I am fortunate that my passion is also my means of earning, Khalid Ahmad

  • 18 Jan - 24 Jan, 2020
  • Attiya Abbass
  • Interview

My meeting with Khalid sahab is scheduled a week before his much-awaited King Lear drew curtains before the audience. As I sit in the veteran actor’s office at NAPA – waiting to catch him between the rehearsals of the grand play – I wonder how to do justice to my interviewee in trying to chronicle his larger-than-life achievements, dramatic works and theatrical movement in a single-pager interview. A life largely dedicated to theatre throughout the 80’s with notable sporadic appearances in television, Khalid Ahmad has been a force which has been calibrated to resist General Zia ul Haq’s dictatorial regime through an unnerving persistence and movement of performing arts. As a director he has helmed projects like Laloolal.com, Daani and remembered to be part of productions like Chambeli, Bilqees Kaur, Digest Writer, Zindagi Gulzar Hai and Talkhiyaan under his belt. Read on as I attempt to assimilate, interpret and attempt to chronicle different sides of Ahmad.

16 year-old lad from Patna

Khalid’s roots go back to the small town of Patna, Bihar in India – which happens to be my late mother’s hometown I know too much about. And much like two individuals who bond by the tug of memories connected to a city of origin, Khalid and I share the connection briefly, “My earlier life, until the age of 16 has been spent in Patna. 16 years of my life have been very important to lay the edifice of what was to come next.” He made no effort to mask the wistfulness reflecting in his eyes as he painted a throwback image for me, “We used to live in a haveli, right on the banks of the Ganges River, hugging the Shamsant Gath. Part of my memories from that time include sitting in the veranda at night and listening to the chants of ‘ram ram sathy hai’ with the crackling of burning woods. Singing fishmongers walked the congested streets with the day’s catch laden on their backs. These are memories I remember with vividness, even cherish.”

“When I was about 10 or 11 year old, my brother-in-law gifted me a banjo, a musical instrument. In hindsight, if I were to look back this was how I was introduced to the realms of music, arts and theatre. Since then I have always been playing one music instruments or the other. And now for the past four or five years I am seriously learning Hindustani classical vocal.”

On playing the King

Critics and the general masses in Karachi are not easy to please, yet Khalid has earned standing ovations for enacting Shakespeare’s mammoth of a character, King Lear, to inimitable perfection. “It is a huge role to live up to,” Khalid’s baritone voice had a booming quality to it, which appeared to echo even in a large room, “and it is very physically demanding in terms of energy.” He heaves a big sigh and stares into the ceiling. “It is said, when you are old enough to play King Lear you do not have the energy to play it anymore, because he is 85 years old. By the time you are in your 70s and you begin to learn what old age is truly about – and the play is about old age – you are too old to do It.” he smiles and continues. “Just like they say about Hamlet; when you are young enough to do Hamlet, you’re are too young to do it. Because you don’t have that emotional maturity that it requires.”

The engineer with a thirst for performing arts

It is a lesser chronicled fact about Khalid, that he graduated as an engineer from the University of California. He extensively taught at NED, Karachi. After a brief trip to London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, paradigms changed.

“I had this calling to abandon everything and peruse performing arts fulltime. I was still teaching at NED and was dabbling in amateur theatre,” he navigates through his life-changing decision of choosing arts over a job. “One day I came to the realisation that they both cannot go together. I gave up my teaching job and for a couple of years earned a living by teaching maths and physics at home. And then came a point when even that became a hindrance. My interest in engineering was only in the theoretical side, not practical. During this time, I was offered a scholarship by British Council to go and study theatre abroad. I asked for an extended leave from NED which was never granted and I had to resign.”

“For the last 15 year I have been at NAPA, lucky to have found a place. I consider myself very lucky and fortunate that my passions is also my means of earning. I know there must be people like me out there with a thirst and interest to learn music and the arts, but unfortunately have a 9 to 5 job at a bank.”

The Islamic Republic and the arts

NAPA is a government funded institution which was set up as part of Pervez Musharraf’s policy to promote a softer image of the country. But our state at present is still indecisive whether performing arts are a positive element worthy of being retained in the culture or whether it shouldn’t be supported anymore. At crossroads about prevalence in future, the performing arts in the country suffers and wilts.

“Yes, the state is double-minded about it. Partly because dance, theatre and acting is considered unreligious,” he reiterates. “On the other hand the state also realises that to present an educated, cultured image to the rest of the world, you need the essence of performing arts.”

Are the funds provided by the government ever sufficient, including patronages from the multinationals? I ask. “The level at which we are working, yes you can say that these funds are sufficient. But then there are certain needs and demands that must be met. For instance, there are so many students from outside Karachi who wish to join NAPA, we need a proper hostel facility for that. And then we have resisted expanding but somewhat expanded, and now we find ourselves facing space constraints.” For performing arts to thrive in the country, the government must undertake a series of measures, for starters begin with replicating institutions like NAPA in other cities across Pakistan, says Khalid. Arts, music and drama should be formally introduced in the academic curriculums in schools and universities, since this will facilitate a whole breed of students with a lust for the performing arts.