Iqbal Niyazi
Iqbal Niyazi strives to do Urdu theatre in India. Chairman and Creative Director of his group Kirdaar Art Academy, he is the recipient of the prestigious Ghalib award, given by the Ghalib Institute in Delhi. He has also published four books on theatre. The veteran theatre artist gets candid with Mumbai Theatre Guide in a chat related to his career, his efforts at keeping Urdu theatre alive and the scenario of Urdu theatre in India.

 By Keyur Seta

Keyur Seta (KS) : You are one of the few theatre people involved with Urdu theatre even today. Tell us about your group and how you started.

Iqbal Niyazi (IN): Our group Kirdaar Art Academy was established 30 years ago by me and a couple of my college friends. When we were doing inter-collegiate plays in competitions like IPTA, we thought this is ok to some extent. We thought, instead of doing plays in colleges after graduating, it would be better if we started our own professional group. That is how we created Kirdaar. We did a lot of plays. Later on, my two friends moved out of the group - one of them moved towards cinema and the other settled in Gujarat. Since 1982 I have been running the group myself. We have done more than 100 plays.

KS: There is Hindi/Hindustani theatre but Urdu theatre exists on the fringes. How do you manage?

IN: I think it is even difficult to do Hindi theatre as far as getting sponsors is concerned. There is not much difference between Hindi and Urdu in terms of acting and performance. It is just that you need to keep the diction in mind while speaking Urdu.
KS: You had once said that it becomes difficult to get sponsors if you are doing Urdu plays whereas it is not that difficult if you tell them that your plays are in Hindi.

IN: This is true. When Dinesh Thakur did TUGHLAQ, he had mentioned its language as Hindi. I asked him the reason since the play is in Urdu. He said if he had mentioned Urdu, people wouldn't have turned up in large numbers fearing they wouldn't understand the language. I don't agree with his view. You can make Urdu plays, which can be enjoyed. For example, Nadira Babbar did YAHUDI KI LADKI by Agha Hashar Kashmiri as well as some of his other plays. Even Naseer bhai (Naseeruddin Shah) is doing Urdu plays. So, I feel audience enjoys Urdu plays as much as it enjoys Hindi plays. It means people are able to understand Urdu. Hence, I am not able to make sense of why an Urdu play should be called a Hindi play.

Naseeruddin Shah could have taken the liberty of mentioning the language of his plays as Hindi. He doesn't do that when he performs stories by Sadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chugtai. People still come in large numbers. However, in his case it could be due to the fact that he is a famous name. But I have seen a theatre like Nehru Centre filled to capacity during Urdu plays. A big part of the audience was Gujarati and they were enjoying as much as the Urdu audience. So, I don't think there is a difference between Urdu and Hindi. As you said, we do find it difficult to generate finance for Urdu plays. When we tell someone we are doing Urdu plays, they scan us from head to toe and it becomes difficult. Due to this, we have now started approaching people who are well versed with Urdu plays. At least, we are spared from the scanning (laughs). Thankfully, I have some reputation now, so people know about my plays. Winning the Ghalib Award in 2013 has helped further.

KS: Which are the Urdu plays that have inspired you the most?

IN: To tell you honestly, I am a big admirer of Habib Tanvir sahab. My PhD is based on him. I have learnt a lot after watching and reading his plays. Although he did his plays mostly in the Chattisgarhi language, he has also done some very good plays in Urdu like GHALIB KI KALPANA, AGRA BAZAAR and JIS LAHORE NAHIN DEKHYA. These plays have inspired me a lot. I used to visit his rehearsals and observe his work. I used to wonder about his command over the language, be it Chattisgarhi, Hindi or Urdu; he even did plays in English.

After him, I admire Sombhu Mitra's plays. Badal Sircar's work has also inspired me a lot. When we were in college, Amol Palekar used to do his plays. I have also adapted Badal Sircar's plays in Urdu. Similarly, I love some of the plays by Utpal Dutt and Begum Qudsia Zaidi. Plays written by Agha Hashar Kashmiri at the end of his career are excellent. They can be performed even today as they are completely relevant.

KS: It's unfortunate that most people tend to think that Urdu is the language of Muslims and only limited to them. Our Hindi film industry has had its foundation in Urdu and our best film songs were written and sung in the language. Why is that Urdu theatre never quite managed to be popular?

IN: That's true. Urdu hasn't been as popular as it should have. The reasons for such a situation are political. It is a very intense topic. After the creation of Pakistan, some people thought that all Urdu-speaking people migrated to the other side of the border. So, the Urdu-speaking people that stayed in India were ignored. It is not only Muslims who use Urdu. If you go to some villages in Punjab, you will find people over there understand Urdu mostly; they read Urdu newspapers and books and also write in Urdu. There are some great Urdu poets who are non-Muslims. I feel it is a conspiracy to make sure this language doesn't receive much promotion. If it had received support from various governments, the language would have popular.

Having said that, Pakistan has basically only one language - Urdu. But despite the fact that we have so many regional languages in India, Urdu has some relevance in every state. At least among some people, the language is still alive. Plus, there are people who specially do Urdu theatre. The only issue is that they are not able to reach out to the masses. My upcoming project is a book where I have listed down the names of people from various cities in India that are doing Urdu theatre. The data spans 40 years. I have already started working on it and have received more than half of the material.

KS: What do you think can be done for Urdu theatre? You invite Urdu theatre people from across the country for your festival. Can this not build into a more cohesive group that can pool support for Urdu theatre?

IN: Definitely, It can be done. As I said, I am collecting data about Urdu theatre from all over India and compiling it into a book. This is our effort to make sure people from other regions of India get a chance to perform in Mumbai. Every group from outside India is eager to perform in Mumbai. It is a big thing for them. But I agree that something on a bigger scale could be done. For that to happen, we need funding. We won't get a theatre even if we decide to do something big. For example, if we decide to stage a big play by Agha Hashar Kashmiri, will Prithvi or Tata Theatre provide us with space? This scenario is very discouraging. If they tell us that they will support us, we are always ready.

KS: How frequently does your group stage shows and where do you normally perform?

IN: We stage at least two shows every month, even if it is on an experimental level. We mostly perform at Mysore Association Hall, Sathaye College and sometimes we do room theatre if we get a place somewhere. We also perform in somebody's drawing room or on a terrace. Although we have staged a couple of shows of our play WAITING FOR GODOT at Prithvi, we have never even tried performing there after that. We have been organizing our theatre festival for 6 to 7 years now. We bring people from all over India. This year it will be held in July or August. It will be a four-day festival.

KS: Tell us more about your festival...

IN: We shortlist plays after watching them on video. This is the method adopted by the National School of Drama (NSD). However, we are not able to provide the groups with travelling fare due to our financial position. But we book a theatre for them and take care of their accommodation and meals. We also provide them with sets and properties. It's heartening to see the way they co-operate with us. This year, groups from Hyderabad, Lucknow, Bhopal and Delhi will be performing.

KS: Have you come across any young talent writing original and meaningful Urdu plays?

IN: I know quite a few of them. There is Anees Azmi from Delhi who writes very well. Among the new ones, Shahid Anwar is a very good writer. Zahir Anwar from Kolkata is also doing well. Dr Azhar Alam too. Dr M Sayeed Alam is a good director and also a fine playwright.

I would also like to add that although people keep saying that there aren't enough plays in Urdu, the trend of adapting short Urdu stories for theatre is growing. Neseeruddin Shah has been famously doing it. This has been happening in Hindi and Marathi theatre since a long time. This has kept their theatre alive. Similarly, this is now being done in Urdu, which is nice to see. Even the NSD is doing it. The shortage of original plays can be dealt with in this manner. I was very happy when Naseeruddin Shah said that he has found a lifetime source in the form of Manto's stories. Hence, we shouldn't be worried in case we are not able to find original Urdu plays. My entire lifetime will pass if I start doing plays based on the Urdu stories I have in my collection.

KS: Apart from theatre, you also do musical shows, don't you?

IN: Yes, we do. A lot of people ask us about this. Actually, our main aim behind the musical shows is to generate money, which can be spent in theatre. The cost of organising our theatre festival is supplemented by these musical shows. Whenever we have done such a show, it is followed by a theatre performance (laughs). Somehow, our theatre should be kept alive.

Keyur Seta is a freelance film and theatre journalist and a blogger. For him, life is a stage where we all play our respective characters.

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