One of the region's first Urdu productions tells the story of expats through the use of a rapidly declining medium
Urdu production Mian Biwi Aur Wagah comes to Dubai
One of the first original Urdu theatre productions to be staged in the region uses the lost art of letter writing as its primary theme.
Running over two nights at Dubai’s Alserkal Avenue this weekend, Mian Biwi Aur Wagah (Husband, Wife and the Wagah Border), mixes experimental theatre with old-fashioned storytelling in a show that asks its audience to recall a time before email correspondence.
“We take this for granted in a way,” says actor and co-writer Ehtesham Shahid, who plays the husband.
“We have been swept up by the technological superhighway that we forgot what it is to sit down, using your language, write a letter and basically tell a good story.”
The concept behind the production began six months ago as a result of discussions at the home of Shahid and his wife, Amna Khaishgi, who co-wrote the play and stars as his on-stage partner.
Director Dhruti D’souza recalls that the regular gathering culture fans offered a forum for the discussion of the characteristics and history of South Asian literature.
“We were trying to find a way of reintroducing South Asian storytelling in Dubai,” she says. “We would talk about the long and lost forgotten literature of Urdu, Hindi, Farsi and Persia. One of the examples of these forgotten literatures discussed was letters. Some of us would read some of the letters we had in our archives, and it is from there that we really began visualising it as a possible production.”
Mian Biwi Aur Wagah is based on written correspondence from various expats about their way of life away from home.
There is the family who wants to bring their parents to the UAE from India, but instead they resist, in fear of losing their identity.
There is the husband who recalls his wedding night in Karachi, and his wife who pens her own letter to her parents in Pakistan in which she describes visiting her in-laws in North India. Then there is the Pakistani-Indian couple of Mian and Biwi, and a postman who laments how his job has been sidelined.
There are metaphorical characters too – Wagah, the border crossing between India and Pakistan, and an actor who takes on the role of an empty page. All are evocative. The surrealism is familiar terrain for D’souza, who earlier this year starred in and directed the experimental short play i as part of the Queens of Drama theatre festival at Alserkal Avenue. She believes Mian Biwi Aur Wagah will incorporate various elements to keep the audience captivated, from narration and improvisation to experimental theatre.
“It all comes down to how we utilise that stage,” says D’souza. “It is natural to have that notion that a play about letters will be a bunch of characters just reading out into the crowd. Here I used experimental theatre dynamics to bring all these different letters together to almost act like the chapters of a book.”
While some of the letters explored in the play were finessed for the stage, there are a few that remain untouched. One of these is a snippet from a letter that D’souza received 14 years ago when she was a university student in Mumbai. The letter was from her mother who was at the family home in Gujarat.
“She spoke about how she was sitting on the dining table, how the food has turned cold and how she was feeling very lonely. She wrote about how she associates loneliness with food turning cold,” D’souza says. “I really don’t get into it further because I can’t, I get a lump in my throat.”
Shahid, who works in Dubai as a journalist and sends letters to his former university colleagues in India regularly, says written notes are more emotionally resonant now. “When you pick up a pen and paper you are aware of the maximum length and breadth that you have. We don’t think about these things when using email,” he says.
“Yes, with emails we can archive access all previous messages but when it is a letter from a friend or a loved one, there is that tangible quality that you can’t find anywhere else. It is an emotional thing.”
With the UAE’s Urdu-speaking community being predominantly expats, Shahid expects Mian Biwi Aur Wagah to resonate widely.
“Most of us live away from our parents. So they are either not here, or, as in many cases, even if the expats can afford
to bring their parents they would not come because they don’t want to leave their roots,” he says.
“So there is this constant flux happening. That is conflict, that is drama and we touch upon this.”
Mian Biwi Aur Wagah is being staged at The Junction, Alserkal Avenue, Dubai, on Friday and Saturday at 7.30pm. Tickets are Dh100. See