When I was 16, I remember standing in a giant sports field in Lahore’s blistering summer sunshine watching about 200 actors, all dressed in provincial Pakistani outfits – silken, shiny, and very elaborate – step out of a row of buses. They were arriving from different parts of Punjab for the first and only rehearsal of the opening ceremony of Pakistan’s Interprovincial Games. Dr Farooq Beg, director of Serendip Productions, the company producing the ceremony, and my very first boss, walked over to me with a smile I’d grow to know well over the next few years. “They’re all yours”, he said. “You’re directing this segment – tell them what to do”.
This of course, wasn’t the plan. But with Dr Beg, it never really is. You end up unknowingly being roped into the most challenging creative projects. And come out the other end having had the time of your life.
This time, it isn’t an opening ceremony, or an award-winning documentary, or a sound and light show at a historical fort that Dr Beg alongside producer, the other half of Serendip, and his wife Huma Beg are putting on. They’ve gone for a musical, and that too, a few thousand miles away from Pakistan and their obvious comfort zone.
In an all singing, all dancing celebration of Pakistan’s folk heritage in its 70th independence year, Ishq will bring to life the story of Punjab’s iconic and tragic lovers Heer Ranjha, as told in the 18th century Sufi poet Waris Shah’s epic poem of the same name. One of the jewels of South Asian folklore, the poem is revered as a work of great literary merit, as well as a careful account of the culture, language, sights and sounds of 18th century Punjab.
British theatre actor Rasheeda Ali plays Heer, and Pakistani actor Ahsan Khan, fresh from a highly acclaimed turn in the drama serial Udaari and in his first foray into to the world of theatre, is taking on Ranjha. He says the poem is his favourite of the region’s love stories. “It deals with love, sacrifice, friendship, but also women’s rights, religion and Sufism, and comes at those themes with both heart and mind. And that’s what makes it one of the most intelligent works of poetry that I have ever read.”
Like all good poems and timeless tales, Heer Ranjha is read and interpreted in myriad ways, and there have been dozens of stage and film adaptations in Pakistan and abroad. This adaptation is the very first version written as an English musical. I know what you’re thinking, because we thought it too. So I asked. Why English?
Dr Beg says, “The West has such little understanding of us. What they see and hear in the media isn’t who we really are. I wanted to do this in English so people in the West understand what culture we’re from. Heer Ranjha isn’t just a love story, it’s the story of a woman who challenged patriarchy, and fought for her right to be happy. That struggle continues today, and it’s critical that we can all access and know our activist heritage, and be inspired by it to continue the fight. That includes Western audiences, as well next generation diaspora who may not necessarily know the language.”
Script writer Mushfiq Murshed is a practising Sufi, and has emphasised what he calls the “subliminal messages of divinity, separation and reunification” that he finds in the story. His Heer, played by Londoner musical theatre actor Rasheeda Ali, “is fiercely feminist, and adamant about her right to decide her own destiny and choose her own fate.”
give us rights
Rights equal to a man
But he would twist them
Wherever and whenever
yes, sure, a married woman am I
Did they ask me?
Yes, they did
Did I say yes?
No I did not
No I did not
And yet I was forced
To tie the blessed knot”
The music production also reflects a coming-together of two different musical styles and traditions. Pakistani musician Emu of the band Fuzon (Aankon ke Sagar/ Khamaj) has composed the music in a first collaboration with composer Ian Brandon. Of the experience, Emu says: “It was challenging for me because of the language barrier as I had to create everything in English, minglish, and also Punjabi. Also, the ways of working are entirely different in the East and the West. But the creative process has been very exciting, and watching the music come alive as the actors and dancers take over has just been incredible.”
The dance sequences came about as a result of another collaboration – this time between Owen Smith from the UK and Suhaee Abro from Pakistan. Suhaee, a Bharatanatyam dancer since the age of 7 has trained with one of Pakistan’s finest – Sheema Kermani in Karachi, and performed with her for over 10 years. She tells me the co-choreography for Ishq was part of a deliberate effort to combine modern and Eastern dance sensibility. “This was important as the entire play is a fusion – elements of Western traditions of dance and music and eastern culture being shown within that. We’ve fused western dances on eastern music or eastern dance or movement on western music. Quite often we’ve used ballet legs and bharatanatyam, kathak or folk dance hands, or the reverse.”
With specially commissioned music, dance and sets, an international cast and production team, and a world-class stage, the scale and ambition of Ishq is truly immense. I personally can’t wait to see the alchemy of Sindhi and English dancers, Punjabi and British-Pakistani actors, and singers from all over unfold and I truly hope that it’s the joyous, uplifting, thoughtful, spiritual, stereotype-busting riot of colour and energy and creativity that it promises to be.
When: Thursday 7 – Saturday 9 September 2017, 7.30pm (2.30pm matinee on Saturday)
Where: Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery Avenue, London, EC1R 4TN
Tickets: £35 – £69.50
To book: Sadler’s Wells
By Nadia Rahman.
Posted on 5 September 2017