With the passing away of Madeeha Gauhar, the subcontinent has lost a votary of freedom of expression
Madeeha Gauhar, the remarkable Pakistani actor, director, playwright and creator of a new kind of theatre in the subcontinent that defied draconian laws of military dictatorship and dark forces let loose by fundamentalists with a view to create a humane society, died in Lahore on April 25 at the age of 61 leaving behind a rich legacy of people’s theatre.
Trained in theatre in Pakistan and abroad, she returned to Pakistan, exploring traditional forms like Bhand and Nautanki and founded Ajoka Theatre in Lahore in 1983 which defined her oeuvre and under the banner of Ajoka she participated in a number of international theatre festivals including India. She dealt with critical issues that ail Pakistani society. Transforming her art as a vehicle for critical comments on economic exploitation and bigotry, she practiced street as well as proscenium theatre. What made Gauhar’s theatre distinct from her contemporaries in the subcontinent was that it dissected the shared heritage to reflect on the present, mostly in a metaphorical way. In some of her productions, she directly exposed the evils of a dogmatic society. During the military rule of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, she staged Badal Sircar’s Jaloos inside a house with the select audience watching the show—it was a bold step of defiance. The kind of theatre she was doing faced opposition from the military rule and fundamentalists.
For Indian artists, Gauhar assumed special place. She is respected for relentlessly espousing the cause of peace and friendship between the people of two countries. Most of her productions, some of which were produced in collaboration with her spouse Shahid Nadeem, have been seen by the Indian audience with a great deal of excitement, evoking a tremendous response. One of her productions that featured at Bharat Rang Mahotsav was Burqavaganza which was directed by Shahid Nadeem and presented by Ajoka Theatre, Lahore. The play was presented at the Kamani auditorium to a jam-packed hall. The play was banned in Pakistan. The costumes, the elegant design, and spectacles transformed the production into a visually thrilling experience was a satirical comment on rigid dress code and outdated feudal costumes and those who insisted on the observance of these outdated feudal costumes were ridiculed.
Tales of Bhagat Singh and Dara Shikoh
Rang De Basanti that depicts the martyrdom of great patriot Bhagat Singh and his comrades was welcomed with tumultuous applause by the audience who watched Bhagat Singh’s time and the sacrifices made by freedom fighters to liberate the country.
Even at times of bitter hostility between Pakistan and India, she stood for peace and progressive Indian theatre practitioners reciprocated her sentiments. She was often seen attending theatre workshops as well as seminars. The Indian press gave space to her efforts to develop people to people friendship between the two countries.
In 2016, Ajoka Theatre organized a four-day festival at the Kamani auditorium under the direction of Shahid Nadeem. It was the first ever theatre festival organized by a Pakistani troupe in India. The festival was greeted with great excitement, manifesting the respect for Gauhar and her theatre and an earnest desire to know the kind of theatre that is evolving in Pakistan to reflect on emerging social and political changes. Bulla, Dara, Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh, Lo Phir Basant Aya were the plays featured at the festival.
Dara deserves special mention for its directorial artistry, soulful traditional music, and emotionally charged acting. The tragic life of Dara Shikoh, who was paraded on the streets on the orders of his heartless brother Aurangzeb in tattered clothes, was deeply poignant. The scene is powerfully enacted revealing the stage-managed verdict against Dara. We watched Sufi fakirs, singing the glory of a humanistic message of God, braving the cruelty of Aurangzeb and facing death for maintaining their conviction for a humane society which allows freedom to follow one’s faith. To please Aurangzeb, theologians passed sentence of death against Dara as being a heretic. The frightened masses did nothing for their beloved Prince except weeping. Indeed it was a memorable production conveying deep sympathy for Dara and his secular philosophy.
People to people contact
Perpetuating the memory of Bhagat Singh, Gauhar actively participated in the movement to name a Chauraha–a crossroad–after Bhagat Singh in Lahore against fundamentalists who were totally opposed to the idea. To form fraternal bond between artists of India and Pakistan was uppermost in the mind of Gauhar which was shared by Nadeem who told this writer at the venue of the festival that civil society of both countries should play greater role in bringing the people of two countries closer, assuring that this idea is embodied in the artistic vision of Ajoka Theatre.
Gauhar was pained that her play on Saadat Hasan Manto was not allowed to be staged at Bharat Rang Mahotsav in 2013. It was staged at some venues, including at JNU, on public demand. Ever since no Pakistani play has been selected to be staged at the BRM. Even at the just concluded 8th Theatre Olympics, no play from Pakistan was included.
Working in a hostile atmosphere, Gauhar created a theatre dedicated to social cause, calling for women’s liberty and upholding the values of secularism.
She was honored with prestigious national and international awards and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Here in lies the deepest humanitarian value of her art and her conviction and social responsibility.
This article originally appeared in The Hindu on May 4, 2018, and has been reposted with permission.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.