Remembering India’s most-loved Pakistani theatre activist Madeeha

The great theatre director Madeeha Gauhar, who died on April 25, began her crusade against political repression in Pakistan with her first play Jaloos. She was inspired by IPTA and Badal Sircar

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media

Girish Shrivastava

At a time when India-Pakistan relations are on a rough turf with no exchange of diplomacy, cricket, art or cultural processes making any headway, the great theatre director Madeeha Gauhar’s untimely death in Lahore has jolted the strongest invisible bridge between the people of the two countries, which she had made with her theatre movement spanning over three decades. She was our most vocal and loved cultural ambassador. “I have won the respect of the people of Pakistan and the hearts of the people in India,” Madeeha was fond of saying.

Her Ajoka Theatre’s repertoire, included “Bullha” about the sufi saint Bulleh Shah, “Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh” about the life of Saadat Hasan Manto, “Mera Rang De Basanti Chola” on Bhagat Singh, “Dukh Dariya” on Kashmiri families divided by the border , “Toba Tek Singh” based on a Manto story of the same name which deals with the Partition and “Hotel Mohenjodaro” about religious fundamentalists taking over Pakistan and grinding liberal values to dust.

These plays have been staged in various parts of India such as Amritsar, Chandigarh , Kolkata and Delhi as well as UK, US, Australia, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Her plays transcended all the barriers of the past and the present and sent a crystal clear message to the two nations that India and Pakistan could see progress and prosperity in their being together as friends or brothers forever “as our soil, our cultural, our roots, our shared legacy, our problems and predicaments are the same,” said Madeeha Gauhar to this writer 14 years ago after the staging of her play ‘Bullha” at the 6th Bharat Rang Mahotsav, at NSD, Delhi.

Born in 1956 in Karachi, Madeeha Gauhar was educated at the Kinnaird College, Lahore, where she headed the Dramatic Society and the Government College, Lahore, from where she obtained her MA in English after which she went on to obtain her Masters in Theatre Studies from London University. She began her career as a Lecturer of English in Lahore and then in 1973 she started her acting career on television. Teaching and acting both were mediums of expression through which she commented on the women and child issues, atrocities on them and also rising fundamentalism and militarianism in the society and soon she had to suffer the brunt. She was suspended from teaching and television could not provide her creative space for her social commentary and free expression.

Inspired by Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), Badal Sircar and Rati Bartholomew, she founded Ajoka Theatre in Lahore in 1983 and began her crusade against political repression in Pakistan with her first play ‘Jaloos’ (originally written by Badal Sircar) and set out on her odyssey to search for a ‘geo- political identity’ as a citizen in Pakistan. But she had to face the ire of the administration for almost two decades, especially during General Zia- Ul- Haq’s military regime and censorship.

“But it is pity that there is no theatre in Pakistan. No institutions are teaching theatre or any such performing arts there. Performing arts are still considered anti- religious in Pakistan,” said Gauhar

“As a response to the then military suppression, climate of hostility and apathy towards the performing arts, Ajoka Theatre came into being as our freedom of expression and since then it has struggled against all odds and vicissitudes of time,” recalled Madeeha in her interview to this writer in Delhi in 2004.

For her art has no meaning, if it is not political and artistically viable. Any art is political and anti- establishment according to her. She was an active member of International Drama in Education Association and South Asia Theatre Committee and she participated in theatre workshops, seminars & conferences around the world and could successfully make some impact.

“But it is pity that there is no theatre in Pakistan. No institutions are teaching theatre or any such performing arts there. Performing arts are still considered anti- religious in Pakistan,” said Gauhar. Recalling how ‘revivalism’ started in Pakistan in the 80s, she said any art form like Swang, Nautanni, or Sufi ethos –showing ‘Indianness’—was banned in Pakistan. They even started changing the ‘ragas’ like ‘Raga Durga’ and the shared history of both the nations.

The Internationally-acclaimed theatre director Madeeha Gauhar directed over 20 plays for Ajoka, most of which were written by her writer-husband and human rights activist Shahid Nadeem and performed all over Pakistan and abroad. About her play “Bullha” and its significance she said, “It is a culmination of art or search for an idiom against fundamentalism in Islam in general. “Bullha” is about the times of Bulleh Shah (1680- 1758) and it has some lessons for the present-day Pakistan and the whole world. It is a strong plea for love and peace, and an indictment against intolerance violence and hatred. It is not just a period play. It is very much contemporary and relevant for us today.”

Her other plays like “Panch Paani”, “Dara Shikoh”, “Ek thee Nani”, “Lo Phir Basant Ayee” and Zanani Theatre Festivals conducted all over India also won millions of hearts and she became our greatest and most-loved cultural icon.

As the news of her passing away –on April 25, 2018 – after a three-year battle with cancer spread, the sense of loss was felt by theatre activists on both the sides. Remembering her, Neelam Man Singh said, “She was a very brave woman, from the themes she enacted to fighting her own illness. Just the last December she was here to watch a rehearsal of my play “Dark Borders”, making a detour from Amritsar.” She added that the value of her theatre could be appreciated greater in retrospect as theatre actors in India too were engaged in finding ways of combating diverse forces. “Madeeha always laid emphasis on the shared heritage of the people of the subcontinent,” she said.

Two very relevant cross-border plays by Madeeha are “Aik Thee Naani” and “Dukh Dariya”. In the former she brought together two sisters of the IPTA on stage after 50 years. They were Zohra Sehgal and Uzra Butt, the latter used to be the leading lady of Prithvi Theatres in the pre-Partition era. The second play “Dukh Dariya” was based on the real-life story of a woman, Shehnaz Parween of Mirpur, who jumped into the river as she was tormented for not bearing a child. She was rescued in India and jailed. Raped by two jail wardens, she bore a child. The irony arose when Pakistan agreed to take the woman but not the child. Such Mantoesque stories would inspire plays from Madeeha Gauhar. Her play against the purdah system “Burquavaganza” which created quite a furore was banned in Pakistan.

It is tragic that this year we have lost two great souls who fought relentlessly for the rights of the child, women and minorities across the borders. Earlier Asma Jahangir in February and now Madeeha Gauhar on April 25. These are indeed, irreparable losses for the toiling mankind and the Indo-Pak amity process. We will miss you, Madeeha. Rest in Peace!

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