Patthar Ki Zabaan
The Rhubarb Festival
February 20, 2019
Erum Khan + Tijiki Morris (co-creators + performers)
Camila Diaz-Varela (performer)
Nicholas Murray (sound designer)
Michelle Urbano (puppetry coaching)
Patthar Ki Zabaan interrogates the female body in the context of Pakistani identity politics through the lens of queerness. How are female bodies archived within national memory? This question appears to be the central tension of Patthar Ki Zabaan. The twenty-five minute play at the 40th Rhubarb Festival is a series of vignettes. The vignettes may appear disconnected at a glance, but the short sections are a pastiche that makes sense as a whole. Both Erum Khan and Tijiki Morris experiment with form (puppet manipulation, sound, photography, first-person narration, songs, and film) to interrogate their respective positions as Canadians with strong identity ties to Pakistan.
The play begins with the entrance of Morris and Camila Diaz-Varela onto the stage, holding a wooden contraption that resembles a clothes hanger. Through movement and sound, they manipulate the contraption to pick up fabrics from the stage floor and drape itself in them, the draping leading to the transformation of the contraption to a female puppet. The femininity of the puppet becomes evident in the way it is made to wear a long tunic, and drape itself with a chunni that covers its head. While the puppet doesn’t have a voice, it works as a thematic aspect of the play; a character by itself, it keeps reappearing and interacting with objects on the stage.
The playwrights state that the title is translated as "the voiceless" and takes its name from a poem of the same name by prominent feminist Pakistani poet, Fahmida Riaz. The photographs of urban landscape from Toronto, Mississauga, and Vancouver are juxtaposed with the recording of Riaz reciting the poem in Urdu. The result is silence, and some fidgeting from the audience. The Urdu isn’t translated, and when asked about this decision in a phone conversation, both Khan and Morris (who worked together on Noor and Acha Bacha), echo their mutual belief and desire to decolonize the dominant use of English. Their desire is not to make a part of the play inaccessible, but rather, they wanted the audience to experience the poem. It is a decolonial strategy wherein the audience’s visible discomfort in their non-understanding of the poem’s words recalls a similar strategy Khan uses in her play Noor. In Noor, Khan deliberately kept some of the Urdu words untranslated in order to decolonize the mostly Anglo-white space of Canadian theater.
The poem is about a woman who sits on a hill top, after having encountered a presence, surrounded by the natural beauty there. She is waiting in the feeling that the presence arouses in her. This is the "feeling" that both Khan and Morris want to evoke by leaving the poem untranslated. Later, Morris sings a version of the Marwari folk song, "Khadi Neem Ke Neeche," connecting back to the theme of the poem. The song too is of a woman who has encountered a presence (under a neem tree). Here too, the woman sings of longing. The photographs of the urban landscape too evoke a sense of longing and isolation, the artificiality of the concrete edifices jarring with Riaz’s poem about beauty and longing within a natural space. Khan and Morris play with different voices of longing located in the space they both come from – Pakistan –, but also locate these voices in the literal land here in Canada.
A striking aspect of the play is the visceral queerness as visual representations on the stage. Khan appears dressed as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, allegedly the "father" of Pakistan. In this section, a film recording of Jinnah’s independence speech is seen and heard while Khan rises on the stage from under a white sheet. As she rises, she also mouths the speech, her voice rising above the voice of Jinnah on the film. We as audience realize that she is Jinnah. It is an uncanny and powerfully queer moment in the act, where the lines between Jinnah on the black and white reel, and Khan as "Jinnah" blur. Khan explains that the clothes she wears once belonged to her grandfather. By wearing the same clothes and embodying Jinnah, Khan brings into focus the invisibility of the presence of women. Morris adds that while it was the men who wore the clothes, primarily it was the women who cared for the same garments. The women’s labour here became invisible, just like their bodies.
Another visual representation of queerness is subtle and easy to miss. As Erum becomes more prominent and visible, with her voice becoming even louder, the image of the film intercuts with vintage South Asian lesbian porn. The intercut scenes have a home video quality to them. When asked about the porn videos, Morris admitted that the videos had been manipulated through the change in colour. Morris wanted the videos to embody the mundane of "the everyday", as well as be startling. The bodies of two intertwined brown women were thus both invisible and hyper visible at the same time, not unlike Pakistani women. Khan and Morris want to highlight how both women and queerness co-exist in Pakistan at the same time, while being erased and invisibilized by a dominant cis-het male narrative. This play is their way of archiving lost archives of women with connections to Pakistan, including their own complex selves.