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
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
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
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
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
"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
"I am writing a new script on Manto in collaboration with Shoelace
Productions, an independent theatre production company," Bhatt
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 told IANS.
Bhatt will perform "Ek Mulaqat..." May 13 at Safdar Studio and May
19 at Panchsheel Park.