Madeeha Gauhar (1956-2018): Brave girl of troubled subcontinent who played across borders
As the news of her passing away — after a three-year battle with cancer — spread, the sense of loss was felt by theatre activists on both the sidesUpdated: Apr 25, 2018 23:42 IST
Theatre for Lahore-based Madeeha Gauhar was dissent, crusade and togetherness as the theme demanded, and her commitment to socially and politically relevant subjects was complete.
Along with her playwright husband Shahid Nadeem, she never hesitated in picking up subjects that would rattle the military-mullah nexus as she called it. The two were also not afraid of paying the price for their cause, be it jail for Madeeha, banning of a play or sacking from a government job for Shahid.
As the news of her passing away — after a three-year battle with cancer — spread, the sense of loss was felt by theatre activists on both the sides. Remembering her, Chandigarh-based theatre director Neelam Maan Singh said, “She was a very brave woman, from the themes she enacted to fighting her own illness. Just the last December, she was here to watch a rehearsal of my play ‘Dark Borders’, making a detour from Amritsar.”
She added that the value of her theatre could be appreciated greater in retrospect as theatre people in India too were engaged in finding ways of combating divisive forces. “Madeeha always laid emphasis on the shared heritage of the people of the subcontinent,” she said.
Kewal Dhaliwal, chairperson of Punjab Sangeet Natak Akademi based in Amritsar, said, “When she brought ‘Bullah’ to India in 2004, we welcomed it as ‘taaza hava da Bulla’ (a whiff of fresh air). Later I was to collaborate with her in so many productions and one of the most memorable ones was ‘Border Border’, the outcome of a workshop with children from Pakistan and India.”
He recalled that in December, when she visited this side of the border last time, it was to discuss a festival of Partition plays. Dhaliwal’s most poignant memory was when she wept in the new Partition Museum in Amritsar, saying, “Why did 10 lakh people have to die? Why couldn’t the parting, if at all, be without violence?”
After completing her masters in English literature in Lahore, Madeeha went onto obtain another master’s degree in theatre sciences in London. She set up the Ajoka Theatre group along with her husband Shahid in 1984. She took the plays of Ajoka to India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and several European countries. She was the first Pakistani artiste to be awarded the prestigious Prince Claus award of the Netherlands. Her prominent plays, besides ‘Bullah’, include ‘Toba Tek Singh’, ‘Dara Shikoh’, ‘Mera Rang De Basanti Chola’, ‘Letters to Uncle Sam’ and ‘Lo Phir Basant Aayi’. Her play against the purdah system, ‘Burkavaganza’, was banned in Pakistan.
Two very relevant cross-border plays by Madeeha are ‘Aik thi Nani’ and ‘Dukh Dariya’. In the former, she brought together two sisters of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) on stage after 50 years. They were Zohra Sehgal and Uzra Butt, the latter having been the leading lady of Prithvi Theatres before the Partition. The second play, ‘Dukh Dariya’, was based on the real-life story of a woman, Shehnaz Parveen of Mirpur, who jumped into the river as she was tormented for not bearing a child. She was rescued in India and jailed. Raped by two jail wardens, she bore a child. The irony arose when Pakistan agreed to take the woman but not her child. Such Mantoesque stories would inspire plays from Madeeha.
Madeeha is survived by her husband, two sons Sarang and Nirvaan, besides so many friends, colleagues and admirers.