Fareeha Rafique profiles Faizaan Peerzada.
Neither critical acclaim nor success are new to Faizaan Peerzada, the COO of the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop (RPTW). And neither is handling events and productions on a mammoth scale. What is new, however, is the latest project RPTW is producing, of which he is Chief of Party – Sim Sim Hamara, the local adaptation of Sesame Street which is being broadcast every week by Pakistan Children’s Television as a project of USAID and RPTW.
The youngest of the Rafi Peer siblings (Saadaan is his twin), Faizaan’s professional journey started 30 years ago. From the outset, Faizaan’s interest lay in “working with children”; little wonder then that with Sim Sim Hamara his creative acumen has come full circle. In 1979 – The Year of the Child – he conducted a large scale children’s art project, reaching out to children in hard to reach areas, including 1,000 Afghan refugee children, whose work was then exhibited in Karachi. After schooling from St Anthony’s in Lahore, Faizaan attended the National College of Arts, but says he unfortunately did not complete the design course he had enrolled in. Nonetheless, he is today an accomplished sculptor as well as puppet-maker, having carved and created 3,000 or so puppets of different kinds. Not only that, but besides these two crafts, his passion is painting, and he will soon be holding an exhibition of works from the 1970s to date.
“I shared a studio with Ahmed Pervaiz in my youth, and learnt a lot from him,” says Peerzada of his love of painting.
In all he has had about 20 solo shows in the US, and participated in over two dozen group shows worldwide.
In 1978, he had embarked on his own personal journey, and wanted to hold an exhibition of paintings inKarachibut he was “refused permission” at the venue he wanted to exhibit at, before being allowed to show at the Pak-American Cultural Centre.
Nevertheless there were greener pastures to explore; Peerzada had discovered his calling lay somewhere in an overlapping of child art and the performing arts and what better than puppetry to explore these two avenues?
And so he delved into various aspects of puppetry, from puppet-making, to the production aspect of performing arts in general. In 1980 he was fortunate to get the opportunity to train with Gren Middleton and Juliet Rogers of the Movingstage Marionette Company, London, whom he says “are among the best puppeteers in the world.”
Later, in 1988, he went on a British Council Fellowship to learn stage and lighting design by attachment to the Royal National Theatre.
That was the start of a lifetime of learning and teaching opportunities as not only did he get the chance to learn from various artistes from around the world, but he also taught at international workshops and trainings. The Museum of Puppetry, set up by RPTW in Lahore serves as a forum for various workshops, as do the international and local performing arts festivals of different types held by RPTW.
While RPTW deals primarily in contemporary forms of puppetry, the folk tradition that has been dying a slow death has not gone ignored either.
“In the early 90s,” says Peerzada, “when we held the first World Performing Arts Festival, I visited the traditional folk puppeteers in their houses and there were only a few master carvers left. The folk tradition can only be helped when the master puppeteer transmits this knowledge to his family. The puppeteers had forgotten the lines of the original script, and the original songs had been replaced by songs from Punjabi films and so on.”
The other reason besides disinterest on the part of the families to continue the tradition is lack of government support.
“I as an individual and my organisation would have been so much better off had we received support. No politician has ever thought about progress of the arts.”
Still, he has tried to do what he can and this includes three documentaries made on traditional folk puppeteers, and a book on puppetry called Animating the Inanimate (published in 2006) that covers about 25 traditional puppeteer families.
For Peerzada, working together as a family, rather than as individuals has meant there has always been a lot of support. Each one of them has his or her area of expertise.
“There have also been times when a lot of courage was needed, so you can imagine when seven minds and seven hearts came together… we have stood up to fear and threats together.”
Their strength does, indeed, lie in unity.
“I cannot imagine I would have done so much work on my own – these huge festivals, the Museum, the people we trained. RPTW can now stand on its own.”
That RPTW has taken on yet another ambitious project is perhaps validation of Peerzada’s statement. Sim Sim Hamara is a four-year project, in which a total of 78 programmes in Urdu will be telecast, and 13 each in Baluchi, Punjabi, Pushto and Sindhi. Apart from this, there is also the radio version of the programme and 11,000 events with live puppet shows, video vans and laptops that will be held in 107 districts, so that they are able to “reach out” to maximum children in rural areas. The idea is to have close interactive sessions for 15-20 children.
“We also want to reach the children displaced by thefloods, etc.”
Peerzada is confident the project is in able hands.
“We understand the outreach as well as the content and production, so we are the right company to handle this. There has always been an element of joyful learning in our work for children.”
Sesame Street is on-board as the advisor. The project has been underway for a year and a half now, and they have recorded about 15 episodes to date.
“Having done a lot of work with children over the years we strongly felt that television is the strongest medium to reach out to children.”
Thorough research was conducted, and the programme has been designed to support the Government of Pakistan’s National Education Policy. Peerzada is very clear about the fact that Sim Sim Hamara “should be owned by the children of Pakistan.”
“Our own characters dominate; from the original cast we have only retained Elmo.
We want children to be able to identify with the programme, which has cultural elements from all over Pakistan.”
The objective is to fire children’s imaginations, open doors and also inspire school dropouts to go back to school.
“This programme is different from the one that has been done in 41 countries. This is Pakistani Sim Sim in five of our languages. It teaches children our own cultural traditions and if I may say so myself, the programme is of high technical quality, the studio is state-of-the-art, with its own animation section and puppet development unit.”
If yesterday saw the inception of the World Performing Arts Festival, today Sim Sim Hamara reaches out to people. Peerzada juggles many hats, and the personal and professional are seemingly inseparable.
“For a person who is trained in three or four different fields it’s very easy to survive, but it’s not a matter of survival when you have a dream. It’s not about my personal success, I think it’s a dream that each one of us had, and we had passion, and I think that if these were lost then we would not have been able to do all that we did. I paid a price for these dreams but then these dreams have affected the cultural history of this country.”
Fareeha Rafique is a Lahore-based journalist. firstname.lastname@example.org
First published in the January-February 2012 issue of Aurora.