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“In theatre you have the power to influence, but it should be used in a responsible manner” — Madeeha Gauhar

The power of expression, in any form possible, knows no bounds. They say art is a reflection of the times we live in; and perhaps one of the only mediums being used consistently to vocalise alternative views of the times in Pakistan has been theatre. It hasn`t been easy as those who have been trying to keep theatre alive have had to face innumerable hurdles in terms of censorship, lack of adequate support from the press and at times even backlash from the general public.

An open talk hosted by The Second Floor (T2F) in Karachi last week saw the participation of theatre veterans Madeeha Gauhar and Shahid Nadeem (Ajoka Theatre), Sheema Kirmani (Tehrik-i-Niswan) and Sania Saeed (Katha) along with Nida Butt (Made for Stage, Chicago) who was asked to speak a few words and participate in the post-talk Q&A session.

Madeeha Gauhar and Shahid Nadeem were in town for the latter`s book launch, and to perform three of Ajoka`s most well-known plays Burqvaganza, Bulleh and Hotel Mohenjodaro. Madeeha talked about how she started theatre to make a difference and soon it became a watering hole for political activists. She mentioned how they initially started performing plays in her mother`s garden which, ironically, was in the middle of Lahore`s cantonment area. She spoke about how Shahid Nadeem became a part of Ajoka and they both punctuated their talk with anecdotes about the different plays they have performed over time, most of them laced with sociopolitical messages.

For his part Shahid Nadeem mentioned how he wrote the play Dekh Tamasha Chaltey Ban (1992) largely inspired by incidents that began as a result of the blasphemy law introduced sometime in the early `90s. One of the writers` friends had been wrongly accused and convicted but before he could be hanged, he was murdered by an inmate. Initially Ajoka took the play throughout the country where it was well-received and then performed it abroad as well, after which the theatre group was accused by the then government of projecting Pakistan in a negative light.

Tehrik-i-Niswan has been performing plays periodically in Karachi and Sheema said the theatre group will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year which will see it staging some of its best performances to date. “Anyone who is involved in the performing arts is doing jihad,” she said.

She also spoke predominantly about government censorship of scripts, moving on to how when the government stops, the public decides to take “morality into their own hands” and protest the showing of certain plays.

At this point, Madeeha Gauhar commented on how Ajoka has been keeping theatre alive in Lahore and its counterpart, the Tehrik, in Karachi. To this Sheema responded quite acerbically, “Yes, but in the past one year all our newspapers have been saying that it is only NAPA that has brought theatre back to Pakistan.”

Sania Saeed discussed linguistic differences in the various regions of Pakistan and its impact on how theatre was performed there. She also spoke strongly about the importance of tapping into a wider, more diversified audience with each successive performance.

Sania was a part of a theatre group called Katha in the late `80s and performed for well over 10 years before taking a sojourn. She said that she`s been toying with the idea of returning to stage for the past one year. She just might.