This week, eight performances pay tribute to Saadat Hasan Manto — on his 64th death anniversary
Black Margins or Siyah Hashiye is one of Saadat Hasan Manto’s most searing compilations, and it contains terse prose pieces in Urdu, some only a few lines long, that capture, in just a breath or a gasp, grim images of Partition that continue to unsettle the reader long after the words are forgotten. Published in 1948, after Manto had migrated to Pakistan, the writings were the glowing embers of disenchantment that had lodged themselves deep in the writer’s psyche. Nandita Das’ eponymous film depicts a gloomy shadow cast over Mumbai, even if it largely escaped the rioting that took place in other parts of the country.
Test of time
Hearsay or rumours, or personal testimonials of survivors, had created an atmosphere of festering dread that Siyah Hashiye collates. Some experiences might have been first-hand accounts that had exchanged many hands, other the re-imagining of horror. Even in their pithiness they smack of strong reportage. Manto’s tendency to focus on human nature gone awry did not endear him to sections of the Pakistani literati, depicted as stone-faced and cold in the film. The collection was dismissed as overtly ‘sensational’ by a reviewer. The test of time has served it well though. In Manto’s embracing of the underbelly and the stories lurching within it, there is a stark revulsion certainly, but the gaze is empathetic, and the outlook secular, long before such a term had gained currency.
Writing with conscience
This week, on Manto’s 64th death anniversary (January 18), Studio Tamaasha has announced a tribute to Siyah Hashiye. Manto – A Black Margin will take place at the Mysore Association in Matunga. It’s a rare sojourn away from their usual hideout in Aaram Nagar, but the new venue will allow a larger audience. Of late, Tamaasha events have been growing in popularity, and often cannot accommodate all who turn up for their events. The event will consist of a melange of cultural activities — an exhibition of paintings, stand-up sketches, a contemporary dance piece, a session by Narendra Mohan that will critically analyses the text, and a dramatic performance directed by Sunil Shanbag. Given the source material, brevity will likely be of the essence.
Over the years, Manto’s works have provided prolific fodder to the theatre fringe without any letup. His writings were never written for the stage, although he had penned several radio plays, but when delivered with a certain rigour, they provide challenging excursions for conscientious actors. The solo performance circuit, if there is such a thing, is littered with discharges of anguish that had first found expression on his pages. Gravitas gives way to declamation at times, and deadpan reflection to melodrama, but in the end, Manto’s punches land with characteristic élan.
Big ticket ventures into Manto’s dark turf include the plays by Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry — Naked Voices, Dark Borders (also based on Siyah Hashiye) and Bitter Fruit. In the latter, the director’s penchant for a ‘theatre of images’ combined well with scenographer Deepan Sivaraman’s own fecund visual proclivities. In Chowdhry’s Manto pieces, there is a sensuous beauty to the proceedings brought alive by actors’ bodies conditioned to both sprightly movement and verbal expression. The plays are often a photographer’s delight. The devising of metaphors from sand or cloth or tarpaulin are aesthetically charged, and the set-pieces sometimes too dazzling to the eye but, in a visceral sense, the grotesqueness of human nature as observed and recorded by Manto comes through.
In contrast, Atelier Theatre’s foray into Manto with Kuchh Afsane, attempts to work with ugliness directly, foregrounding a rawness of presentation and a roughness of performance. The interplay between men and women in enactments of pieces likeThanda Gosht or Boo, comes across as unseemly rather than potent. These versions veer from one end of the aesthetic spectrum to another, but perhaps it is Das’ film that manages much more in terms of how a Manto story might be staged or filmed — the film is interspersed with dramatic enactments of Manto’s tales.
At any one point, there’s always a Manto piece being performed in some part of the city (and Delhi is no exception). This week apart from the Tamaasha tribute, there are plays like Mujeeb Khan’s Ismat Manto’s Jugalbandi and Manto ka Deewanapan; Mudit Singhal’s Manto ki Roomaniyat, Mohit Sharma’s solo performance Toba Tek Singh; and Jashn-e-Qalaam: Manto Bedi and Chughtai at the Harkat Studios; all jostling for space in a crowded arts calendar.
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