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While the passing of Madeeha Gauhar is an irreparable loss to the talent-starved Pakistan society, far more disturbing is the thought that the environment is becoming more and more hostile to the emergence of activists like Madeeha and the star activists that Pakistan has lost within a short period | Ather Shahzad
While the passing of Madeeha Gauhar is an irreparable loss to the talent-starved Pakistan society, far more disturbing is the thought that the environment is becoming more and more hostile to the emergence of activists like Madeeha and the star activists that Pakistan has lost within a short period | Ather Shahzad

By the time I first met Madeeha Gauhar in 1984 she had worked out a synthesis between her passion for purposeful theatre and her irrepressible will to defy oppression.

Her early love of acting on the stage during school and college days had been refined by a course of study in dramatics in London and her exposure to the global recognition of India’s street theatre, and she had made up her mind to devote her life to the theatre of defiance and change. Defiance of the authoritarian regime — that had started ravaging the lives of democratic-minded citizens — and about the strength of women — who had begun asserting their rights and basic freedoms — she had learnt from her mother. The redoubtable Begum Khadija Gauhar, her mother, had had her baptism in resistance to apartheid in South Africa. No dictator could frighten her and she could tell whoever crossed her path what she thought of him. Thanks to her mother’s active support for her fight for democracy and women’s rights, Madeeha had already faced the police’s baton charges, had been pulled by her hair during protests and had suffered imprisonment.

She found in Jaloos — a play by Badal Sarkar, one of the gurus in India’s street theatre movement — what the people of Pakistan needed to know while dealing with the Zia dictatorship. A group of young actors, quite a few of them students of the engineering university, had been recruited. Begum Khadija Gauhar had solved the problem of finding a venue; the play would be staged on her house lawn. The play was to be directed by Rashid Rahman, who had just returned to the nonviolent path to revolution after doing his share of the armed struggle in Balochistan. The play was a tremendous hit. Ajoka had arrived. And perhaps at the right time.

Madeeha Gauhar, the founder of Ajoka Theatre, who passed away on April 25, was a pioneering rights activist who strove all her life to have street theatre acknowledged as art in its own right. I.A. Rehman pays tribute

Lahore has rarely been in such a rebellious mood against authoritarianism as it was in 1983-84. The Movement for Restoration of Democracy (MRD) had been launched in the city in 1981; a large number of leftist democrats had been thrown in jail after the hijacking of a PIA plane; the Women’s Action Forum had attracted a whole crop of talented and spirited activists (Khawar Mumtaz, Asma Jahangir, Hina Jilani, Fareeda Shaheed, Nigar Ahmad, Rubina Saigol, Lala Rukh, Nighat Saeed, Farida Sher and, of course, Madeeha Gauhar); Asma, GulRukh, Hina and Shehla had launched AGHS, a broad front of women activists to legally defend victims of the Hudood Ordinances which had begun to take shape; and Mazhar Ali Khan’s brave Viewpoint was there to report what no newspaper dared to do.

But while there was room for Madeeha’s activism, she had to fight on several fronts to win respect for the street theatre of resistance. She could find appropriate plays from world theatre — Brecht was a great source of inspiration — but finding places to stage her plays was not easy. With intelligence people as close neighbours, her mother’s house — though open for rehearsals — could not serve as a permanent stage. A major hurdle was crossed when the Goethe-Institut opened its arms to Ajoka.

Harder was Madeeha’s struggle to win the local theatre elite’s respect for street theatre. Whatever theatre there was in Lahore, was presented in walled enclosures. Though the hall at the Arts Council (before the Alhamra complex was built) had a small stage and meagre seating arrangement, yet the leading theatre groups looked down upon street theatre as a poor country cousin. All this made Madeeha furious.

I was sitting in my small room at Viewpoint seeking guidance from Shoaib Hashmi regarding the situation of theatre in Pakistan, and the problems it was facing, when Madeeha breezed in, as usual in a hurry. She lost no time in challenging the relevance of a Moliere comedy that Shoaib had recently produced or directed at a time when people were fighting a tyrant who claimed to be the shadow of the Almighty. Shoaib, an aggressive conversationalist himself, played along without giving up his argument that more than one theory of theatre of change was possible. The encounter had to be declared closed as a draw. I recall the incident only to highlight one of the strands in Madeeha’s activism — the fight for acceptance of restructured street theatre as art.

But while there was room for Madeeha’s activism, she had to fight on several fronts to win respect for the street theatre of resistance. She could find appropriate plays from world theatre — Brecht was a great source of inspiration — but finding places to stage her plays was not easy. With intelligence people as close neighbours, her mother’s house — though open for rehearsals — could not serve as a permanent stage.

The second strand in Madeeha’s activism was the pursuit of the agenda of change through theatre, and the third strand was the struggle for democracy, human rights, women’s empowerment and peace.

Although Madeeha had gathered around her a team of dedicated artists who were not only quick-to-learn actors but also shared her enthusiasm for the theatre of resistance and change, she did not have a comrade with whom she could explore the possibilities of a new theatre. That comrade she found in Shahid Mehmood Nadeem. And all forms of Madeeha’s activism underwent a happy reorientation.

Shahid too had been trying for many years to anchor his activism. He had started as a journalist, then joined Pakistan Television (PTV) and became a prominent leader of the trade union there. Punished for trade union activity, he joined Amnesty International in London and served it with distinction in its Asia section. After marriage to Madeeha, it became possible for him to develop and polish his natural talent as a playwright. He and Madeeha complemented each other. Madeeha, who used to pour out her passion for theatre in the form of a cloudburst, learnt to temper her rhetoric with reason. Shahid was no less firm than her in his convictions, but he used the art of persuasion to good effect! The Madeeha-Shahid team was able to win popular acceptance of their theatre for change without much trouble.

When the Goethe-Institut curtailed its patronage of social activism, they found other venues, including the Dorab Patel Auditorium of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). Finally, they broke through the barrier to their right to the Alhamra stage where they continued developing their street theatre techniques. Off and on, Madeeha took up cudgels against the 19th century colonial law, The Dramatic Performances Act, but gave up for lack of peer support. Their Burqavaganza was axed by the censors but, by then, the respect Ajoka had won had put it beyond the underdeveloped censor’s mischief. Ajoka also established itself in the company of theatre groups in the subcontinent and in the world, and built up a large repertory of original plays. The group also went abroad to India (Chandigarh, Amritsar, New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai), England and the United States. Activism for the theatre of change yielded handsome dividends.

The achievements of Ajoka’s activism for change through the theatre were no less impressive. Women’s emancipation from feudal customs, patriarchy and pseudo-religious bonds was a constant theme with the group, but it deepened the meaning of feminism when, in Dukh Darya, Shahid extolled the instinct and joy of motherhood displayed by a woman regardless of the circumstances of her conception. Then theatre was used as a tool to expose religiosity, political corruption and the curse of capital punishment. International festivals were organised to foster understanding among various nations and peoples. An important undertaking also was correcting the images of legendary figures such as Bulleh Shah and Manto, and the revival of the beauty and grandeur of the Punjabi poetry. Finally there was Dara, a tribute to the subcontinental Muslims’ secular tradition that was a hit at home and abroad.

Madeeha’s activism covered a wide area beyond theatre. An active member of women’s movements for their rights, freedoms and dignity, she was a strong supporter of the HRCP, always ready to stage plays at its conferences. She was also an active member of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy, and often urged it to be more active than it was. Peace with neighbours, especially with India, Afghanistan and Iran, was an article of faith with Madeeha, and she had little respect for all those who paid only lip-service to the causes of justice and equity, and were ready to surrender at the first whiff of gunpowder.

While the passing of Madeeha is an irreparable loss to the talent-starved Pakistan society, far more disturbing is the thought that the environment is becoming more and more hostile to the emergence of activists like Madeeha and the star activists that Pakistan has lost within a short period — Asma Jahangir, Munnu Bhai, Sabeen Mahmud, Perween Rahman and the many men and women who became victims of enforced disappearances and reappeared as bullet-riddled bodies by the roadside or in a ditch.

One of the tragedies of an impoverished society is its loss of awareness of its galloping impoverishment.

Published in Dawn, ICON, May 20th, 2018