MADEEHA GAUHAR IS NO MORE: SUBCONTINENT LOSES A GREAT CULTURAL ICON

MADEEHA GAUHAR IS NO MORE: SUBCONTINENT LOSES A GREAT CULTURAL ICON...

MADEEHA GAUHAR IS NO MORE: SUBCONTINENT LOSES A GREAT CULTURAL ICON

Shamsul Islam

Our sub-continent has lost a great practitioner of people's theatre, leading light of women's movement, author, peace activist, a great fighter against Islamic totalitarian regimes in Pakistan and a dear friend. She and her husband were jailed many times by the military regimes in Pakistan. She died early morning on April 25, 2018 after a 3 year long battle with cancer at Lahore.  Her burial will take place at Lahore on April 26 evening. She is survived by two children and her husband, Shahid Nadeem, author, poet, theatre luminary, human rights activist and a partner of Madeeha in all struggles.

Madeeha was co-founder with Uzra Bhatt (sister of renowned Indian actress, Zohra Segal) and Shahid Nadeem, the theatre group, AJOKA (a Punjabi word for today's) THEATRE in 1983 when Pakistan was under the iron heels of the Islamic juggernaut of Zia-ul-Haq. When all political resistance had been crushed or marginalized these were Ajoka founders who bravely decided to present cultural challenge to the fascist state. It emerged as the most active people's theatre group in Pakistan which is known for taking up issues of persecution of women, minorities and working class. AJOKA performs both in Urdu and Punjabi.

This group of committed artists earned laurels in and outside Pakistan but has was always been the target of State repression. She and her group used to visit India often at the invitation of democratic-secular organizations enjoying immense rapport with the Indian audiences. She has been rightly described as a 'cultural bridge' between Pakistan and India. The first play which Ajoka decided to perform was Badal Sircar Juloos. It was the outcome of a theatre workshop which Badal da conducted at Lahore. Ajoka was a permanent fixture in the major theatre festivals of India. Its performances were not only a theatrical delight but also inspired you to think and act.

The other important plays which Ajoka under her leadership selected for performances manifested the deep commitment of her and her group towards the critical issues which feudal/tribal society and totalitarian State had forsaken.  The Ajoka repertoire of plays included, Bulha (on Sufi Bulleh Shah), Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh (on the life and times of Saadat Hasan Manto), Mera Rang De Basanti Chola (on Bhagat Singh), Dukh Darya (on the plight of the Kashmiri families divided by the border), Toba Tek Singh (on Partition of India, Hotel Mohenjodaro (on rise of religious bigotry in Pakistan), Itt (on the miserable condition of brick-kiln labour who are mostly Christians and lower Caste Muslims) and jhalli kitthe Jawe (on the plight of Pakistani wives whose husbands go to Gulf and abandoned them). Most of these plays were co-authored and adapted by Shahid Nadeem.

Kewal Dhaliwal, prominent theatre personality from Punjab, based in Amritsar, mourning her death said that, he had lost a dear sister, a co-performer and a great Punjabi cultural icon. According to Professor Ishtiaq Ahmed (based in Sweden but originally from Lahore and a great chronicler of politics and culture of Punjab) who had been following her work said "she was a true cosmopolitan who made friends wherever she went. Ajoka theatre earned goodwill from conscientious people in both Pakistan and India and wherever they went abroad".  

It is sad that within three years Pakistan lost three great fighters for a liberal and democratic Pakistan. Earlier Asma Jahangir, renowned lawyer who spent her life fighting for the rights of minorities, women and poor, died in February 2018 and Sabeen Mahmud, a relentless fighter for repressed tribes in Pakistan was murdered in Karachi in April 2015. Those who believe Pakistan is a gone case and belittle its civil society must take note of the fact that all of them were women, who were in the forefront of resistance to the State which chose to serve the interests of feudal, totalitarian and religious bigots.

I am enclosing an interview of hers which I took in February 1998 when she visited Delhi with her theatre group. This interview appeared in The Indian Express, February 12, 1998. It is as relevant as it was then.

Travails of Theatre

Express News line

The Indian Express, New Delhi – Thursday – February 12, 1998

Leading Pakistan theatre activists Madeeha Gauhar talks to Shamsul Islam on the problems plaguing the performing art.

“The free and unhindered cultural activity is a luxury which a theatre group can only dream of in Pakistan. The State has always considered theatre as subversive…and the powerful fundamentalist lobby has been openly hostile towards performing arts. Acting is still regarded a taboo for girls and a waste of time for boys.” This honest and factual description of the theatre scene in Pakistan is part of a brochure of a well-known theatre group from that country.

Nevertheless, the group of theatre activists led by the husband-wife duo, Shahid Nadeem and Madeeha Gauhar, is keeping up their performances under the banner Ajoka (Today’s) Theatre in Lahore, Madeeha Gauhar, who was recently in India with her group and performed in Delhi, Chandigarh and Calcutta, says, “the survival of a theatre group like Ajoka in Pakistan is a story of resilience, and personal sacrifice.” The group was performing the play Kala Minda Bhes (Black is my Robe), written in the Punjabi dialectic Saraiki.

“We formed Ajoka with Uzra Bhatt (Zohar Segal’s sister) and other theatre activists in 1983, at a time when General Zia-ul-Haq’s military dictatorship was at its oppressive peak. All forms of political and social dissents were punishable under martial law,” Madeeha says to share some of their uphill task.

It was also a time when nobody, except the Mullahs, had a right to express any views, “Somehow we got hold of a play by Badal Sircar–Jaloos. This was Ajoka’s first play. We performed at a house lawn in defiance of the strict censorship laws”, she remembers.

Since then, Ajoka never looked back. The theatre group managed to create a niche for itself, essentially by reflecting the concerns of the minorities, women and the underprivileged. Madeeha with her husband Shahid had to suffer immensely for their commitment to theatre, they were attacked, put behind bars and their performances were banned. Shahid had been sentenced to one year’s rigorous imprisonment in one of the most dreaded jails of Pakistan at Mianwali. And Madeeha was thrown out of her teaching job in a university in Pakistan. In 1984, Shahid was sentenced to received 40 lashes for writing song: Insaan abhi tak zinda hai; zinda hone par sharminda hai” (The human being is alive and embarrassed at the fact). The song became an anthem against religious fundamentalism in Pakistan.

Madeeha, however, is sorry to admit that there is not much activity now. “Culture is on nobody’s priority list” says Madeeha. She also laments over the fact that theocracy in Pakistan has caused irreparable damage to the great tradition of folk art. “Fold theatre was an integral part of our mela’s and urs. There were also some popular travelling theatre companies. But the mullas banned them by branding them vulgar and obscene. Ironically, no objection has ever been raised against commercial theatre which is thriving on vulgarity and double entendre,” she adds.   [End of the interview]

Shamsul Islam

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