre. By then, he had already featured in the cast of Peepli [Live] and Dhobi Ghat. Aankhon Dekhi, where he appears as an actor, and Welcome to Karachi, which he has written, released later. Though Husain calls himself “primarily an actor”, direction is something he wants to continue doing.