Nativity play wows Karachi's Christians. By Robin Fernandez.


Karachi. January 13. With axe in hand, the biblical world's most famous carpenter Joseph chips away at a misshapen log of wood. He labors hard to fashion it into a piece of household furniture. His unceasing work from dawn to dusk is emblematic, for it signifies the world's long wait and anguish for the promised Messiah. Thus begins the opening scene of the Nativity Play, one that has been played out for the past 780 years in one form or the other. Each December thousands of such plays are held across the world. Since the 1880s the city of Karachi has been holding Nativity plays almost annually. This year alone two plays were performed before wide-eyed audiences. Choirmaster Allan Goveas, who is known more for his musical extravaganzas than directorial ventures, directed and produced the latest play. Up to 35 child actors took part in the play. The youngest actor was just 5 years old while the oldest was 16. Most of them were school going children. Three of Goveas's main aides-- Nerissa Miranda, Leroy Barrell, and Neil Clements handled the voiceovers. Another aide Ernest Lobo provided technical assistance. During the play the Dominic Savio choir--one of the oldest existing choir groups in Karachi performed some twenty-odd carols. The group was formed some 35 years ago and despite it being the city's oldest it has some of the youngest members. Usually, Nativity plays are based on the four Gospels in the Bible, and true to form the director did not depart from the tradition. Goveas, however, admits his musical play was only an adaptation of earlier efforts put on in collaboration with others. The Nativity is the story of Joseph and Mary, celebrated members of Christendom's Holy Family and Also stars of the musical. Young Vanessa Lopes and Brian D'souza played Mary and Joseph with consummate ease. Paulo Fernandes donned a pair of wings and an angelic halo in his impression of Angel Gabriel, while Alexandra Lobo played a placid but dutiful Elizabeth, Mary's cousin. The play's director used much of the ample grounds of Our Lady of Fatima church as his stage--but not because the only available and formal stage was in an indoor arena nearby. His aim instead was to create a Theatrical ground as expansive as its theme. For most of the time, the spotlight followed the actors who virtually dwarfed the modest sets they were placed in. Much of the action took place away from the stable and manager where Jesus was born. Yet at no point in the play does the audience lose sight of the stable in all its bareness, though the players did strut their stuff a fair distance away. The seating arrangement, however, could have been better. Had the chairs been in an arc shape, each scene would have appeared clearer to the audience, who were partially blinded because they were on level with the stage actors, and their line of vision was blocked by those sitting in rows in front of them. But the three narrators made up for what the eyes could not see, with their skilled reading of the adapted script. Since the musical play featured performances exclusively by child actors, Goveas had to put them through a series of rehearsals. All the rehearsals were held in Advent, the four-week period before Christmas, which is spent in preparation of the Saviour's, coming. Though the event was held some 48 hours before Christmas celebrations officially began, the play attracted a fair crowd. Some 500 tickets were sold ahead of the event, but a much larger crowd eventually turned up to see the performance. This became possible as the church grounds are boxed in between two huge apartment blocks whose residents enjoyed the show free of charge, from their balconies and windows. At the interval, Kamal Azfar, the former governor of Sindh and chief guest, could not hide his adulation for the play. "It is a really good play," he remarked to his hosts. "Why hadn't you called me to attend the earlier ones in Christmases past?" he asked them. "I would have insisted on attending them or at least hosting them in the governor's house." Before the play could begin, Azfar read out a part of the Lord's Prayer and reminded the largely Christian audience that people other than Muslims were just as much a part of Pakistan. He recalled an oft-quoted address of the Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah on August 11, 1947, in which the Father of the Nation promised his people: "You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State..." In times of celebration or grief, Pakistanis stand together, the chief guest said. The performers wore simple costumes that were made from already worn garments of theirs and, apart from Angel Gabriel's snow-white wings, almost everthing else was taken out of personal wardrobes. "Our emphasis was not on style but on utility and simplicity," said one of the choir members. "This was deliberate as we had to fit the costumes into the larger theme of humility that was at the core of our Saviour's birth." The same element was visible in the set designs. Goveas, who is also head of St Patrick's scout troop, together with his deputy William Orr used handy tools and equipment to make the stable and some other props. The child actors rarely missed a cue. With no lines to remember, the children showed how natural mere gestures with the hands and the occasional furrowed face or dilated pupils can be. If nothing else it did prove that children are gifted mime performers. It's a pity that the people in the back rows couldn't see all the scenes. The real stars of the show were off the muddy, large-as-life stage. Picking out traditional carols from their repertoire, the Dominic Savio choir articulated the spirit of the play through their voices and built a crescendo of feelings of joy and peace. Theirs was a tribute to the Prince of Peace, whose birth had been prophesied in the Old Testament eight centuries before the first millennium. Silent Night, the torch song of Christmas, was sung by the choir after the birth of the Christ child was announced to the world through another memorable carol. This is a moment of high-climax in the play and all the players--the shepherds and the Wise Men, the angels and even the stars in the night sky--look down in wonder at the manger. A rich irony unfolds here as humility triumphs over the world's vanities. A king is born in a stable, because he could not find any other place to rest his head. An evergreen carol, Christmas, originally sung by the '50s crooner Jim Reeves, turned out to be the show's finale. The director couldn't resist further pageantry though. The littlest members of the actors' group held out giant letters spelling out the word Christmas as the lilting tune of Reeves's classic carol was played out. Like most charity events organised by the city's Christian community, the proceeds from the Nativity play were earmarked for community projects. December was also a month of uninterrupted caroling, in both churches and homes. Some distinctive styles of carol singing were introduced before audiences this Christmas season in Karachi. As usual it was the different parish choirs that created these stylisticvariations within their own repertoire. This season St. Lawrence's Choir used exclusively light percussion instruments as a backdrop against their soulful voices. The Dominic Savio choir jazzed up its performaces with a clarinet and a sax. Christ the King's Choir brushed up on the classical carols and explored the vocal range of its members. Desmond Vaz inspired his junior choir to a lively acoustic variation--the traditional way in which carols are meant to be sung. This style was followed by all those carol groups that went around performing songs around Christian homes. In the past carol groups used to even visit the homes of political leaders and show-biz celebrities and anyone else who sought a Christmas treat. In the '70s carol singers from Hussain D'silva Town used to travel way up to Clifton just to sing outside the home of Zulfikhar Ali Bhutto, who was the prime minister then. As their voices rose above the walls of 70 Clifton, the silhouettes of the First Family appeared from behind the curtains. A burst of applause followed the end of each carol. Occasionally Mr. Bhutto and his wife Nusrat would walk up to them and wish them a Merry Christmas. Their response was specially endearing.

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