Theatre in Pakistan

Theatre in Pakistan

Studying theatre and the performing arts develops aesthetics. This in turn helps to develop an appreciation for the arts which develop personality and teach careful analytical techniques with which one is able to critically analyze things.


In 1855, the enactment of the play "Indrasabha" (the Heavenly Court of Indra) written by Agha Hasan Amanat Ali in the courtyard of the last Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah, marked the beginning of Urdu theatre. The drama dealt with the love story between a fairy and a prince. The Nawab, who was a "Kathak" dancer and had written theses on stage techniques, composed some of the songs and choreographed the dances for the play. [ [ South Asian arts :: Theatre in Pakistan - Britannica Online Encyclopedia ] ]

It was a huge success. Its characters (Sabaz Pari (Green Fairy), Kala Deo (Black Devil) and Lal Deo (Red Devil)) live on as a part of the vocabulary of the subcontinent.

Post Partition theater

Pakistani literature

The ditinct voice of Pakistani literature came soon after the Partition of India in 1947. Since there were many cultural similarities, Urdu and English Literature was inherited by this new state. Over due course, a literature which was somewhat uniquely Pakistani has emerged in every province.Initially the plays were all about the partition and the atrocities committed on the Muslims by the Hindus but this gradually began to change and the current trend is specifically Pakistani venturing into many different genres.

Saadat Hasan Manto

Manto is arguably the most influential Urdu writer of the 20th century. He was one of the most controversial as well. His work is comparable with D. H. Lawrence. This comparison is made because like Lawrence he also wrote about the topics considered social taboos of his Society. He addressed topics ranging from the socio-economic injustice prevailing in pre- and post- colonial subcontinent; he stirred up quite a fury when he wrote about controversial topics of love, sex, incest, prostitution and the typical hypocrisy of a traditional sub continental male. In dealing with these topics, he wasn’t careful to conceal any of the facts and clearly showed the true state of affairs - although his short stories were often intricately structured, with vivid satire and a good sense of humor.

He was a well known film writer of the Indian cinema and was making good money. He however, chose to abandon his lucrative career and migrated to Pakistan. In the seven years that Manto lived in Lahore he continuously struggled for survival. However he proved to be a productive individual who gave some of his best writings to the literary world regardless of his domestic situation. It was in Lahore that he wrote many of his best known work.

Manto was primarily known for his short stories of the subcontinent, great literature out of the events relating to the India-Pakistan partition. The literature, which came out of the period that followed, is considered to have been progressive in its tone and spirit. According to several critics it had not only evolved its own identity, but also had played a significant role in documenting the hardships and hopes of Pakistan in the latter part of the 20th century.

Manto also wrote plays and many of his stories have been successfully adapted for the stage. Some of his characters have become legends in the minds of theatregoers.

Farrukh Nigar Aziz

She was the daughter of Abdul Aziz Falakpaima, who was a known literary figure even before partition. She and her sisters were educated along the liberal styles of education. The opportunities that these women got were some what of a rarity and were considered a rarity. In those days being educated for Muslim women and that too having a career in the arts or performing arts was considered to be unrespectable.

Types of theatre

The general complaint in conservative circles is that commercial theatre is lowbrow and thrives on obscene dialogue and dances. The fact is that at least three departments are tasked with monitoring the activities of commercial theatre. From the Punjab Arts Council, which is responsible for vetting the scripts to District Coordination Officers, who are authorized to monitor the screening of plays, to the Home Department that actually takes action against producers, directors, artistes and theatre owners, the dice is loaded against entertainment at every step.”

Local theatre

Commercial theatre is surviving this accusation and, in some cases, even thriving this shows that people want entertainment and are prepared to watch plays despite the hazards of doing so. Just like any demand and supply situation, since there is a demand there will be a supply.

The arrival of commercial theatre in Lahore was in the early 1980s. The joint efforts of Naheed Khanum, Amanullah, Mastana and Baboo Baral ushered in the art the lively dialogues and innovative style was like a breath of fresh air for the citizens. The initial venue for the staging of these plays was Alhamra but a replacement venue had to be sought once Alhamra closed down for renovations in 1981 – 1982.

Unfortunately, commercial theatre is now in decline even though the number of theatergoers is steadily increasing. Each and every script has to be cleared by the Punjab Arts Council (PAC). Consequently, not many new scripts are being written for commercial stage plays. Actors innovate their dialogues on the spot and it is their quick wit that people come to see.

Lahore has five private (Tamaseel, Mehfil, Naz, Crown and Alfalah) and a government theatre (Alhamra). The moral brigade’s claims of vulgarity and calls for closure of commercial theatre have become common in Gujranwala, Faislabad, Multan and Sahiwal. Most of the complaints originate from a small community of zealots while the majority of people enjoy the performances.

In Lahore, the popularity of performances can be adjudged by the fact that most of the audience come from other cities. The theatres are packed on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. A stage play usually runs for 16 days and earns around two million rupees in that time. Tickets cost from Rs. 200 to Rs. 1,000 and if commercial theatres are so hated, then why are they sold out for their entire span?

As said before, commercial theatres are loved by most but not by some. The performances are based on quips and repartee, the thrust and parry of comic wit. However, a person working ten hours a day, five days a week is not looking for staid entertainment. These theatres provide a fresh and invigorating outlook on life through their comic performances, which are followed by the adoring public.

Training institutions

Punjab Lok Rahs

Punjab Lok Rahs started working as an independent alternative theater group in 1986. The group has seen a number of upheavals both internal and external during its history. On average, the group has held a performance every fortnight since its creation.

It started as a group of young men and women, primarily students, that was concerned with the military oppression of arts and cultural activities in Pakistan. The group cherished a society that has gender equity and democratic values, respects all humans and offers equal economic opportunities to all. Rahs believes in organized and conscious efforts to realize this dream. Theater is its medium.

Rahs’ experience in the art of theater is very deep as well. From staging classical epics to quick response street skits and from working out foreign adaptations to improvising ones with community and from performing at overseas festivals to villages and urban slums, Rahs has touched upon a host of issues. Rahs’ canvas is very wide and diverse as it has dealt with subjects like child marriage and women’s right to marry of their free will and staged plays against arms race and military dictatorship.

Besides experimentation and experience, Rahs has learned theater from its gurus like Badal Sarkar. Its members have received training from many institutions in other countries.

The group has imparted theater training to a number of civil society organizations as well. It has supported scores of other organizations by performing for the communities with which they work.

Rahs draws inspiration from Punjab’s indigenous theater tradition. Its name ‘Rahs’ is the Punjabi word for local form of theater and its logo shows the basic props of this theater. The group aims to marry the tradition with modern techniques and concepts and make it an effective tool in the hands of organizations working for social change.

Rahs performs plays only in the mother language of its audience – the people of Punjab. The group believes that the mother language lies at the heart of the issue of cultural identity and is central to the political struggle of the down trodden classes as well in our part of the world.

The group not only performs but also trains other dramatic societies and community organizations to do theater as an art and use it as an effective tool of communication.

Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop

Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop is a non-profit organization which is named after the father of modern theatre in not only Pakistan but also the subcontinent. Rafi Peer was inspired by his involvement with the Max Reinhard Seminar in Germany. This is how modern theatre was introduced into the subcontinent. It is the oldest and most well reputed theatre companies of Pakistan. It was initiated in 1974 by Salman Peerzada. Its forte has been puppet shows, children’s art festivals, drama programs and various theatre productions.

This workshop has been organizing Lahore’s International Theatre and Dance Festivals since 1992. No organization private or government owned has ever hosted an International Art Festival except for this organization.

*The First was the International Puppet festival of Pakistan in 1992
*The Second puppet festival in 1994
*The National Dance festival in 1995
*The First International Drama Festival Pakistan 1996
*The Second International Dance and Drama Festival 1997
*The 3rd International Puppet Festival Pakistan 1996,
*The 2nd International Theatre & Dance Festival Pakistan 1997,
*The 4th International Puppet Festival Pakistan 1998,
*The 3rd International Theatre & Dance Festival Pakistan 1999,
*The 1st Sufi Soul World Music Festival Pakistan 2000,
*5th International Puppet Festival Pakistan 2000
*2nd Sufi Soul World Music Festival Pakistan 2001.
*Sufi Soul World Music Festival Pakistan 2002


UNIMA or the United International de la Marionnette (the Union of International Puppeteers of the world) was formed on 15 February 1993. The organization is a member of UNESCO and the International Institute for Theatre. The organization has 8000 members from 74 countries.

The member groups of UNIMA Pakistan registered at the time are:

*Professional Member Groups
*Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop (Lahore)
*Lahore Arts Council (Lahore)
*Rasheed Putli Group (Lahore)
*National Puppet Theatre (Rawalpindi)
*Mr. Shahid Tusy (Islamabad)
*Dr. Faqir Hussain Saga (Lahore)
*3 other folk puppet groups
*Amateur/Student Member Groups
*National College of Arts (Lahore)
*ASNA, Punjab University (Lahore)

Bond Street Theatre

Bond Street Theatre, in collaboration with the Afghan theatre company, Exile Theatre, will bring its original production, Beyond the Mirror, to theatre and universities in the US this Fall 2005. Created in Afghanistan over the last two years, the play examines issues of war and occupation which dominate the last two decades of Afghan history as witnessed by members of Exile Theatre. The non-verbal play is expressed through film, symbolic actions, compelling images, puppetry, and the physical and musical techniques of both companies to create an evocative montage of stories drawn from life in Afghanistan. The play will be available to theatres and universities in November and December 2005. In addition, the companies can present video-lectures for students, artists and the general public which document their artistic and humanitarian work in Afghanistan and discusses the value of the arts in restoring post-war societies. The two companies will also conduct workshops in Afghan performance styles, Bond Street Theatre techniques, and methods for effective cross-cultural communication and exchange.

Thespianz Theater

"Thespianz Theater" came together as a group in 2005 for the need, They felt for nation to form the closest of ties with most of the countries around the globe. This lead them to conclude that the closest bonds would be possible only through cultural exchanges with other nations, for this they closely studied different cultures, existing with in the parameters of national, social and geographical boundaries and correlated them with ours to draw out the common points existing between these highly varied yet, strikingly similar cultures. The result was a string of highly skilled theatrical performances by the Thespianz Theater.

They also simultaneously felt the need to work upon some of the greatest classics created by those great craftsman of the Urdu literature and they started of by staging some of Khuwaja Moin-ud-din's epic classics in "Talim-e-Balighan", Lal Qilay say Lalo Khait Tak", Mirza Ghalib Bundar Road per" and Zawal-e-Hyderabad" and parallel them with equally well managed and well perform Shakspear's classics, Such as Hamlet, Othello, Romeo Juliet to stamp our authorities as dignified yet diversified, enthusiastic yet, dedicated theatrical performers. they translated many English playwright's work into national language and staged.

The hurdles and obstacles,, they went through for the promotion of theater and performing arts lead their path towards the enrichment and growth of cultural theater and dance. Satirical, comedies are preferred elements in our society much the same as they are in the west. They too started off by fielding their hands in staging Nadeem Riaz's "Yaro Ye bhe naqli he" this infect was the Thespianz first official theatrical performance and was directed by Mr. Faisal Malik,(Artistic Director) a highly talented NAPA Graduate. The second play directed by Mr. Ali Tahir was Naeem Tahir's Taleem-e-Balighan, where few Thespianz performers also displayed their rich acting talent; the third play was also an out and out satirical comedy "Goonga Naukar" which was an adaptation of the Great Patras's famous play "Goongee Jooroo" presented once again under the able direction of that noted Graduate of NAPA Mr.Faisal Malik in February 2008. Thespianz would indeed be out with a more profound impact in the near future after these encouraging performances. Those associated with the theater in Pakistan are well aware of the present conditions facing the industry, they are also aware that is simultaneously has a very thought provoking traditional drama sense embedded in it.

They, for the same reason have raised their pens and rifted themselves to deliver the "Audience" their taste of the word. They are a group of trained individuals from the National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) and have attained a 3 year performing arts degree under the enlightened guidance of theatrical giants, such as Mr. Zia Muyyedin, Rahat Kazmi, Arshad Mehmud, Talat Hussain, Anjum Ayaz, Zain Ahmed, Khalid Ahmed and Saba Saeed. They have spent the last 3 years of our lives in Napa, understanding and conceptualizing performing arts in a different manner altogether. Our mentors being our torch-bearer, whose personal experiences chalked out our guide lines and walk paths.

President of Pakistan Mr. Gen. Pervaiz Musharaf recently award them Certificate of Performing Arts. They are also pioneer of Musical Opera Performance in Pakistan. you can easily visit them [] View Pictures

Ajoka Theatre

Found in 1983 when Zia ul Haq’a martial law was as its peak. Since then Ajoka has been popularizing theatre, producing TV/ video plays promoting human rights and social change.Cultural activity is far from free in Pakistan. It is viewed as subversive and the governments have been antagonistic of any form of expression of art and popular culture.

Ajoka pioneered theatre movement in Pakistan, it was set up by a group of young people led by Madeeha Gauhar, a TV actress and theatre director. Ajoka's first play, Badal Sarkar's "Jaloos", was performed in Lahore in 1984, in a house lawn in defiance of the strict censorship laws. Since then Ajoka has been continuously performing socially-meaningful plays within Pakistan and abroad. It has now over two dozen original plays and several adaptations in its repertoire.

Pakistan, April 27 (UPI) -- The head of a Pakistani theater group says its banned play "Burqavaganza" about concealing cloaks worn by Muslim women does not offend Islam, the BBC reported. Madeeha Gauhar with the Ajoka Theatre group was commenting on the government's ban of the play, reportedly because it made "unacceptable fun" on Pakistani culture, the BBC said.

The ban was issued immediately after the satirical play opened this month in Lahore.

Gauhar told the BBC the play is not designed to offend Islam or any other religion. She said she heard about the ban from the media as the government had not yet contacted the theater group.

"We are trying to end the evils from society, we are against forcing women to wear the burka. I condemn the ban," she told the BBC.

Some Islamist lawmakers in parliament reportedly felt the play is against "Koranic injunctions on the veil."


STREET used multiple techniques in theatre activities by using interactive, street theatre community theatre, Theatre for Development, invisible theatre, and proscenium theatre. STREET is using all form of theatre and provides trainings to organizations, groups and individuals all over the country. From resource (people) mobilization to group formation to play formation to final performance, STREET theatre experts have capacity to facilitate and empower grass root communities and CBOs in theater designing and implementation.

STREET has its grass root community mobilization and theater development expertise. We identify people, develop their groups, provide them theater development, scrip writing, performance and direction through improvisation and interactive exercises.

STREET works with organizations, grass root groups and community groups for capacity enhancement and challenging stereotypical gender norms, child protection and community development. Through theater, STREET highlights child sexual abuse, self and body protection, life skills, gender sensitivity, women empowerment and educational issues all over the country. STREET’s work with NGOs

STREET and its team members works with different organization, groups and individuals to provide technical support in capacity building and theater skills development and provide orientation to use theater for development approach in their activities and projects. Few of our key highlights are:

• SPO – Islamabad (In joint collaboration with SPO, STREET completed a project and conceived, developed, directed and performed at different occasion to mark First Earthquake Day to raise earthquake related issues. STREET performance for UN agencies at annual earthquake celebration was highly appreciated by all UN representatives.• SACH – Islamabad - Provided theatre training to SACH team members to highlight child sexual abuse through theater in their projects.• PODA – Islamabad – Provided theatre training to PODA team members so highlight daily life issues through theater and incorporate theatre in their projects.• Dar-ul-Naeem Formation House – Lahore - Provided theatre training to Dar-ul-Naeem Formation House members and students to use theatre as tool for self awareness and personal development• Humrah – Lahore – Provided theatre training to Humrah members to use theatre as an empowering tool to work with group of young males and their volunteer to highlight sexual mal practices, male sexual health through theatre• Aahung – Karachi – Provided theatre training to Aahung community members to develop a theater play to raise awareness and perform in their communities.

Community based Theatre group formation

WAPDA Store Colony G-7/2 In an Islamabad based slum area, STREET has mobilized a group of youth within the community to form a theatre group with a continuous training and back up support. STREET provided training to enhance their theater capacity and take the lead for theatre group formation and further knowledge dissemination.

66 Quarters Colony G -7/2In an another Islamabad based slum area, STREET has mobilized grass root communities and identified a group of young males and females to form a theatre group with a continuous training and back up support. STREET provided training to enhance their theater capacity and take the lead for theatre group formation and further knowledge dissemination

Al-MakhtoomThis is our pride, in the recent past our theatre team start visiting Al-Makhtoom school for Blind (full or partial) students. That was our challenge also, but with all success we were able to produce a theater play “Mehnti Class” with al-Makhtoom Students.

Pangorah Bari ImamPangorah Theater, in Bari Imam community, STREEET’s first community based theatre group formed to raise awareness on drug addiction, forced marriages, child sexual abuse, self and body protection, HIV and AIDS, reproductive health.

Children from Earthquake Affected areas (Bagh) Under Earthquake support and capacity building project, STREET provided training to earthquake affected school children in 2006. These school children performed in Muzaffarabad and Islamabad and highlighted early children marriage and issues of orphan children.

ICANICAN, a nationally known for HIV and AIDS and drug addiction work, in partnership with STREET, developed two theater groups to challenge drug addiction and HIV and AIDS issues in their project activities and communities. STREET team provided training and back up support these groups to raise awareness in the area of Rawalpindi and Bara Kahu. STREET is working with these groups on regular basis Christian Study CenterSTREET in close collaboration with Christian Study Centre Rawalpindi has devised a community based theater consisted of young male and females to address daily life issues, peace and conflict management, women empowerment, children and women harassment. STREET provided intensive theater skills training focusing on script writing, direction and performance development. STREET is working with this group on regular basis to challenge stereo typical norms surrounding children, women, peace building and cultural harmony. The group of CSC is raising awareness on gender discrimination and sexual abuse in focus.

The advent of commercial theatre in Pakistan

Theatre in the Capital

Theatre in Pakistan has been given a professional and commercial face by private production companies that attempt to infuse theatre as a cultural norm in the country. In this respect, the Capital has been exceptionally successful, through the support of the Government and Private Investors, to give a platform to the youth to showcase their talent. 2006 alone saw around eight lavish theatrical productions, and was touted as the year of comedy, as residents of the Capital were treated to a liberal dose of humor and farce.

The year 2007 kick-started with two comedy plays, and March 2007 will see a change in genre, as a new production company by the name of Living Picture Productions brings a contemporary dance musical to the stage.

Improvisational theatre

Black Fish

Founded in 2002, Black Fish is the first of its kind improvisational theatre troupe in Pakistan. It has a huge following and is very popular among the youth. The group cater to all age groups. The troupe used to perform every Sunday but have reduced the frequency of their public shows to every fortnight. Even though they do not advertise heavily, the troupe's popularity has spread from word of mouth and an occassioanl radio announcement that helps the shows manage to draw a packed crowd who sometimes has no place to sit, thus, resorting to sitting on the stairs.

Despite being a Karachi-based groupe, Black Fish has managed to take its performances to other Pakistani cities such as Lahore, Islamabad and even Faisalabad.

In 2004 Black Fish was also selected by the British Council to represent Pakistan in an International Youth Theater Festival Manchester called Contacting The World.

The troupe is currently working with Pakistan's leading English Newspaper, Dawn, to put together the first ever Comedy Festival to be held in Karachi in November 2006.

School plays

Each year, the Old Grammarians Society (OGS) gets together and puts up a play at the PACC. These plays are usually in English and the audiences are mostly Grammarians. These plays act as sort of a reunion for all the current students to get together in a single place and feel a sense of unity with their predecessors.

The plays consist of actors who are the alumni of the old school and are to a degree quite seasoned in their vocation. The props and settings of the plays are of a high standard and this explains the cost of the tickets which range from Rs. 500 to Rs. 1000 or more. This explains the kind of audience that is expected.

These plays are not big on advertising but are popularized through word of mouth.

Foreign Theatre Companies

At the Lahore World Performing Arts Festival the Euro Theatre Central performed for the fifth time. It had performed a German play dialogues of which were learnt by the troupe in English for the benefit of the local audience. The play entitled "Liebesgeflüster" (Raaz and Nias) from Bonn to Lahore. The sponsor of the festival was Rafi Peer. This attracted a huge amount of attention from the locals. The German ambassador even made the journey from Islamabad for the Pakistani premier.

There were artists from Switzerland, Germany and the Wall Street Theatre group from Cologne/Aachen with its Anglo-Saxon two-man artistic comedy show is perfect proof of the fact that comical humor. A youth group from Uzbekistan was also present along with many Indian and Pakistani dancers and performers.


The biggest problem is the mentality of the people of this country. The mindsets are very diverse thus what is decent to one group of people falls under the realms of indecency for the next. Some cities like Gujranwala, Gujrat and Faisalabad have had a history of gate crashing of theatres, attacking artistes and even get actors arrested. Police officials believe they have a moral obligation to prevent artistes from spreading obscenity.

Recently, in a TV program, some participants accused commercial theatre of not following scripts or staging plays without any script. However, as one observer highlighted to Daily Times no one cared to point out that having a script means getting it approved at seven steps from bureaucrats none of whom is qualified to approve a script. Besides, one reason for the popularity of commercial theatre is its spontaneity. In some cases, artistes exchange barbs and putdowns with the audience. “This livens up the play for everyone,” says a regular theatergoer.

The accusation that the dialogue is obscene eschews the fact that commercial theatre normally enacts real-life situations. “That is the way most of us speak Punjabi. Does not the Punjabi love burlesque,” asks a theatre critic.

Since we live in a capitalist environment when there is a demand for something it must be supplied. This form of service should be available if there are people willing to be entertained. Especially for the masses who are generally poor and frustrated with struggling for survival. They get attracted to the local theatre which may be categorized as cheap and obscene.

Although, theoretically we are a moral society who is consciously aware of its values, corruption that has crept into the crevices of the business making bribing of officials widespread. Exploitation of female artistes by the producers and directors of the plays as well as by the government officials tasked with monitoring the theatre is rampant.

An observer commented that there is need to protect the rights and interests of artistes. This can only be achieved through the regulation of theatre in a positive way. But our closed minded society stigmatizes this activity as immoral. Until and unless this form of art is not accepted, quality in this field of art cannot be achieved nor can it be expected.

Because of the problems mentioned above the governments of the past did not utilize resources into this area by building auditoriums and providing facilities in this regard. This may be one of the reasons that street theatre has been so popular. Although many actors who were part of this were arrangement were rounded up and jailed. This is because the government was criticized through this medium.


NAPANapa (National Academy of Performing Arts) is the Only perferming Arts Academy in Pakistan Under ZIA MOHYEDDIN.He is the Chairman of napa.NAPA's mission is to restore the sanctity of professions relating to the performing arts. NAPA will nurture the talent available across the country through a strong curriculum, offering comprehensive courses - and workshops conducted by eminent practitioners - in music (vocal and instrumental) and theatre arts.


External links

* [ Danka's Cultural Events Guide to Pakistan - information on ongoing theatre plays]

* []
* []

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