Muslims In Performing Arts

By Habib Tanvir

When appearing in his first film Jwar Bhata in the early forties, Yusuf, one of our top-ranking actors even today, was given by the film producer the name of Dilip Kumar for box-office reasons, I am sure he never thought he was sacrificing something precious. What?s in a name after all. Most people have forgotten this by now. He is Dilip Kumar to a whole world. Yet Dilip as a private person remains Yusuf.

The point is it never occurs to Muslims in creative fields, while at work, that they are Muslims. It is on religious occasions, marriage, birth, death, festivals that the Indians have their diverse ways. It must have been the same with Meena Kumari, originally Mahjabeen, another towering figure in the cinema who died a few years ago.

One of the most brilliant stage and film actors in the present generation happens to be Naseeruddin Shah. So what? Another one of our most creative actors on stage and screen bears the name of Om Puri. So there. The balance is perfect. Contemporaries both, both hail from the National School of Drama.

The NSD itself, which was at first administered by N C Jain, came soon after to be looked after by Ebrahim Alkazi, eminent drama director and one of the recipients of the prestigious Kalidasa Award. Under his tutelage for more than two decades, the institution matured and attained its full flowering. Whatever was best in the NSD was rightly attributed to Alkazi?s indefatigable efforts and talent. Even the cinema, benefitted considerably from actors turned out by the NSD.

Now Alkazi comes from a liberal big city background. Taking to painting and to theatre arts for him was a matter of sheer inclination rather than an act of rebellion against religion.

Taking to the arts in the case of internationally renowned painter M F Hussain however would perhaps amount to a religious digression so to speak, as Husain?s background has a conservative mould. I am not alluding merely to Husain?s sensual and dramatic paintings, which include series from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but his stage decor as well, particularly the elongated stained glass cathedral effect in T S Eliots?s Murder in the Cathedral produced in English by Alkazi in Bombay in the early forties.

The strict canons laid down by Mulsim fundamentalists actually forbid participation in the arts. This includes impersonation above all, painting life, even music. Some conservative Muslims would not even allow themselves to be photographed. Yet the contribution of Indian Muslims to the arts is considerable.

Probably the Muslim Sufi saints initially paved the way for it. Sufi poets like Fariduddin Attar of Iran and Jalaluddin Romi of Turkey ushered the way for the widening of mental horizons. For instance, Attar in his allegory Mantiq-u-ttuyoor (Conference of the Birds) tells the story of a great Muslim saint who through his passion for a girl attains God. He decides to leave Mecca and proceed to Rome. His disciples follow him. There in Rome he falls in love with a young Christian girl and partakes of all that his non-Muslim beloved compels him to, including all that was forbidden by his own religion. Shocked at the sight his followers return to Mecca. Upon hearing their tale of bewilderment, the other religious leaders of Mecca chide them for their lack of faith and urge them to return and observe their preceptor in all that he was doing. They return. By now the saint has achieved fulfillment. He goes back to Mecca with his followers. But the girl has now fallen in love with the saint and follows him to Mecca, of which the saint has a premonition. He meets her half way in the desert but the exhausted girl now dies at his feet. He buries her with Muslim rites and once again returns to Mecca.

It is through allegorical stories such as this that the saint poets of Islam spread their ideas of mysticism. And they loved music and dance and all that made for an ecstatic experience. Thus we have the whirling Dervishes of Turkey who drink in deep from the music of Romi?s poetry and go into total trance. Thus we have the Qawwals thronging the mausoleum of Khwaja Nizamuddin Aulia at Delhi and Khwaja Mohiuddin Chishti at Ajmer and enthralling hundreds of believers both Hindus and Muslims with their songs of love and devotion. Thus we have the great Indian Sufi poet and musician Amir Khusro who sang of love with abandon and made music to bewitch the world. And thus it is that we have the wonderful confluence of the Islamic Sufi movement with the Hindu Bhakti movement, giving rise to the phenomenal growth of Hindu saint poets and song-makers such as Surdas, Tulsidas, Kabir Das, Mira Bai, Waris Shah, Bulley Shah, Guru Nanak and others. In the end we get great Urdu poets like Mir and Ghalib. Mir likened the light of Kaaba with the light of Somnath, both being equally divine. Ghalib went further and declared:

Wafadari basharte ustuwari asle eeman hai

Maray butkhane mein to kaabe men garo brahmin ko

(Loyalty conditioned by consistency is the quintessence of faith;

If the Brahmin dies in idolatry give him burial in Kaaba.)

Herein is a complex mystical paradox that Ghalib propounds. Attaching high value to integrity and consistency, he declares that if the kafir, the idol-worshipper, who was of course born in idolatry, keeps on at it unswerving till death, then he has proven religion and the highest faith. He deserves burial in the holiest shrine, the Kaaba, like the staunchest believer.

Thus it was that the ideas of Sufism surreptitiously penetrated secular Indian minds, specially of the imaginative, and in their turn influenced many a layman.

In other words, there have been two strains to Islam: one of the rigid canon of the Quran and Hadees, and the other of mystics, sufis and saints. It is the latter strain which proved more productive for the Indian Muslims.

My first memories of theatre go back to my elder brother playing the female lead in Hafiz Abdullah?s Parsi Theatre play Mohabbat Ka Phool at the Raipur Kali Bari theatre during Durga Puja. In those days travelling threatre companies sometimes carrying the big top used to go round. With the advent of silent cinema, some managers switched over to the new medium, keeping the same mode of travel. And when talkies came to be made, most of these Parsi Theatre actors and actresses took to films. The theatrical companies were broken up. And now we found Master Nisar and Miss Kajjan, both famous for their leading roles in the Parsi Theatre play Shirin Farhad and Laila Majnoon playing the same roles in films made on the same plays.

Performers had to be singers too in those days and both these stars were very good singers. In later years however Master Nisar fell on hard times and was heard to have died in penury in the sixties. This was the general lot of film stars those days. They lived in glamour and luxury when young and wanted. Once out of demand they were totally neglected. There were no guilds or artists unions. One particular tragic end was that of the glamorous star Shanta Apte, a glorious classical singer in her own right, who used to give concerts and also sing for the radio till the forties. So both Master Nisar and Shanta Apte had very successful careers and sad deaths. Our secularism remained undiscriminating in the rise and fall of each.

For the revival of theatre in the 19th century, credit goes to Amanat. It was his Inder Sabha written and produced in 1856 that sowed the first seeds of threatre in India after a gap of several centuries. It is said to have been first produced at the court of Wajid Ali Shah in Lucknow, who was himself a poet, composer, creator of Kathak and an innovator in Raas Leela. In fact, Amanat?s musical play written in poetry was inspired by the Raas Leela enacted regularly at Wajid Ali?s court.

His Inder Sabha was later imitated and re-written by Madari Lal but was never excelled. In fact, all Parsi Theatre companies always had Inder Sabha in their repertoire, usually of Amanat. Whenever they saw that they were losing heavily on other plays, thewould bring forth Inder Sabha, which then would bring back to their coffers all the might have lost on previous shows. Thus many companies would usually save themselves from going bankrupt.

A whole batch of young Muslim playwrights cropped up around Parsi Theatre companies in those early years of the revival of our theatre, which was particularly influenced by the French opera. Though they also carried in them what they at that time understood of Bharat Muni?s Sanskrit theatre traditions as laid down in his treatise the Natya Shastra.

Raunaque, Betab, Ruswa, Hafiz Abdullah Talib, Hubab, Zareef, Aaram, Khurshid, and many others were turning out successful plays often based on Puranic tales and the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. But the crown of Parsi Theatre playwriting went to Agha Hashar Kashmiri who wrote ceaselessly, masterfully and most successfully. His range touched Firdausi?s Persian epic the Shahnama in his Rustom-o-Sohrab at one end and Hindu religious legends such as Bilwa Mangal depicting the life of Surdas at the other. In between he wrote secular plays such as Aankh ka Nasha, a melodrama denouncing the vice of drinking; blood and thunder dramas evoking Muslim nostalgia for the virtues of Arabs as in Mashriqui Hoor, adventure plays such as Silver King, with a hero who has a double; and romances such as Yehudi ki Larki.

Quite a few of those stories were taken up by the new cinema, Silver King for instance. New Theatres of Calcutta made Bhakt Surdas and also Yehudi ki Larki. Nawab, a theatrical actor of great power, played the role of the old Jew in the latter for which, though in his early thirties, he got all his teeth knocked off. Some early talkie films were unintentionally amusing. In one film, for instance, Mukhtar Begum sat with all her bulk, face front, in a mid-shot, static, and sang a classical song as long as perhaps 20 minutes that appeared to be an infinity, and yet it was an edifying experience.

To those years also belong the beautiful songs of New Theatres which transcend generations and haunt us all to this day. This is not merely due to the golden voices of singers and the excellent music of composers of those days. The credit also goes in no mean measure to the remarkable lyrics written for them by Arzoo Lucknawi, an eminent Urdu poet in his own right. To cite but one example, recall Balam Aye Baso Morey Man Mein (My beloved dwells in my heart) in the film classic Devdas. All those artists working in perfect co-ordination made appreciable contribution to the development of Indian cinematic art.

Likewise, the twosome Fateh Lal and Damle associated with all the masterpieces of Prabhat Movietone of those days provides a most remarkable example of Hindu Muslim co-operation in performing arts. The two names were inseparable. The stunning sets in classic such as Ram Shastri, Sant Tukaram, Amar Jyoti, Jwala etc. were conceived and constructed by Fateh Lal, a most imaginative Muslim artist, while Damle looked after the sound. Recall the throne in Ram Shastri and the protagonist?s ancestors coming out of that throne, so masterfully filmed by V. Shantaram. That was Fateh Lal?s idea, as related by Jagirdar in his autobiography Sandha Kaal. It was again Fateh Lal, according to Jagirdar, who suggested to Shantaram to have the young Ram Shastri learn his Sanskrit lessons in Kashi after he was humiliated by the Pundits.

All those artists of New Theatres and Prabhat, the two giant pillars of the growing film industry of those days, worked in perfect unison and thereby made unassuming but gigantic contribution to the development of Indian cinematic art.

The cinema by now was beginning to get over its stage nostalgia and coming into its own. During the war, the film industry experienced an unprecedented boom. Two masters of the commercial cinema, who had numerous box-office hits to their credit, were Mehboob and Kardar, who produced films like Aurat with Yakub, Surendra Nath and Sardar Akhtar (later re-made and christened Mother India) and Tansen with K.L.Sehgal in the title role and Khursheed in the role of his beloved Tani.

These were times when Muslim pioneer actors such as Ashraf, Mubarak, Mazhar Khan Yakub and pioneer actresses such as Nur Jehan, Suraiya, Begum Para, Bibbo and later Nargis began to emerge as stars. Yet these were times when a social stigma still remained attached to film acting, irrespective of religion. The educated class hardly cared to make cinema their career. It was therefore an act of rebellion, though amusing, when actor Surender Nath insisted that his degree BA, LL.B. be attached to his name in the credits of every film he appeared in.

Towards the end of the forties, the cinema took a turn for films with social significance, which paved the way for the parallel cinema of more recent times. Soon after K. A. Abbas? Dharti ke Lal came Zia Sarhadi?s Humlog with Balraj Sahni and Footpath with Dilip Kumar and Chetan Anand produced Neecha Nagar. All these films, though not quite blockbusters, nevertheless carried an extraordinary contemporaneity, outlining a new value system. And no wonder - because these were times of a social upheaval the world over in the performing arts including theatre.

A new significance was brought to theatre because of a maze of complex socio-political changes. The October Revolution of Russia in 1917 had influenced the whole world including our own National Movement against British Imperialism. Meanwhile Stanislavsky had revolutionised not only the Russian theatre but the theatre of the world, with his new Method in acting and a totally different approach to theatre production. This gave rise to a new crop of playwrights such as Gorky, Chekhov, Tolstoy, all of whom influenced both Indian writing and Indian thought. The Communist Party of India was formed and in 1936, writers and intellectuals such as Sajjad Zaheer and Munshi Prem Chand got together at Lucknow and organised the progressive Writers Association. Soon after, the Indian People?s Theatre Association was formed, which involved all our top-ranking musicians, dancers, writers and artists. Finally, the Central Troupe of IPTA was created with Uday Shankar at its apex for choreography. During the Bengal famine of 1942, the IPTA Central Troupe produced Immortal India, based on Jawahar Lal Nehru?s Discovery of India and harnessed it to the purpose of collecting funds for the famine-stricken millions of Bengal. They travelled all over India and collected lakhs of rupees. This inspired Khwaja Ahmed Abbas? film about the famine Dharti ke Lal, which announced as its motto, ?Peoples Theatre Stars the people?. There were no film stars in the film but only stage actors of IPTA like Shombhu and Tripti Mitra, Balraj Sahni and others.

IPTA from its inception had gathered all our best writers around it, all writing plays, Ismat Chughtai, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Ali Sardar Jafri, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Krishen Chander. Some of its patrons were Prithviraj Kapur and Dr. Hameed Bhatt. Uzra, Dr. Bhatt?s wife, was at the time the leading actress of Prithvi Theatre which ran to full houses at the Opera House Bombay, now demolished. Another leading actress of Prithvi Theatre was Zohra Sehgal, now a film actress of international repute, who also acted for IPTA occasionally. We were not Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs but all artists subscribing to only one religion: the theatre of commitment. Later, the well known Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi?s wife Shaukat and his daughter Shabana, now a famous film actress, also got pulled in. Today, Sajjad Zaheer?s daughter Nadira Babbar, wife of the film star Raj Babbar, is fully involved in IPTA at Bombay.

After independence, the IPTA movement attached to the apron strings of the CPI broke up as a sequel to the fragmentation of the socialist movement itself giving rise to several socialist and communist parties. But its spirit lived on. There were offshoots in Delhi. A writer friend of mine Athar Parvez was at the Jamia Millia Islamia University. The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mohammed Mujeeb was a scholar of history, a patron of drama andhimself a playwright. He had helped some drama enthusiasts among his teachers and students like Abdul Kalam, Rasheed Nomani, Junaidul Haque, MasooHaque others to form the Jamia Dramatic Society. Under its auspices, he had many of his plays produced under his own direction. One called Khana Jangi relates to the life and death of Sarmad, a Sufi poet who was killed by the Muslim emperor Aurangzeb. The story of Sarmad is too well known to be recounted here.

At the Jamia I wrote Agra Bazaar and produced it at its open-air theatre. The play was picked up by Begum Qudsia Zaidi and brought to the Ram Lila grounds in Delhi and later on to Aligarh and other places. With the help of Begum Zaidi I formed what I always wanted to ? a professional theatre called the Hindustani Theatre in 1954.

The minimum essential requirements to launch a proper viable professional theatre were discussed. Plays had to be made available and money. About 12 plays had to be made ready in translation, as hardly any among the few original plays available in Urdu or Hindi appeared to be worthy of production. The list included three Sanskrit masterpieces, Kalidasa?s Shakuntala, Visakhdatta?s Mudra Rakshas and Bhavbhuti?s Uttar Ram Charit. Besides there were plays by Bernard Shaw, Ibsen and others. As for funds, we had to have about Rs 200,000 before actors could be employed.

In the next two years Begum Qudsia herself translated almost all of the 12 plays, collected the estimated money personally and in 1957 launched Delhi?s first professional theatre. Hindustani Theatre?s first production was an Urdu translation of Shakuntala and the second Khalid ki Khala, an Urdu adaptation of Charlies?s Aunt, both directed by Moneeka Misra. The third was Mitti Ki Gadi, a Hindi adaptation of Sudraka?s Mrichchakatika which I directed in 1958. A woman of great dynamism and astonishing drive, Begum Zaidi died soon after, rather prematurely and Hindustani Theatre was closed.

One of the interesting products of Hindustani Theatre was Irshad Panjatan, who later became a mime of some repute and now lives in Berlin.

In subsequent years we had playwrights such as Mohammed Mehdi, Mohammed Hasan, Asghar Wajahat, all of whom are worth mentioning for their literary and dramatic contribution.

Another important theatre practitioner of our time was Safdar Hashmi whose career was nipped in the bud. Safdar completed the IPTA cycle. A product of the recent revival of IPTA in Delhi, he later carried on the peoples Theatre work for Jan Natya Manch, an organisation he had founded. Poet, singer, actor and playwright, he was a visionary. Having devoted ten years to proscenium theatre and ten to street theatre, he finally came round to building a bridge between the two, thereby hoping not only to provide the much needed training to his street theatre team of artists and make them more rounded as performers but also to narrow the chasm and undo the alienation between then two, and promote an all-embracing movement of the theatre of commitment - a movement which would include, apart from theatre artists, poets, painters, puppeteers, artisans all. It was a political cultural vision. Just at this juncture at the age of 34 he was brutally murdered in broad daylight during the performance of one of his plays on 1st January 1989.

It is difficult to think of Muslims in performing arts separately from their compatriots of other religious callings, with whom they remained closely associated all along. It was a Muslim who revived theatre in the middle of the 19th century, namely Amanat, but it was the entrepreneurs of the Parsi community who popularised theatre as a professional venture all over the country most successfully for the first time and paved the way for Hindi to become the lingua franca of India. Quite a few of the persons mentioned in this article have been working in theatre side by side with their spouses who happen to belong to a different religion. Uzra?s sister Zohra danced in the Central Troupe?s Immortal India together with Kameshwar Sehgal. Their daughter Kiran Sehgal eminent in Bharat Natyam and now in Odissi; Kanwal Azeem (now known as Neelima Azeem), daughter of novelist and playwright Anwar Azeem, in Kathak, are equally free from religious sectarianism. Begum Zaidi?s daughter Shama Zaidi works with her husband M. S. Sathya both in Theatre and films, yet they have established their separate identities in both the fields. The religious difference is forgotten as it must. The eminent Bharat Natyam dancer Indrani is married to Habibur Rehaman, an equally eminent architect. Safdar Hashmi, worked in conjunction with Moloyshree for Janam Janam, and now since his death, Mala and his other colleagues are carrying on the work. Similarly, my wife Moneeka Misra and I work together and we founded Naya Theatre in New Delhi in 1959.

Though my involvement with Chhattisgarhi folk artists in terms of productions dates back to 1958, when I first brought them to participate in Mitti Ki Gadi and it continued off and on during the sixties, a departure of approach to theatre was actually effected after 1970 when I revived Agra Bazaar with the participation of a bulk of Chhattisgarhi folk artists, among whom the only Muslim was Majeed Khan, a carpenter.

These were unschooled, unlettered rustic players of the peasant class, mostly small farmers but including some carpenters, barbers, washermen, tailors, owners of pan shops, cycle shops etc. all coming from Chhattisgarh, an ethnically and linguistically compact region comprising six districts in south east Madhya Pradesh including Bastar which is larger than the state of Kerala, an indication of the large area where Chhattisgarhi, a dialect of Hindi, is spoken. Chhattisgarh is rich in folk forms of cultural expression such as Pandvani (Mahabharata), Chandaini (a secular legend sung by balladeers), songs and dances such as Sua, Karma, Dadaria. Their own indigenous theatre form is known as Nacha, which combines drama with songs and dances. Rich in folk forms of cultural expression, the rustic players of this theatre have a predilection for comedy. Endowed with a rare wit, they tend to laugh irreverently at almost all accepted norms of life. Though these were mostly Hindus of all castes, quite a few of them played Muslim roles with ease in plays such as Rustom Sobrab, Mirza Shorbat Beg and Agra Bazaar.

Serious experiments with folk forms of theatre initially from Chhattisgarh and later from other parts of the country, both secular and religious with the participation of native talent, continued right through the seventies. The religious forms included the Chhattisgarh form of Mahabharata and Ganjam (Orissa) forms of Bharat Leela and Prahlad Natak. In all these, however, secular elements predominated in a strange but perceptible way. The cultural heritage is shared by all who care and are interested, irrespective of caste, religion, education or money.

Sheikh Gulab, a simple villager from Madhya Pradesh and not very highly educated, lived and worked amongst the tribals, re-taught their children their own forgotten songs and dances, choreographed the community dancers of various tribes to take them around, and fought for cultural causes affecting tribals all his life. Though not a tribal himself, he understood and imbibed their cultural mores as if he was indeed one.

Nor is creative participation in the arts confined to only well known Muslim figures who have gained some eminence. One of the leaders of the Gond tribal dancers of Mandla was one Mohammed Shareef.

The Langas and Manganiyars of Rajasthan present out-standing examples of excellence in their own fields of folk music. Yet they can hardly be distinguished from other Hindu tribal artists of Rajasthan in appearance, dress or language.

Nor can all Muslims be known merely be their names. The sisters Shanti and Manti, beautiful young girls and wonderful street singers, who incidentally were both murdered some time ago near their native town Faizabad, were both Muslims even though their names might not suggest it.

It would be wrong to assume only some of the more emancipated educated Muslims partake of the indigenous culture of the country. In fact there are Muslims from all walks of life, including those from the poorest sections of society, who active in field of arts, thereby making their own contribution towards strengthening the cultural fabric of the country, though the scope here forbids a listing of their names. Both the tazias of Moharram and the effigies or Ram and Ravana in the Ram Leela at Delhi are made by Muslim artisans. In Tamil and Kerala folk and traditional performing arts such as Terukuthu and Kathakali the Muslim musicians participating hardly become noticeable as Muslims. The same is true of Swang, Khyal and Mach of Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, all of which have a fair sprinkling of Muslim singers, musicians dancers and actors. Most secular art forms, and even some religious ones repeat this story. There are very few exceptions. One such is Bhavai of Gujarat, which though secular, has its own history.

The Marsias, written by two of the greatest Urdu poets of the Lucknow School, Anees and Dabeer, eulogising the valour and mourning the agony, persecution and death of Hasan and Husain, are the more poignant and appealing because of the local rituals of India having penetrated into their cultural ethos more than the Arab cultural influences On the other hand, Islamic figures like Fatima, Hasan and Husain are mixed with Hindu religious personages like Sita, Ram and Laxman in the songs composed and sung by Bengali jogis.

Thus diverse fabrics are interwoven into the tapestry called the culture of this subcontinent and they have given it perfect harmony and unity. Yet some sections of fundamentalists, both Hindu and Muslims, would have us believe that the Hindu and Muslim cultures are two diametrically opposed phenomena. It is the same brainwashing story in Pakistan, which is made out to be a country with a compact and undiluted Islamic culture. And how do you reconcile with the pagan cultural traditions epitomised by Mohenjodaro and Harappa, the values symbolised by the great gurdwaras that stand there, the secular Sindhi folk tales like Shashi Punnoo, the great anti-imperialist poetry of the Peshawari poet Khush Hal Khan Khatak who asked for his grave to be dug at a place undisturbed by the noise and untouched by the dust raised by the hoofs of Aurangzeb?s horse. Yet, the writers, poets and artists of Pakistan have more in common with their Indian counterparts than the vested interests in either country are prepared to admit. The fact is that the great and flexible Hindu culture of this subcontinent has through the centuries influenced and been influenced in its own turn by the various Islamic strains that flowed into the country from Uzbekistan, Turkey, Iran and Arabia. The result is a picture of many hues all harmoniously blending. Yet it is an ever changing picture, constantly growing and being enriched all the time by other streams of modern world culture. As Gandhiji once said, he wanted his hut to be rooted in native soil, yet its windows to be thrown open to the buffetings of the winds of the world. No one understands this better than artists. The contribution of Muslims in performing arts, or for that matter in any creative field, has been to this end. In fact, artists from all faiths and communities have subscribed to this idea of an Indian culture, robust in its particularity and yet, universal in its thrust and its growing dimensions.


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