There was something about her that held everyone in awe. Perhaps there was calmness and discipline inside her or perhaps it was her way of speaking it loud and clear when people would rather disassociate themselves from the taboos and subjects that were considered too bold to talk about in the Pakistani society. My first meetings with her as a young reporter at the end of the 20th century and the first decade of 21st century left imprints on my mind about her courage against all odds and in all circumstances. Madeeha Gauhar was not somebody with whom you could brush your shoulders and get away with it. She was a dominating personality. You could just flow with her in her realm of activism to understand the driving force that flowed through her. Who could have imagined I would be writing about her when she is no more. A voice that could not be silenced by dictators and manipulators is no longer there as she died of cancer the other day. She has left behind her a legacy of activism that will continue for ages to come.
It was in 1984 when she joined forces with some like-minded people to start Ajoka (today) theatre, which turned into a movement against censorship imposed by dictatorship of Ziaul Haq in 1984. The first play Jaloos was staged in the lawn of a house as no theatre was available on the orders of government. Then began Madeeha’s long journey in the world of defiance theatre, which continued till the day she passed away.
Her interest in theatre did not develop overnight. She was president of the dramatic clubs of Kinnaird College and Government College, from where she got her Master’s degree in English Literature. Then she got Master’s degree in Theatre from the University of London. Shahid Nadeem, a playwright and director like herself, and her husband was always with her through thick and thin and together they worked to make marvellous theatre productions. These productions were all sugar coated plays that challenged the different taboos in society and took up social and political issues that no one was ready to even talk about. Most of the plays about political exploitation, female literacy, honour killings, rights of girl child and family planning were written by Shahid Nadeem and directed by Madeeha.
Some of these memorable plays that are still staged by Ajoka across the globe are Toba Tek Singh, Aik Thi Nani, Bullah, Mera Rang Dae Basanti Chola, Loh Phir Basant Aai and Bala King. Her play Burqavaganza ran into a lot of controversy and was banned after some time with members of parliament condemning it. Interestingly the media had a hay day with the situation with some media criticising it while others supporting it. It is pertinent to mention here that the play was staged when the hijab controversy had engulfed western internal politics. The play was later staged at different venues with the help of NGOs and women rights activists. She received a lot of threats but she brushed aside all of them as if they did not exist at all.
The scribe saw Ajoka grow from a small theatre group to being the most influential in Pakistan with performances happening across border in India and in other parts of the world.
Madeeha was a staunch peace activist and worked tirelessly to build people-to-people relations of Pakistan and India. She collaborated with a number of Indian theatre personalities and artistes. She was one of the first persons to invite Indian theatre groups to perform in Pakistan. It was heartening to see Bollywood actor Zohra Segal performing with her real sister Uzra Butt (who migrated to Pakistan in 1964) with Pakistani actress Samia Mumtaz in the play Aik Thi Nani.
Madeeha loved music and dance. In all her plays music remained prominent showcasing and highlighting the plight and the life of subjects in the play. Her choice of songs was amazing and soul stirring. She trained a large number of artistes and honed the skills of many singers by giving them opportunity to perform in her plays. Many theatre groups that are thriving in Pakistan today once had their humble beginning under the guidance of Madeeha. Azad Theatre is one such example. Many artistes who started with her are now popular artistes in the TV industry. Though trained in the modern techniques of western theatre she went for the oral tradition of bhand and nautanki. She blended the old traditions with the modern techniques and the result was remarkable winning audiences whom the scribe remembers had standing ovations at the end of performances.
Recipient of many awards like the prestigious Tamgha Imtiaz, Fatima Jinnah Award from government of Pakistan and Prince Claus Award from Netherlands Madeeha’s real award comes from the people who loved her and many young women who idealise her.
Two decades of association with Madeeha Gauhar has taught this scribe one thing and that is you must keep your goals high even if the things are not in your favour. The lady stood for humane, secular and equal society. And she never bowed down in her quest to achieve what she believed in. She is no more but she will continue to inspire generations to come. May her soul rest in peace.
The writer is a member of staff.