I have won the respect of the people of Pakistan and the hearts of the people in India,” Madeeha Gauhar was fond of saying. On Wednesday, the feisty theatre director from Lahore passed away following years of battling cancer. She was 61.
Gauhar set up Ajoka Theatre in 1984 after she was lathicharged and jailed during a protest led by lawyer Asma Jahangir against General Zia- ul-Haq’s government. Ajoka’s first play was Jaloos, written by an Indian legend and radical, Badal Sircar. The venue was the lawn of Gauhar’s mother’s house in Lahore Cantonment, under the nose of the army. Intelligence officials soon caught on, but Ajoka managed to survive several run-ins with governments while taking theatre to the streets, public spaces and auditoriums.
The choice of plays revealed Gauhar’s concerns. Her best-known productions — most of which were written or adapted by her husband and human rights activist Shahid Nadeem — included Bulha about the Sufi saint Bulleh Shah, Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh about the life of Saadat Hasan Manto, Mera Rang De Basanti Chola on Bhagat Singh, Dukh Darya on Kashmiri families divided by the border, Toba Tek Singh based on a Manto story of the same name which dealt with the Partition, and Hotel Mohenjodaro about religious fundamentalists taking over Pakistan and grinding liberal values to dust. These have been been staged in various parts of India such as Amritsar and Chandigarh, as well as at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav organised by the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi.
“She was a very brave theatre maker because she had fought all kinds of odds, performing in difficult times, developing news style of writing on current issues, finding new forms and grammar. She worked with all kinds of concerns. She was a very energetic activist,” says Anuradha Kapur, former Director, NSD.
One of Ajoka’s greatest contributions was “Theatre for Peace”, a project to bring India and Pakistan closer by increasing collaborations between theatre groups of the two countries. “She was our link with Pakistan and I feel that it has snapped. I have been to Lahore four times, thanks to Madeeha. I had also invited her group to Chandigarh, where I did a workshop with them. We have all heard of the legendary warmth and hospitality of Pakistanis and it manifested in the way Madeeha and her husband welcomed us. I am hurting so deeply since I heard of her death. She was a movement, not an individual,” says Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, theatre director from Chandigarh.
Gauhar was a regular to Amritsar; Kewal Dhaliwal, theatre actor, director and founder of Manch Rang Manch, says they would joke that Amritsar started missing Gauhar if she didn’t visit the city once in two months. For more than 20 years, Dhaliwal worked with members of Ajoka, workshopping with them in acting and technical aspects of the stage. Dhaliwal says that his last conversation with Gauhar, a few days ago, was about a theatre festival marking 70 years of the Partition, to be held in Chandigarh and Lahore. “I told her that she was a strong woman and she needed to get well soon, so that we could work towards the festival. Now, I will have to do it on my own. I will dedicate the festival to Madeeha,” he says.
Gauhar’s relationship with Indian directors was nourished over decades. Theatre actor and director Sahib Singh of Adakar Manch in Mohali was associated with her for 15 years and had travelled to Pakistan often to stage his plays and would invite Ajoka to stage its productions in Amritsar and Chandigarh. Singh’s theatre group was instrumental in organising the five-day ‘Humsaya Theatre For Peace Festival’ in Chandigarh in 2016, which featured plays by Ajoka. “I feel she was responsible for the impactful cultural exchange between Indian and Pakistani theatre,” says Singh, who acted as a Pakistani in Ajoka’s Anni Mai Da Supna, a production based on the Partition, and as Banda Singh Bahadur in Bulha.