File photo of Madeeha Gauhar

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

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.”

The choice of plays revealed Gauhar’s concerns. Her best-known productions — most of which were written or adapted by her husband and human rights activist Shahid Nadeem — included Bulha 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 Darya on Kashmiri families divided by the border, Toba Tek Singh based on a Manto story of the same name which dealt with the Partition, and Hotel Mohenjodaro about religious fundamentalists taking over Pakistan and grinding liberal values to dust. These have been been staged in various parts of India such as Amritsar and Chandigarh, as well as at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav organised by the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi.

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.

One of Ajoka’s greatest contributions was “Theatre for Peace”, a project to bring India and Pakistan closer by increasing collaborations between theatre groups of the two countries. “She was our link with Pakistan and I feel that it has snapped. I have been to Lahore four times, thanks to Madeeha. I had also invited her group to Chandigarh, where I did a workshop with them. We have all heard of the legendary warmth and hospitality of Pakistanis and it manifested in the way Madeeha and her husband welcomed us. I am hurting so deeply since I heard of her death. She was a movement, not an individual,” says Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, theatre director from Chandigarh.

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.

gauhar was a regular to Amritsar; Kewal Dhaliwal, theatre actor, director and founder of Manch Rang Manch, says they would joke that Amritsar started missing Gauhar if she didn’t visit the city once in two months. For more than 20 years, Dhaliwal worked with members of Ajoka, workshopping with them in acting and technical aspects of the stage. Dhaliwal says that his last conversation with Gauhar, a few days ago, was about a theatre festival marking 70 years of the Partition, to be held in Chandigarh and Lahore. “I told her that she was a strong woman and she needed to get well soon, so that we could work towards the festival. Now, I will have to do it on my own. I will dedicate the festival to Madeeha,” he says.

Gauhar’s relationship with Indian directors was nourished over decades. Theatre actor and director Sahib Singh of Adakar Manch in Mohali was associated with her for 15 years and had travelled to Pakistan often to stage his plays and would invite Ajoka to stage its productions in Amritsar and Chandigarh. Singh’s theatre group was instrumental in organising the five-day ‘Humsaya Theatre For Peace Festival’ in Chandigarh in 2016, which featured plays by Ajoka. “I feel she was responsible for the impactful cultural exchange between Indian and Pakistani theatre,” says Singh, who acted as a Pakistani in Ajoka’s Anni Mai Da Supna, a production based on the Partition, and as Banda Singh Bahadur in Bulha.

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!