“The outsiders still have this impression that doing theatre in Afghanistan is still very difficult but it’s not so in reality. Theatre like other art forms suffered indeed during the Taliban regime, but ever since its fall in 2001, theatre has become quite popular now there,” says Afghan actor, director and puppeteer Abdulhaq Haqjoo. Abdulhaq was in India recently as part of theatre company Rah-e-Sabz, that was invited by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) to stage its Afghan version of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors”.
Haqjoo was responding to a query regarding theatre’s popularity in Afghanistan. The 29-year-old who plays one of the identical twins, separated at birth, in the play, set in the streets of Kabul, has been here earlier too, participating in the festivals of the National School of Drama’s and Ishara Puppet Theatre. Back home, he is part of Parwaz Puppet Theatre, a group that has been engaged in reviving old Afghan folk tales by adapting them to puppetry. Their shows also make a strong plea for child rights, like in “Chatalak” (Dirty Boy) which is about a child who faces problems as he is not aware of his rights. But perhaps “Bozak-e-Chini” is one of their most popular plays. “It is about the mother goat, her little kids and how she fights with the wolf, the raven, the jackal and the fox, who take her kids away and kill them. But we changed it a bit to accommodate Afghanistan’s present-day realities so what we did was to introduce some more animal characters. Their presence help people to relate to the political turmoil in the country,” explains the artiste, who teaches acting at Kabul University, where, incidentally, he studied the same course before going on to Germany to study puppetry.
According to Abdulhaq, theatre is witnessing good times in the landlocked country. “There are so many private theatre groups in Afghanistan now. Afghanistan Government’s National Theatre has a group in every province. National Theatre holds an annual National Theatre Festival.”
His nine-year long experience in Afghanistan’s theatre scene has helped him understand that there is an audience for theatre in Afghanistan. The audience that would like to pay for watching it, is still limited. “Different foreign agencies commission the work and we travel not just abroad but extensively within Afghanistan.” One of the first few independent puppet theatre ensembles in Afghanistan formed in 2009, the group produces other plays as well. “Our plays aren’t directly about politics, though we touch it gently. The play ‘Chaar Dost’ is about four thieves who disguise themselves as mullahs because they feel people listen to them and that’s how they can achieve whatever they want to,” he adds.
Abdulhaq also points out that theatre is a capable agent of change in a society like Afghanistan’s. “They watch it intently and they like those plays more when it has a message attached to it. “Once we staged a play in a girls’ school in Herat and after the show finished, the girls came running to us asking for autographs and wouldn’t let us go. But they are still not used to modern theatre.”
Rah-e-Sabz escaped a Taliban attack in Kabul last August because of a last-minute change in schedule. The militant attack on the compound where the group rehearsed killed 12 people on August 19 last year.
After India, the repertory will stage the play at the Globe Theatre in London on May 30-31. It is supported by the British Council.
The play is performed in Dari with English subtitles and has been directed by Corinne Jaber, who played the role of Amba in Peter Brook’s “Mahabharata”.