September Issue 2015
The Stage is Set
Karachi’s National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA) is as unique and special as the building in which it is housed. The elegant arches of the ancient edifice frame groups of young people engaged in conversation. The sounds of a classical music rehearsal emanate from another quarter. But both the architectural jewel that was the Hindu Gymkhana, as well as the trove of culture and art that it is nurturing, keep a low profile. The two are in perfect sync, and one is likely to miss the academy if you didn’t know it was there.
It has been 10 years since NAPA was set up in the cultural wasteland of Karachi. Headed by none other than the famed Zia Mohyeddin, it continues to stand as the sole institution in the country, offering a comprehensive education, academic as well as practical, in theatre and music. The course is spread over three years and, with some of the most respected names in the arts at NAPA’s helm, students have to meet very exacting standards before being awarded a precious diploma at the end of this time.
So what impact has NAPA had in the field of performing arts in the last 10 years? Equipped as they are with the best education in this field that Pakistan has to offer, how many of its former students have been catapulted to stardom? Has NAPA been at the forefront of an artistic revival in the country?
“We have to be realistic,” says Rahat Kazmi, head of Theatre Arts. “Look at the numbers we are talking about. We can’t say we are revolutionising society because we are talking of very few people who are associated with this school.” But Khalid Ahmed, actor and teacher at NAPA, adds “We can proudly say that we have produced a crop of graduates who are good at their art and craft, and who are recognised as good actors and directors.”
Theatre in Karachi has definitely been given a shot in the arm with NAPA’s presence. Zain Ahmed, head of the NAPA Repertory Theatre, points out with some satisfaction that they have organised three theatre festivals — always an uphill task in our country. The last two were, in fact, international festivals with participants from India, USA and other countries. “We are constantly putting up plays and there is something or the other going on all year round.” The plays are held at the NAPA auditorium constructed on the premises, which remains a hive of activity. Most recently, the Zia Mohyeddin-directed play Dhaiti Deewarain finished a run. NAPA’s productions are the best testimony of what the academy is achieving, and the high production quality and standard of acting witnessed in the last play speaks for itself.
But while theatre may have come to Karachi, are Karachiites going to the theatre? Have the numbers swelled? Are people willing to engage with literary texts and thought-provoking subjects?
“Sadly, no,” says actor and composer Arshad Mahmood, who is Programme Director at NAPA. “But we are constantly looking into our own mistakes with regards to spreading the word and increasing publicity.”
“We have no culture of going to the theatre,” says Rahat Kazmi. “Do you know that there are hardly any plays written in the Urdu language, except the Agha Hashar material?”
But this is no cause for gloom. Arshad Mahmood points out that “in any society, the number of people associated with the arts is always small, but they become a very significant part of that community in documenting society. I think NAPA has created this minority. What we need to develop is a ticket-buying audience, even of two or three thousand…that’s enough.”
The influence of NAPA on the performing arts in Pakistan may be subtle and slow, but it cannot be denied. Over the last few years, NAPA graduates have been absorbed in the field of production, acting and directing. “Our students are gainfully employed and their professionalism is appreciated when they go out into the field,” says Zain Ahmed. The most visible faces from NAPA who have met with commercial success are television actors like Uroosa, who is seen in a multitude of television plays. Then there is Adnan Jaffer, who recently starred in Jalebi. There are many others, but none of them have earned star status as yet.
“I guess our students are not very glamorous. They are not necessarily hero or heroine material,” smiles Khalid Ahmed. “One factor which is our strength, as well as our limitation, is the fact that all our students come from very modest, even low-income backgrounds. And many of them have a very poor quality of education. When they study and train here, the transformation that they undergo in their three years is very encouraging to watch.” The fee structure at NAPA is heavily subsidised, making it accessible to all sections of society. “One of our alumni comes from a village in Muzaffargarh. Another was a goat-herder,” says Ahmed.
“But all our graduates have managed to stay in the field and are making a living off it now. They struggle initially, but once they start earning some money their families also become supportive,” explains Arshad Mahmood. The faculty has a grouse with the upper classes, the educated section of society, who have the money and leisure to engage in culture but will not make the effort to see a NAPA play. ”Do you know how much effort we put into each performance?” asks Rahat Kazmi. “Just come and watch us.” But disappointments aside, Kazmi maintains, “This is a place for those who have nowhere else to go.” And for him and the others, that makes all the effort worthwhile.
In the same quiet but intense vein, a lot of very valuable work is unfolding in the field of music. “But to see the impact of this will take some time,” says Mahmood, whose first love has always been music. “For instance, we have a collaboration with the Butler School of Music in Austin, Texas. Our students get to go there for a semester and there is a rich exchange of information. Sitar maestro, Nafees sahib, also conducts some Skype classes for students there.” The NAPA students who travel to Austin get to meet celebrities like renowned tabla player Zakir Hussain, play in ensembles there, and share their own musical knowledge of the eastern classical tradition.
The NAPA music curriculum incorporates mainstream western classical music alongside the eastern classical tradition. Both eastern and western instruments are taught here, as well as reading western notation. “One of our boys who has gone to Austin has become an accomplished piano player,” says Arshad Mahmood. “If he continues like this he could become a concert pianist. And do you know, he is the son of an aya in a local school.”
Nafees Ahmed, renowned sitar player and head of the music department, has a similar view. When asked why NAPA has not produced famous names in singing, he says, “Our aim has never been to produce stars. But our graduates are practicing music. Many of them are teaching music in local schools. Others are working for commercials and most of them continue to perform… Please consider where we stand. We live in Pakistan and teach the kind of music that we have ejected from our lives at least 15, 20 years ago.”
In its first year, NAPA started out with 50 music students. Six months later, only 13 were left after the rigours of the course became apparent. And even though all the students may complete the three years, they may not be awarded a diploma if they do not meet all the criteria.
However, what saves NAPA from simply becoming an anachronism in an unappreciative society is its integrated approach to music. “From the beginning, our philosophy has been to focus on searching for maximum similarities between eastern and western traditions, rather than staying away from each other,” explains Nafees Ahmed. “Fusion is a way of forging a beautiful relationship, but this takes a lot of thought and time. Playing the beat of the dhol on the drum is not fusion. Both must float towards each other so naturally that one forgets where the two meet.”
The result of this approach is improvisation of a very high order. Collaborations and exchanges with foreign cultures continue. Most recently, a Japanese musician held a performance at NAPA.
Why haven’t shows like Coke Studio approached NAPA, which has been seriously engaged in the very genre that the show aims to promote, instead of featuring some popular but mediocre performers?
“People feel threatened by our students,” says Nafees Ahmed. “And they should because, slowly but surely, knowledge and awareness of music is spreading. The last 10 years have been very tough, but now people have an appreciation of what we do here. Maybe it’s only a few people, maybe it’s just our old students, but they know what the correct way is now. And more students keep coming to us.”
Nadir Abbas, who is a NAPA alumnus and currently assistant head of the music department, recalls, “At first my dream was to cut albums and make videos with all the associated glamour. But, gradually, I understood that music is not about glamour. Rather, it is a means of improving oneself. And as I dove into this river of music, not only my singing but my personality also acquired depth.”
For those in the know, NAPA’s musical evenings are a regular feature. Two qawwalis were scheduled for Ramzan, the rehearsals for which were in full swing under the supervision of Nadir. Since his graduation, Nadir has travelled the world, worked with musicians from around the globe, is gainfully employed in the advertising industry and performs with NAPA and at private functions. “I thank God I didn’t go on to do my MSc and become an engineer stuck in an office,” he laughs, as he mentions the career path that had been set out for him.
“This is not a money-driven field,” says Arshad Mahmood. “It is a passion-driven field all over the world.” The students who come to NAPA are those who want to pursue the performing arts, come what may. They have withstood parental opposition and logistical and financial hardship to arrive here.
Farhan Alam, who is a graduate of theatre arts, says his parents set him a condition. “They said I had to complete my masters and then I could do what I wanted.” So Farhan juggled evening classes at the IBA along with the NAPA classes in the morning. “I think I have definitely read more books for NAPA than I did for my MBA,” he says to those who may take the NAPA course lightly.
Today, Farhan teaches at NAPA, performs in their various productions and is hoping to get a break in the mainstream entertainment industry. But with the unique distinction of having an MBA, as well as a theatre diploma, under his belt, he has plans for his own entertainment house as well.
A symbol of artistic excellence and integrity, NAPA has breathed new life and vigour not only into the beautiful old building it occupies, but also into the performing arts in the country.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.
Zahra Chughtai has worked and written for Pakistan's leading publications including Newsline, the Herald and Dawn. She continues to write freelance.