The Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center held a public discussion on, “Activism Through Theater,” with Shahid Nadeem, renowned playwright, director and founder of Ajoka Theatre in Lahore, Pakistan. The session was moderated by Manjula Kumar, program director at the Smithsonian Institute, and accomplished director, producer, actress, and social activist.

In the midst of economic and political instability, Pakistan’s performing arts have become a popular vehicle for civil rights activism and protests on gender inequality, corruption, and crimes against humanity. Theater, television, and street performances have risen above the political red-tape and censorship laws to become an outlet of informed dialogue for the common citizen.

Mr. Nadeem and Ms. Kumar discussed theater’s role in engaging, uniting, and strengthening communities across Pakistan, and in other parts of South Asia. Having used the stage as a platform for promoting art, culture, and social justice, Mr. Nadeem drew from his experiences, and highlighted tools for how theater can connect divided communities, as well as addressed how the theater community has responded to the rise in religious extremism and anti-West sentiment in Pakistan. He also spoke about Ajoka Theatre’s involvement on promoting cross-cultural exchanges and dialogue between Indians and Pakistanis.

Shahid Nadeem

As Pakistan’s leading playwright, Shahid Nadeem has written and directed over forty original plays that have been performed in Pakistan, India, United States, United Kingdom, Norway, Bangladesh, Nepal, Iran, and Oman. His plays have been performed in South Asia’s largest film festival, Mahotsav, organized by India’s National School of Drama, and in London’s Asian Film Festival. Seven plays are available in English translation, entitled Selected Plays, published by the Oxford University Press. He has also written and directed telefilms and drama serials, and has served as general manager, program director and recently retired deputy managing director at Pakistan Television. He is a codirector of the Panjpaani Indo-Pak Theatre Festival, which pioneered interaction between theatre activists of India and Pakistan. Mr. Nadeem has also worked as an international campaign coordinator for Amnesty International. He was awarded the Feuchtwanger/Getty fellowship in 2001, and the President of Pakistan’s Pride of Performance Award for Literature in 2009. More information on Mr. Nadeem’s work can be found here.

Manjula Kumar
Manjula Kumar is a program director at the Smithsonian Institution. She is an educator, director, actor, and activist with a strong belief in the arts as a means of promoting peace and harmony. Through her numerous productions, she has built bridges of cross-cultural understanding between diverse communities. Ms. Kumar is also the recipient of the 2009 Gandhi Fellowship of Peace Award. Since joining the Smithsonian, she has produced programs that foster cultural cohesion while also encompassing diversity. Her body of work has focused on highlighting rich musical traditions, current trends, intergenerational understanding, the role of Muslim women in modern society, and breaking stereotypes. Mrs. Kumar works with the Washington DC International Film Festival as program advisor and as a member of its jury. Among her extensive body of work, she has curated several film programs including premiere screenings of Deepa Mehta’s controversial trilogy – Fire, Earth, and Water. Among her many productions, Ms. Kumar has directed and acted in Qaid- e-Hayat based on the life and times of Mirza Ghalib, Final Solutions, a play in English by Mahesh Dattani based on the partition of India, Autobiography, a play in English by Mahesh Dattani, Heer Raanjha, and acted in Akbar Ahmed’s The Trial of Dara Shikoh. She played a key role in establishing to establish the annual Indian Film Festival – Indian Visions.