lt seems like a crime that an institution of the calibre of Ajoka Theatre has its main office in Lahore hidden away at the very end of an almost invisible gali in the main Cantt area. However, upon entering the cozy and inviting setup, the very air carries with it the determination and resolve to bring about change.
Seated with the driving force behind Ajoka, Madeeha Gauhar, she spends hours talking about her life as a political activist, a TV celebrity, the founder of Ajoka Theatre and then becoming its artistic director.
Born in Karachi in 1956 and still carrying wonderful memories of the city, Madeeha has spent most of her life in Lahore. Her father, Ali Gauhar, a Peshawar-born, Persian-speaking army officer died when Madeeha was only 14 years old. Her mother, Khadijah, born to a Gujrati speaking family from Bharauch, India, was, in her words, “a dedicated socialist, fearless writer, committed human rights activist and an untiring social worker.”
She was of great inspiration to Madeeha who now feels that her political consciousness stems from observing her mother’s interaction with journalists and political activists, “My mother always encouraged me to form Ajoka when Gen Ziaul Haq’s rule was at its oppressive peak.” Her mother faced disapproval for Madeeha’s career choice from relatives who were shocked and upset, but even in the face of such opposition she pushed her daughter forward. Together with her sister, Faryal Gauhar, also an actress, Madeeha formed a small group of women who had the courage to take up acting in a society where music and dance were and are still prohibited in certain regions.
In 2002, Madeeha received recognition and was awarded the Tamgha-i-Imtiaz by the Pakistan government. Furthermore, Ajoka was invited to perform the play Aik Thi Nani at the London Theatre Festival along with the other participating countries. The play was also well-received in India and is one of Ajoka’s few Urdu plays, most of them being in Punjabi.
Aik Thi Nani, according to one of Ajoka’s flyers, is ‘inspired by the true life story of two extraordinary sisters, Zohra Segal and Uzra Butt. After Partition, Uzra migrated to Pakistan and Zohra stayed back. This play, especially written for the sisters by playwright Shahid Nadeem, brought them together on one stage after four decades. The play was first performed in 1993 and has since toured India twice and the UK’.
Madeeha studied at the Convent of Jesus and Mary Lahore, and then acquired her B.A from Kinnaird College where she was also the president of the Najmuddin Dramatic Society. It was here that her skill and expertise as an insightful actress was honed. Later, as the secretary of the Government College Dramatic Society, she took part in an anti-establishment play which ruffled quite a few feathers.
At 17, she acted in her first TV serial, Zanjeer (Chain), by Anwar Sajjad. After doing her Masters in English Literature from Government College Lahore, Madeeha taught at a government women’s college and then joined the Women’s Action Forum (WAF) where she got a chance to practice her activism with great fervor.
‘Stand up for your rights as a daughter, sister, mother, wife and in any other role you play.I am a firm believer in gender equality,’ says Madeeha Gauhar
At a time when there were no means for expressing outrage concerning the so-called ‘amended’ laws made by Gen Zia, WAF organized rallies and protests. Madeeha, Faryal Gauhar, Rubina Saigol and Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani were all at the receiving end of a brutal baton-charge. Madeeha was arrested and subsequently jailed twice at Kot Lakhpat. She also lost her job as lecturer. “Banning or arresting people is not a solution. Let all things flourish and give viewers the right to reject,” she says while remembering those days.
“Ajoka Theatre emerged out of extreme diversity, anger and a fiery zeal to bring about change in 1984,” she says. The first play performed under its banner was Juloos (Procession), written by Badal Sircar. Due to the absence of the NoC (no objection certificate) from the government, which scrupulously examined every script through and through, the play, could not be performed in any public hall or auditorium.
Therefore, it was performed in Begum Khadija Gauhar’s lawn in the Cantonment area of Lahore. Madeeha adds, “Our activities went undiscovered until the last portrayal of the week-long performances. They then banned the second play we were to perform at the venue. We then approached the ‘Max Mueller’ institute and the German institute accommodated us by lending us space to perform. In the meantime, I went abroad to get a Masters degree in theatre from the University of London.”
Madeeha acquired a British Council scholarship for the degree in drama. It was a one-year course that amalgamated both the practical and academic sides of the subject. Madeeha feels that her experience was very useful as she had the chance to view a lot of theater there. She also met her future husband, writer Shahid Nadeem, for the very first time in London.
He was working with Amnesty International after being pardoned from a jail term in Pakistan during Gen Zia’s era due to his trade union activities. He was a documentary producer at PTV Lahore centre at the time of his arrest.
In London, Madeeha asked Shahid to do the script of a play, Mara Hua Kutta (The Dead Dog), directed by his late friend Shahryar Rashed. “I had seen the play at a Kinnaird College festival while still at school and it had left a lasting impression on my mind. At the time, Ajoka needed original scripts for stage plays, which I felt no one was delivering at that time, with the exception of Sarmad Sehbai. I did not want to rely on mere translations.
” Shahid Nadeem ended up giving Madeeha scripts for two stage plays, Mara Hua Kutta and Barri. “Barri was one of the first plays on the issue of the Islamic laws and a patriarchal system. The play also raises questions about the class basis of the woman’s movement in Pakistan and its direction,” she says. It was initially performed on International Women’s Day in 1987.
Madeeha and Shahid had both been married before. Savera Nadeem is Shahid Nadeem’s daughter from his previous marriage, who is now a successful stage and television actress. Nirvaan, now completing his A levels, is Madeeha’s son from her first marriage. From their marriage to each other, Shahid and Madeeha have a son, Sarang.
According to one of the annual newsletters, Ajoka set the wheels turning with their ‘cultural marathon’ which also marked the ‘beginning of the theatre for social change movement in Pakistan’. Most of their plays have been on daring social issues such as dowry, honour killing and discriminatory laws. “My vision has always been to help promote a secular, just, humane and egalitarian society,” says Madeeha.
“Some of the other prominent street and stage plays by Ajoka include Kala Qanoon which revolves around the Hudood Ordinance; Kala Meda Bhes which deals with a real-life incident in Sindh where a woman was exchanged for an ox and Dukhini which portrays the practice of women trafficking by deceiving Bangladeshi women living in rural areas to come to Pakistan,” she says. Shahid Nadeem has also done a Punjabi adaptation of Brecht’s Arturo UI in the play, Bala King.
Madeeha has had to deal with the reality of women’s issues in her own backyard, so to speak. “Some of the girls that act in my plays have had to face a lot of hurdles and obstacles created by their families. In a few cases, I have had to watch some of the girls with great acting talent leave Ajoka as they could no longer bear the stress of family pressure and opposition.” Her message to women: “Stand up for your rights as a daughter, sister, mother, wife and in any other role you play. I am a firm believer in gender equality.”
Ajoka has also contributed to Indo-Pak peace by collaborating with Indian theater groups. They managed to collectively put up an indo-Pak theater festival, Zonani, also held in Lahore in March 2004. Ajoka Children’s Theatre has done plays such as Gali Kay Bacchay (Children of the dead-end street), Kaali Ghata (Grey clouds), and Bhola.
Madeeha is saddened by the fact that besides Ajoka there are not many other theatre groups emerging in Pakistan, especially since the possibilities for artistic expression is much greater now. “The environment is very encouraging. Motivation and freedom is a prerogative of an artist. Our collaboration with the government has been very successful.
We have done two plays, Bullah and Bala King with the Arts Council. We can change the trend if the government pays the expenses of productions, provides facilities and pays actors.”
For the future, Madeeha hopes to have many more performances in Pakistan and wants to attract all kinds of people to her plays. She feels she has done countless street plays already and would like to concentrate more on stage plays held in various auditoriums across Pakistan, theatre festivals and conferences. She is also looking to expand the management team for Ajoka, with the aim of projecting it further and on a wider scale, in print and electronic media.
Madeeha confesses that Ajoka is her whole life and everything she does is related to it. “At times I feel I cannot even give my children enough time because of it.” She commends Shahid Nadeem for supporting her throughout her career.
As our chat comes to a close, she tells me that she would be leaving for India soon as a few of Ajoka’s plays were being performed there. Ajoka is most certainly her entire life and would continue being so.