Solo theatre reflects on life and times of Manto

New Delhi: When he does not wield a pen, he is Saadat Hasan, just another man pilloried by the wars of survival.

The "asfana" (short story) that keeps him alive hides in his pocket, says actor Ashwath Bhatt, encapsulating the spirit of the legendary storyteller Saadat Hasan Manto in his solo performance, ‘Ek Mulaqat Manto Se’, to celebrate the raconteur`s 100th birthday May 11.

Bhatt, a veteran stage actor, performed his 90-minute solo act - a first-person narrative - at a unique open-air stage at the Khoj International Artists Association, an integrated space for multi-disciplinary new age arts in the capital that draws performers and painters from across the world.

The monologue combined texts from ‘Manto, Main Afsana Kyun Kar Likhta Hoon’, ‘Khol Do’, ‘Kal Sawere Jo Meri Aankh Khuli’, ‘Toba Tek Singh’ and ‘Deewaron Pe Likhna’.

‘Ek Mulaqat Manto Se’ reflects the traumatic life of Saadat Hasan Manto in the context of his emotional and physical uprooting by the partition - a reality that scarred his life and eventually drove him to his death at the age of 43.

Performed in Urdu, the play begins with his days in India at the time of partition and shifts to Lahore, "where he tries to see the new socio-political and economic circumstances through the eyes of the common man in the bazaars and neighbourhood".

Even the local parlance changes with the birth of ‘Zindabad Pakistan’ - a slogan he utters frequently to describe his new homeland.

What holds good in Delhi does not hold good in Lahore anymore, Manto`s daughters (also played by Bhatt) point out to him in the play.

Manto moved to Lahore around 1948 after leaving a steady job as a writer for the Urdu service of All India Radio in Delhi, where he worked for nearly eight years. In Lahore, his apartment was located at the Lakshmi Mansions near the Main Mall - the market place. The neighbourhood was inhabited by intellectuals, who were all said to be "destined to play strategic roles in the new Pakistan".

The atmosphere might have been congenial for intellectual progress, but Manto did not know how to earn enough to support his family of four - wife and three daughters. He wrote his "afsanas" with zeal but the money was inadequate.

It also marked the beginning of his decline. The itinerant state of Manto`s physical state and his intellectual flowering - two contradictory conditions in his life in Pakistan - is captured with mesmeric brilliance by Bhatt in his performance.

Bhatt converts one of the smaller courtyards of Khoj into a busy Lahore mall where life unfurls in the aftermath of partition. Manto looks for stories in everyday life - among food carts, shopkeepers, cyclists and the odd visitor.

Manto ruminates upon his life, writers` blocks, his relationship with his three daughters and "his wife who shared his birthday and wore glasses like him".

Bhatt comments on the charges of obscenity as well as he narrates a dramatic version of Manto`s ‘Khol Do...’ which landed the writer in trouble with the government for addressing sexual abuse of women during the partition.

The actor moves around the audience ranting for ‘Toba Tek Singh’ - a strip of no-man`s land between Hindustan and Pakistan - as Bishen Singh, a mad man who was exchanged between the two nations in a rare trade-off of lunatics in Manto`s iconic short story, ‘Toba Tek Singh’.

"Read Manto to judge him. Do not judge without reading." Bhatt appealed to the audience after the performance.

Bhatt, a National School of Drama and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts graduate, said his performance at Khoj "was unique because it was site-specific performance" where he had improvised on the script.

"It took me two years to put the script together. I had to read all his works and books about him," said Bhatt, who manages an independent theatre company-cum-training centre, Theatre Garage.

Bhatt said his theatre company was "planning a year-long celebration of Manto`s birth centenary with book readings and theatre".

"I am writing a new script on Manto in collaboration with Shoelace Productions, an independent theatre production company," Bhatt said.

The actor regretted that "meaningful and independent theatre had no platform to grow in the capital". "Government-sponsored spaces like the Kamani served the big corporate groups with money. Who will sponsor Rs.5 lakh for our play? I am working with non-government platforms like Khoj and seeking donations from lay people to keep independent theatre alive," Bhatt said.

Bhatt will perform ‘Ek Mulaqat...’ May 13 at Safdar Studio and May 19 at Panchsheel Park.