Padatik, the Kolkata-based cultural group closely involved in classical dance and in theatre sourced from many references, has taken up a new genre of theatre performance. They have created a link between literature and theatre, where the performing space creates its own language of expression and action.

The play which walks through the life and times of Saadat Hasan Manto, also carries excerpts from some of his famous short stories such as ‘Toba Tek Singh, Kaali Salwar, Khol Do, Thanda Gosht’ and more. All this happens while Manto, in the backdrop, keeps hammering on his typewriter, creating short stories without caring for legal rules that disallow creative freedom in literary expressions. This fleshes out the reality of Manto being truly ‘beparwah’ or someone who ‘cares a fig’ for societal, moral and legal propriety. This project is called “Writers on Stage.”

According to Anubha Fatehpuria, one of the founder-directors, “Writers on Stage hopes to become an ongoing series, conceived to bring actors into a rehearsal space with more of an aim to read a substantial body of selected writers’ works, than to pick up one piece of writing to turn it into a stage performance.

“This process of reading and discovering one writer at a time, as a major part of every episode that may be mounted as a performance, is at the core of this series. It also allows for interested participants to step into the realm of literature and performance for the first time, instead of only opening it up to seasoned actors.”

The first staging was based on some selected works of Ishmat Chughtai. The performance, scripted, designed and directed by Anubha Fatepuria who is herself an outstanding performer, transforms the limited performance space of Padatik Little Theatre into a mobile and flexible space.

It places the audience on either side of the performance area, so that the actors can make optimum use of the space at the centre, and placed against the two other walls is a mobile platform. This gives the actors ample space in which they can run, walk, play, jump, lie down, and hide behind a curtain.

There are a few benches placed in front of the writing table of Manto (Ashok Singh). ZThe actors keep shifting and moving it, to change the spatial parameters according to the demands of the performance. An interesting addition to the cast is that of two young, bespectacled men dressed in white shirts and khaki shorts who act out the younger versions of Manto. They also function as Manto’s social and moral conscience as a writer and as a human being.

The entire performance shifts and turns between a few slices of scenes picked from Manto’s stories, while Manto himself comes forward to share his doubts and anxieties about his writings. The two young men are the alter egos of the writer who narrate their own tales of conflict and introspection.

The actors are so well-rehearsed that there is not a single note where coordination suffers. The orchestration of body movements along with dialogue delivery are so well-tuned that not a note goes out of tune. The ladies keep flitting and floating between and among coming out as characters from Manto’s stories, narrating the tragic tales of their lives. Most of them are sex workers who regale us with their perfect body language, ‘adaakari’ and dialogue, and the bonhomie and empathy between and among these women have to be watched to be believed.

Between these scenes, Manto narrates the story of his life, his friendship with Kishan Chand, the writer, touching upon his bonding with Ismat Chughtai, the boldest most fearless writer of that time, his dislike for academics, his love for literature and so on.

Through his short stories, one can actually feel the pain he felt while writing the shocking story Khol Do which is just slightly touched upon in Beparwah Manto. Some elaboration on this would have added to the enrichment and identification of the audience with the woman question. "Khol Do" (or "Open It"), considered to be one his best works, is a horrifying tale about cross-border violence among refugees. It considers the fate of a father who has been desperately searching for his daughter.

When he ultimately finds her on a hospital bed inside a refugee camp, he assumes she is dead. But when the doctor enters and asks him to open the windows ("Khol do" he says), the "body" moves. Responding to the doctor, the girl's "lifeless" hands untie the cord that holds her shalwar (pyjamas) up and she "weakly" pushes it down her legs. Her father is jubilant: "My daughter is alive" he exclaims. The doctor, aware of the misunderstanding (and its implications for what she has suffered), breaks out in a cold sweat.

In "Thanda Gosht" ("Cold Flesh" or "Cold Meat"), a rioter recounts the story of how he abducted a "beautiful" woman only to discover later that she had been dead for some time. The story, like his harrowed memory, is fractured: it's up to the reader to conclude when the man realised he had abducted a dead body.

The play recalls Manto’s pain arising from the Partition of the India he loved with his life. His migration to Pakistan was not out of his religious commitment to the country divided to group his community under a single umbrella but because he had to join his family already in Lahore.

The problem with the play ‘Beparwah Manto’cis that its ideal audience is expected to be familiar not just with his name but also with some of his writing, failing which the brilliant performance would really not have the desired impact on its audience.

The play is not independent of the literature it is inspired by and the writer it is based on. For this play, it appeared that perhaps most of the audience was not familiar with Manto’s stories either in Urdu or in their English translations. From this point of view, it is necessary to create a kind of prelude to the writer chosen for this kind of programme that is trying to establish a lasting link between literature and theatre.

The background music is beautiful and blends aesthetically into the Muslim ethos of thumris and ghazals and melodies of the time famous for projecting the Muslim ethos but not the Muslim identity which, at that time, was in a rather amorphous stage perhaps. The acting and the coordination between and among the actors spells out the hard work at rehearsals and workshops and the grinding dedication demanded by Fatehpuria, the director.

This group’s earlier production ‘Kaagaz Ke Gubbare’, was far better than this one so far as the understanding of the performance goes which also raises the question of whether Ismat Chughtai has been more read than Saadat Hasan Manto? Who knows?

“If my stories are intolerable,” Manto told college students in Bombay in the early 1940s, “it is because the world that I write about is intolerable.”