- Comic Performance in Pakistan: The Bhānd by Claire Pamment
"Who's on first?"
Claire Pamment characterizes bhānd as a type of performance that involves witty, verbal repartee between two male performers, an authority figure and a clownish foil who comments on current events "in metaphors that combine social, religious and/or cultural references" and in "play with paradoxes in their environment" (pp. 9, 20). I had to wonder why the author never cites either Abbott or Costello. Pamment's further description of bhānd as operating historically as "comic interlude" for popular theatre seems to demand some explicit [End Page 508] acknowledgment of the affinity between Pakistan's bhānd and the comic duos of burlesque and vaudeville in the United States (p. 15).
But Pamment doesn't stumble into the neo-colonial trap so easily as I. Besides the fact that Pamment's book is too globe-conscious to allow some American phenomenon to assert itself as the topic's touchstone, its particularly compelling theory is a promotion of bhānd as a mode of performing, rather than as a form of performance with a discrete, historical lineage's implication of a genetic relationship with other like forms (Pamment identifies the first part of the book as "Genealogies"). Bhānd may have history and precedents, as any particular instance of performance surely does, but, as Pamment argues it, the presumption of bhānd's descent from any particular tradition has prevented us from seeing its peculiar flexibility and subversive force—a force that bhānd does not necessarily inherit from progenitors, but, rather, wields as what comes more-or-less inevitably when two people must keep the attention and favor of an audience with only their bodies, their words, and their imaginations as tools.
Two broad concerns occupy, more or less, two equal halves of the book. The first is bhānd's place across centuries of South Asian history. The second is the manner in which bhānd currently operates in Pakistan. The first of these concerns is the more slippery of the two. Pamment acknowledges bhānd's uncertain origins and wrestles with the term's entanglement with performance genres and with sociopolitical communities. That is, during the recent few centuries, the term bhānd has signified not only a form of performance, but also the particular jati, or group of people who perform it, as determined by heritage, profession, and social class. This entanglement with two distinct concepts makes a neat, definitive history impossible. However, the uncertainty of the term allows speculation that leads Pamment to a number of intriguing propositions. As a performance form, for instance, bhānd demonstrates some of the problems with the term "folk theatre," a protean category of art as ubiquitous in politically-determined discourse as it is in scholarship. Touching the elite classes, modern venues, and sociopolitical currency as much as lower classes, the provinces, and tradition, bhānd, whenever it began, seems always to have defied the rather recently-constructed notion that certain kinds of performing preserve a cultural authenticity in a pre-present, pastoral aesthetic.
Pamment's investment in bhānd's history also gives the lie to the idea that antipathy to theatre is embedded in Islam's very nature, and that theatrical performance is either completely absent in putatively Muslim countries or markedly impoverished. In sussing out bhānd's possible histories, the book offers a summary of the value that Islam [End Page 509] gave to theatrical performance—especially comic performance—from its beginning, and a compact catalog of performing forms across Islam's history, peoples, and regions. The book does not wander into descriptions of ruhozi, ortaoyunu, maskharaboz, etc., but does offer a compact list of topics that a person who wants to develop a familiarity with theatre in relation to Islam can pursue.
Perhaps most importantly, Pamment's cautious history supports the contention that the modern iterations of bhānd emerge from a blend of Hindu and Muslim phenomena, as well as from elite and plebeian precursors...