- Comic Performance in Pakistan: The Bhānd by Claire Pamment
Claire Pamment’s Comic Performance in Pakistan: The Bhānd is a lucid and important entry into the field of global performance studies. The bhānd method, as she defines it, is a comedic mode with a long genealogy in the Indian subcontinent predating the creation of Pakistan, whose intention is to subvert class and gender hierarchies through satirical performances enacted usually through a pair of comedians known as bhānd. Pamment then expands the practice to cover performances that challenge the status quo through their embrace of particular marginal positionalities at the edges of dominant discursive and material lived realities in the body politic of contemporary Pakistani society and culture, whether performed by actual bhānds or not. This is, to my knowledge, the first and only scholarly intervention about a particular practice within the genre of comedy—a genre that many Western commentators often deem not to exist in the Muslim world. Such an assumption, which feeds into stereotypes of Muslims as fundamentally dour and humorless, hence fanatical, is what Pamment seeks to challenge in this study by focusing on a living (although marginalized) comic tradition in South Asia associated today with Pakistani Punjabi Muslim bhānds (or bhat). She tells us how even after a new breed of UK/US-based Muslim stand-up comics like Shazia Mirza, Usman Azhar, and others have emerged to contest the Islamophobia that accompanies stereotypes of “Muslim sobriety” (2), arrogant (and inaccurate) assumptions of Western civilizational superiority on which the “Othering” of Muslims is based remain intact. This perspective manifests, for example, in statements that these Muslim comedians are participating “in a quint-essentially American activity—stand-up comedy,” which “overlooks the diverse expressions of comedy in Muslim worlds, past and present” (ibid.).
One such comedic expression that Pamment links to the satirical bhānd mode that is the focus of her study—a mode inclusive of performers from a range of backgrounds and genders, including the historically well-established khawajasirah community of South Asian transgender people—is the figure of the Sufi wise fool of Muslim popular culture. This is a bhānd figure according to her definition, and by connecting the wise fool to the upper-caste Hindu Brahmin jesters of Sanskrit drama in India, she advances “notions of the bhānd’s mixed genealogy” in terms of religion, nation, and class/caste boundaries that the bhānd transgresses (69). This transnational/interreligious model for the genesis and development of the bhānd figure instantiates in turn a particular comedic performativity that Pamment calls “the bhānd mode” of performance, in which the performer “jostles the power hierarchies to expose and destabilize their ideological underpinnings” (6). Social hierarchies are destabilized by the “ranga” and “bighla” characters who form the typical bhānd pair of performers, through their original and often extemporaneous repartee (expressed through witty one-liners in Punjabi referred to as juggats), traditionally in a live performance at social functions like weddings and births, in which the upper-class hosts and guests become the butt of their jokes, which deflate class pretensions. In recent times, this performance mode has been adopted on the popular Punjabi stage, where juggats often resist/escape the confines of scripted performances, delivering satirical commentary on social hierarchies and hypocrisies. By destabilizing these hierarchies through the verbal exposure wrought by bawdy juggats, this performative bhānd mode “presents exciting opportunities to map a living tradition that flows into diverse contemporary arenas” (5). Some of the opportunities presented by the exercise of the bhānd mode include the challenging of class, caste, gender, religious, and nationalist hierarchies ushered in by capitalist forms of patriarchy embedded in the colonial modernity of British India, which pushed aside traditional patterns of feudal kinship and arts patronage.
In her introductory chapter, Pamment also notes that the West’s lack of recognition of Muslim comedic performance and its rich presence within Islamic history is unfortunately replicated in the Muslim world itself. The bh...