In Conversation: Asma Mundrawala

Literature | Theater | Readings

A visual artist, theater practitioner and co-founder of the Zambeel Dramatic Readings, Asma Mundrawala has been a prominent name in arts and theater for over a decade. Her work has led to the revival of Urdu literature and dramatization. In this conversation she spoke about the relationship between two of Urdu literature’s most celebrated stars.

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Asma Mundrawala.–Photo by Eefa Khalid/Dawn.com

 

This interview was based on a dramatic reading of the literary works of Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto by Zambeel Dramatic Readings.

It was a bad idea to be late for the dramatic reading of the literary works of Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto. Outside the host cafe, the parking spots were full; inside, the late-comer’s punishment was a seat behind a pillar with only a partial view of the three orators. Mahvash Faruqi and Asma Mundrawala read from two of Chughtai’s short stories while Saife Hasan read from Manto’s essays on Chughtai — recollections filled with fondness and admiration for her. The three are known for their works in theater themed around issues affecting women and with “Ghoonghat” and “Baccho Phuphi,” both popular works of Chughtai, they explored a well-charted territory.

I caught up with the reading’s director, Asma Mundrawala, to talk about the performance and two of Urdu literature’s most celebrated stars.

Q. How would you define dramatic reading?

A. A dramatic reading is performative, where the story or text comes alive through the rendition a reader or a performer lends to it. The form it takes on is entirely the interpretation of the reader / performer.

Q. Why did you select “Ghoonghat,” “Bachho Phuppi” and Saadat Hasan Manto’s essay on Ismat Chughtai for the reading?

A. “Ghoonghat” was selected by a friend who requested us to read it for a private event. So the specificity of this story was based on that request. When we decided to expand the project, we read several stories and ultimately “Bachho Phuppi” was the obvious choice for its language, imagery and its very adept convergence of sensitivity and humour.

Manto and Chughtai were contemporaries and shared a deep respect for each others’ works. There is a deep admiration in Manto’s essay dedicated to Chughtai and it reflects great esteem for her as a person as well as a literary figure.

While this selection was based on very different reasons, I enjoyed the tangential confluence both stories bore in the physical similarities of the protagonists. Both women had very similar physical appearances but they bore very different symbolic meanings for them individually.

The interspersing texts extracted from Manto’s essay on Ismat Chughtai were chosen to lend insight into her work and her person through the eyes of a contemporary who not only was an esteemed literary figure himself but also bore a great admiration towards Ismat. These passages also worked as formal devices designed to ease the transition between the dramatic readings of the stories.

Q. What were the themes explored in the selected passages? Could you comment on the nuances of the text?

A. “Ghoonghat” touches upon notions of pride and arrogance and the manner in which superficial customs and traditions rule our lives. “Bachho Phuppi” is a nuanced insight into the character of a woman who is embittered by life, and the story speaks of her relationship with her brother who becomes the target of her contentions.

In a short span of a few pages, “Ghoonghat’s” narrative traverses a period of 30 years. As the story takes us through the lives of Kalay Mian and Gori Bi the text is layered with meaning about individual pride, an attachment to false traditions and societal pressures which bear the potential of bringing a person to the verge of destruction.

In the second story, the caustic language employed by Bachho Phuppi is immediately reflective of her bitterness and animosity towards her brother and his in-laws, but the manner in which Chughtai weaves the tale does not allow us to read her character as simplistically as that.

Apart from the contribution her works have made to the Urdu language and literature, Ismat Chughtai’s themes remain universal even today. She may have written in a particular time in history, but her writings exposed the state of women and societal issues that are as relevant today as they were then.

The interspersing texts extracted from Manto’s essay on Chughtai were chosen to lend insight into her work and her person through the eyes of a contemporary who not only was an esteemed literary figure himself but also bore a great admiration towards Ismat. These passages also worked as formal devices designed to ease the transition between the dramatic readings of the stories.

Q. How do you view the relationship between Manto and Chughtai?

A. Manto and Chughtai were contemporaries and shared a deep respect for each others’ works. There is a deep admiration in Manto’s essay dedicated to Chughtai and it reflects great esteem for her as a person as well as a literary figure. Both writers exposed flagrant weaknesses of their times but had very individual styles and approaches to the subject.

This interview was first published under the title “An Evening with Manto and Chughtai” in Books and Magazines in April, 2011

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