Her spirited defiance

April 29, 2018

Madeeha Gauhar has left us an abundance of memories that is difficult to capture in all its colourfulness, struggle, beauty and creativity. She was a mountain of anger and, through the themes in her Ajoka plays, fought back vigorously

Her spirited defiance

I knew Madeeha Gauhar since the mid-1960s, when we were both together in school at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore. Because of a common interest in theatre and acting from a young age, we became good friends, and took part in all the school plays which in those days were mostly in English. I remember Madeeha in a comedy, World Without Men and A.A. Milne’s The Ugly Duckling.

In the early 1970s, we joined Kinnaird College, and both of us were elected presidents of the Najmuddin Dramatic Society in consecutive years. In 1973, we performed the play Anastasia, about the Russian princess who supposedly escaped when the czar and his family were gunned down during the 1917 revolution. In 1974, we acted in a comedy by A.A. Milne, The Ivory Tower, a play about how people preserve their legends and folklore as a sense of collective identity, even when there’s no evidence to support the myth.

Well-known feminist activist Farida Sher and our teacher Kausar Shaikh used to do our theatre make-up while also inspiring us to take part in activism on women’s issues. Perin Cooper directed the annual plays and taught us about innovative theatre techniques.

Over the years, I went on to study sociology and education in the US, and Madeeha went off to England to study theatre. She learned about both the western realist tradition and the subcontinental magical realism in the course of her studies. While inured in both forms of theatre, the traditional subcontinental theatre in which stories, folktales and legends were full of fairies, djinns and magical beings of all kinds entranced Madeeha. She felt that this kind of theatre crosses the boundaries of time and space, and collapses them in creative ways because magical happenings don’t follow the rules of the physical universe.

Another quality that she loved about the traditional arts of the subcontinent was that there was a lot of dancing, music, movement and colour in contrast to the realist English theatre.


There was also an incorrigible, indomitable and feisty activist in Madeeha. Whether it was the occupation of Palestine, imposition of dictatorship and Islamisation by General Ziaul Haq, or the persecution of religious/ethnic minorities by the majority community or the state, Madeeha was like a mountain of anger and fought back vigorously.

In February 1983, Madeeha was a part of the protest by Pakistan Women Lawyers Association and Women’s Action Forum (WAF) against the then proposed Law of Evidence. She was among those beaten up with batons, arrested and then released. At one point, she fell on The Mall and everyone thought she was unconscious. As soon as the policemen came closer, she shot up and started running with the protesters again.  My dear late friend Lala Rukh used to say that it was her first street theatre.

In September 1983, at the height of General Zia’s martial law, Madeeha and I were arrested along with Hina Jilani, Asma Jahangir, Saida Fazal, Mubaraka, Rehana Taufiq, Feryal Gauhar and several others, and taken first to Civil Lines thana and then to Kot Lakhpat jail. We were picked up from a protest demonstration against the martial law regime and in solidarity with the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy (MRD).

During those two weeks in jail, Madeeha and Asma Jahangir, both very lively people with an irrepressible sense of humour, kept our spirits up, and did not let anyone succumb to fear. They were both defiant and full of fun and frolic. We sang, shouted slogans against the oppressive regime and remained in high spirits throughout.

I got a phone call from Madeeha on the day Asma Jahangir died, and for the first time since I had known her for over 45 years, I heard her cry as she talked about the meaninglessness of existence and the futility of human endeavour. But soon she recovered and said the struggle must go on because that was Asma’s legacy for all of us.

Madeeha left us two months later, after a three-year spirited struggle against colon cancer. But there is such an abundance of memories that I don’t know how to capture her life in all its colourfulness, struggle, beauty and creativity.

In April 1984, Zia’s martial law was at its height when journalists were being publicly flogged and people were being hauled up for failing to say their prayers or observe fast during Ramazan by Som o Salat Committees, the moral police unleashed by the state. Women were being attacked in public places, and one after another laws against them were being passed. All performing arts were banned in schools, colleges and public spaces as all creative activity was declared against Islam. Madeeha called me and invited me to participate in a new theatre group she was initiating, based on the street theatre tradition, to challenge the regime in an idiom that people could understand and with which they could relate.

I was hesitant, not so sure; because of a repressive regime and in part because I had not heard of street theatre before. I wondered: where we would perform? What we would do for a stage, props, sets, costumes? And who would come to see it?

Despite my doubts and questions, I went along -- because she was a childhood friend who could wield her own baton quite effectively if disobeyed. The play she had selected was Badal Sircar’s Jaloos because of its relevance to Pakistan’s situation and its capacity to raise different issues. She adapted it to our situation at that point in history.

Her mother, Khadija Gauhar, not only allowed us to rehearse in her garden, she welcomed and encouraged us constantly. Some of the other actors in the play included Rana Fawad, now the owner of Lahore Qalandars, and Rashid Rahman, who later edited serious newspapers. I was a part of the chorus and the only female character in the play.

We were going to perform the play in the garden, in the middle of Lahore’s Cantonment, the military area, even though it contained dialogues, issues and slogans radically opposed to the regime. There were no sets or props. The chorus wore black shirts and pyjamas, and provided a backdrop to the themes in the play. The chorus became a bus, a train, a tractor, jets or anything required by the script.

Through these techniques and the use of Faiz and Jalib’s poetry, Madeeha depicted the rot in the society, vulgar consumption of the ruling classes, high-handedness of the government authorities, demolition of katchi abadis, terror engendered by the military regime, harassment of women, predominance of cheap commercial entertainment, bombing of populations by the air force jets, entry into the Afghan jihad, hypocrisy of the mullahs and betrayal of the promise of independence by parting from India. The entire history of the universe was captured by showing how the galaxies, sun, moon, stars and the planets evolved, and later how slavery and other forms of inequality on the earth began.

On the opening night, all my fears proved wrong. Thirsty for entertainment and fed up with the terrifying regime, people came to watch the play in droves -- and the reviews were glowing with many critics calling the play multi-dimensional, enjoyable, humorous, yet exceedingly serious. It was a complete success, and every newspaper of the time wrote about it in glowing terms. Even more people came on the following nights, and many were impressed by the innovative techniques, which were a refreshing change from the usual stuff passed off as theatre.

Madeeha never looked back. Her theatre group called Ajoka, meaning contemporary, became well known for its unique style, innovative technique and roots in the subcontinental theatre traditions. After the unprecedented success of Jaloos, she went on to produce several plays about fundamentalist and extremist view of religion propagated by the Zia regime, treatment of workers in brick kilns, treatment of women by families, society and the state.

Most of her work was original and evolved from discussions with the group, while some of it was based on adaptations of Lorca and Brecht, for example she presented Lorca’s Blood Wedding and Brecht’s Three Penny Opera in Urdu and Punjabi.

Madeeha’s marriage with Shahid Nadeem enriched the work of both because they became a great team -- like Aslam Azhar and Nasreen Azhar, and Naeem Tahir and Yasmin Tahir in earlier times. Shahid wrote a large number of plays in which the themes ranged from the oppression of women, to use of religion by the state, to persecution of a man like Manto for his unorthodox portrayals of the reality of partition and after.

Some of these plays include Bullah, about the Sufi saint from Kasur who challenged the power of his time and promoted peace and harmony between people of different religions, nations and cultures. Others include Jhalli Kithay Jaavay, Dhee Rani, Sharam di Gul, Barri and Lappar on women’s issues. Then there was Dekh Tamasha Chalta Ban, Dukh Darya and several others on the social, economic and political issues of our times.

Ajoka first became known in all of South Asia and later received accolades globally with some of the plays being staged in London and America.

For 10 years I took part in many of the Ajoka productions, including Barri, Jum Jum Jeevay Jaman Pura, Blood Wedding, Dhee Rani, Sharam di Gul and Lappar. Later on young new people joined, and continue to perform and entertain while raising social issues.

As we say goodbye to the dynamic and irrepressible Madeeha, I find comfort in the thought that her legacy will continue and her work will expand as her spirit lives on in her work. I will miss my friend but I feel honoured to have known her, and learned from her about new ways of understanding theatre and its relevance in our lives.

Her spirited defiance