If she has the looks of a Punjabi woman, then it is by no coincidence, for Madeeha Gauhar calls herself a Punjabi. “My mother belonged to Gujarat and my father belonged to Peshawar. But, I consider myself to be a Punjabi because I have stayed in Lahore and my work is in Punjabi,” explains Madeeha, who was born in Karachi and brought up in Lahore.
As she starts to speak about her involvement with theatre, the generous amount of Urdu sprinkled in her speech makes you want to revive the connection with Pakistan and learn more about Ajoka, her 30-year-old theatre group.
After getting a master’s degree in theatre from Government College, Lahore, Madeeha pursued a master’s in theatre (with specialisation in direction) from London University. Ever since Ajoka’s formation in 1984, they have performed in Pakistan, India and all over the world with a mission to comment on social issues, especially those relating to minorities and women. “My struggle has always been against fundamentalism and how religion is used to play games that lead to destructive results,” Madeeha says.
In fact, Madeeha has played a strong role in keeping Punjabi art, history and culture alive in Pakistan. “From a play on Bhagat Singh, called Rang de Basanti Chola, to a play on Bulleh Shah, called Bullah, Ajoka has made efforts to rewrite history through theatre. For that matter, Bhagat Singh had a crucial connection with Lahore, but Pakistanis were unaware of it until they saw him in films and theatre,” she says.
Amongst her memories of enacting plays in India, Madeeha recalls some important moments. “Soon after the Mumbai attacks of 26/11, we were invited to perform our play Bullah in Kerala. Before the play started, the organisers informed me that some BJP leaders wanted to meet me. I felt scared and when I went to meet them, they gave me a letter addressed to the government of Pakistan. I told them that I am not a representative of the government and invited them to watch our play. Aap yakeen maane…we got a standing ovation from a 3,000-strong audience who didn’t even understand Punjabi. And, the leader who had come with the letter came on stage with his family to congratulate me. That is the power of theatre.”
Madeeha emphasises that “there is no difference between the two countries, their history and various narratives.” “Hamari toh gaaliyan bhi ek jesi hai, (Even our abuses are similar),” she laughs, adding, “The pity is that Partition was so cruel that both sides were at a loss. When we came to Punjab to perform, people here were shocked to learn that Pakistani Punjabi Muslims had surnames such as Cheema and Waraich. And, we were equally surprised to see that Indian Muslims wore topis, while their Pakistani counterparts don’t. But, these are stereotypes created by films. Hence, coming here lead to so many discoveries,” says Madeeha, adding that she is witnessing a change for the better. “There was a time when we couldn’t even imagine seeing Hindi films in Pakistan. Of course, they were available on DVDs, but today the best cinemas there showcase Hindi films,” she adds.
This time when Madeeha shares another anecdote, she leaves you astonished. “Once, we performed Bullah in Patiala, and immediately after the performance, an old man brought his two grandchildren and asked the lead character to bless them. To see so many dargahs being preserved by non-Muslims enlightens one about the power of Sufism,” she says.
However, all of Madeeha’s travels to Indian haven’t been pleasant. She recalls with a heavy heart how Ajoka was not allowed to perform a play on Saadat Hasan Manto’s life, called Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh, at the National School of Drama, Delhi, due to tensions at the LOC. “What a cruel stroke of fate for Manto, a legendary writer who was born in India and later migrated to Pakistan. But, various activists and theatre personalities approached me and said they wouldn’t let me go without performing. So, overnight, we managed to perform at Jawahar National University, Delhi, and at the Akshara theatre in the capital. The performance started at 11 pm and lasted till 2 am, despite there being no set constructed. I was amazed at the understanding and love of students there. Such things give you hope,” Madeeha smiles.
From 2004 till 2007, Ajoka had organised an Indo-Pak theatre festival called Panj Pani, that was attended by renowned theatre people including Neelam Man Singh Chowdhary, Usha Ganguly, Kewal Dhaliwal and MK Raina. Next year, as Ajoka completes 30 years, Madeeha is certain that she wants to celebrate the achie-vement.