Anwar Akhtar - "It's a Privilege to Work on Projects Like Dara"

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Mar 23, 2018
by Helena Santos and Tomás De La Rosa
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Anwar Akhtar - "It's a Privilege to Work on Projects Like Dara"

Multi-time Salzburg Global Fellow reflects on the importance of having stories, like Dara, portrayed in Europe Anwar Akhtar speaking at the Salzburg Global session, Learning from the Past: Sharing Experiences across Borders to Combat Extremism

Anwar Akhtar is the chief-executive of The Samosa, a London-based arts and media charity. What first started as an online media platform in 2009 has since transformed into an organization which works with South Asian and Muslim communities across the UK to enable positive discussion through the arts.

Akhtar has shared his valuable insights at Salzburg Global Seminar multiple times on how arts can act as a social transformer and help bring communities together. At Learning from the Past: Sharing Experiences across Borders to Combat Extremism, he led a discussion after a screening of the acclaimed play Dara.

Dara made history as the first Pakistani play to be chosen and adapted by the National Theatre in London. Set in 1659, Dara tells the story of the succession war between Dara and Aurangzeb, the two Moghul princes who had two very different visions on how to interpret the Quran.

“One, it is just an incredibly powerful story, but two, it has a lot in it about the relationship between Muslim traditions, Sikh traditions, Hindu traditions. Dara was accused of apostasy by Aurangzeb for his relationships with Sikh gurus and Hindu pandits, and essentially there was a war, and the war was over religious identity in some ways. Many people point to it as that moment in Indian history that laid the seeds for the tensions that erupted vis-à-vis the partition of India in 1947 and creation of Pakistan,” Akhtar says.

Alongside his work as Samosa’s director, Akhtar is also a production consultant at the National Theatre and Ajoka Theatre, and it was the conjunction of these different responsibilities that brought Dara to one of London’s biggest stages. After seeing the play staged by Ajoka Theatre in Pakistan, he decided to bring a CD and pitch the narrative in the UK.

“The National Theatre was very interested in it because they saw parallels and similarities with religious and sectarian conflicts that had occurred in Europe in a similar time period. There’s some comparison with the conflict between Charles I and Cromwell. There’s some comparison vis-à-vis the conflict between Elizabeth and Philip in Spain.”

The creative team behind Dara includes Shahid Nadeem, writer at the Ajoka Theatre; Nadia Fall, director at the National Theatre; and Tanya Ronder, writer and adapter at the National Theatre.

Akhtar states having a play that is not about European history on a European stage is not that common and advocates for more projects like this since it brings depth to issues around Islamic identity and has a great educational potential especially with working-class young people from diverse communities.

“Just the message of having an all-Asian cast on the main stage at a national [theater] inspires young people that they don’t just have to be shopkeepers or cab drivers. They could reach those giddy heights as well.”

At Schloss Leopoldskron, the screening of Dara was part of the third day of the session, Learning from the Past: Sharing Experiences across Borders to Combat Extremism.

Akhtar praises the support he and The Samosa have had from Salzburg Global over the past few years. Having the opportunity to engage with stories from all around the world and shed some light on misconceptions is one of the things Akhtar cherishes the most about his job.

Akhtar says, “I also love working in the arts and culture, and it’s a privilege to work on projects like Dara, and the educational work that we do and the cultural work that we do, I think, brings a positivity to some very negative debates.”

Press

Channel 4 - Dara: the tale of Two Islams hits the stage

The Telegraph - Peter Tatchell - "Every child in Britain should see the National's latest play: Dara dramatises the historic struggle against Islamist extremism - it can reach people that political debate cannot."

The Guardian - "The story of Dara, the newest production to take to the boards at the National Theatre, is one that begins thousands of miles away from the concrete jungle of London’s South Bank."

TimeOut - "Where do we find stories about Pakistan… that also affect us in Britain? That’s a question outgoing NT artistic director Nicholas Hytner asked, and this is the epic and often highly affecting response. A magnificently ambitious project…The best scene by far – and one it’s easy to imagine will be studied in schools – is when Dara is brought before the Sharia court in Delhi, and is forced to prove that he is a true Muslim."


The session, Learning from the Past: Sharing Experiences across Borders to Combat Extremism is part of the multi-year series Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention (HEGP) Program, which is held partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and this year is funded by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Zukunftsfonds der Republik Österreich. Additional support comes from Mr. Ronald Abramson; the Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research, and Economy; the Robert Bosch Stiftung; the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation; the HDH Wills 1965 Charitable Trust; the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung; and the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

More information can be found on the session here, and you can follow along via the hashtag #SGShol on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram