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Stage in times of strife

Madeeha, who was here with her play for Ranga Shankara all the way from Lahore, has been lathi charged and jailed. But that hasn't smothered her love for theatre



Madeeha Gauhar: `We have been struggling against fundamentalist forces, whether the Shiv Sena or the Islamic hardliners.' — Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

I MEET Madeeha Gauhar, the Lahore-based activist, actor and director in an unlikely setting. She has just returned from a shopping binge and clad in a kaftan, hair dishevelled, she watches her young son distractedly as he scoops up Maggi noodles with his fingers, transfixed to TV cartoons.

Madeeha's Urdu play, Aik Thee Nani, is travelling to full halls with the Prithvi festival. Written by husband Shahid Nadeem, it is based on the lives of actors (and sisters) Zohra Segal and Uzra Butt and unravels the trials of Partition through the stories of their lives. Even in South India where people's preoccupations are considerably distinct from those in the north, the play found a responsive audience.

"I was surprised that the response was so good," Madeeha admits. "In Punjab and Delhi, there's so much more familiarity with the language and culture, but there's a major difference in South India which has not even really been affected by Partition and the subsequent nostalgia and trauma."

Pioneers on stage

Madeeha and Shahid founded Ajoka, their theatre company, 20 years ago, in the oppressive regime of General Zia ul Haq to tackle uncomfortable issues (dowry, honour killings, discriminatory laws) skirted by other more cautious theatre companies.

Ajoka has struggled for space to stage their usually political plays, under regimes which have frowned upon dissent. "Things are much better now in terms of Government," Madeeha accedes. "It's more liberal; our work has got a large audience and people enjoy watching our theatre which combines meaningful entertainment and social issues."

She clarifies that while she is not supporting the Musharraf regime, she sees little other solution to Pakistan's problems. "I would like a democratic government, but those haven't been effective in the past; the military has always been behind them," says Madeeha.

As a professional actor trained at the Royal Holloway College, London, Madeeha has often had run-ins with the hard line establishment. Ajoka was founded around the time Madeeha was lathi charged and jailed along with other activists. Her playwright husband Shahid spent many years in exile, emailing his scripts for her to direct.

Supporting her choice of career and her frank politics was a legendary figure. Her late mother, human rights activist Khadija Gauhar; an influence Madeeha is always prompt to acknowledge. Ajoka's first production was staged on the lawns of Khadija's home. "I've had family support," Madeeha reiterates, "since my mother was a liberal. In fact, she faced more pressure from relatives." Madeeha's sister is also an actress, and together, they make up a small, unusual group of women, taking up acting in a society where music and dance are still prohibited in regions. "The situation is better than it was 20 years ago, but India is more open for women; there's a visible difference across the border," she emphasises.

Indo-Pak peace

Ajoka is a pioneer in collaborative efforts between Indian and Pakistani theatre groups, and the first ever Indo-Pak theatre festival, centred around the theme of women, was organised by them and held in Lahore last March.

Despite her admiration for India's plural credentials, Madeeha's play Bullha, on the life of a peace loving Sufi poet, faced irascible censors in Patiala. They were forced to make last minute changes in the play, and Madeeha observes that fundamentalism is on the rise in India. "We (Ajoka) have been struggling against fundamentalist forces, whether the Shiv Sena or Islamic hardliners," she points out.

One of the advantages of the recent thaw in Indo-Pak relations has been deeper interaction between theatre groups in the region. "We have had a big role to play and have started this process," says Madeeha. "Performing in Punjab is very special." Ajoka's embrace hopes to extend to south India and involve theatre groups with diverse perspectives in their efforts at collaborative theatre.

HEMANGINI GUPTA

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