The 3-day Madeeha Gauhar Theatre Festival famously included performances of plays directed by the late founder of Ajoka, screenings of documentarie, and an interactive session with guests from India
three-day festival dedicated to the memory of Madeeha Gauhar, took place at Alhamra, The Mall, recently. The inauguration ceremony itself was worth attending, as lamps were lighted by the friends and family members of the late actor, director and Ajoka Theatre founder. Prominent among the guests were Gauhar’s friends from across the border, chiefly theatre directors from Indian Punjab, with whom she had collaborated on several festivals during her lifetime. Their presence was symbolic of her efforts for the promotion of performing arts across the subcontinent, and of her vision for inter-faith harmony.
The theme of the festival was ‘history re-enacted.’ Through re-enactments of the plays Gauhar had famously directed, the audiences were taken back in time — to an undivided India, with Bhagat Singh fighting for emancipation from British colonialism, followed by the trauma of Partition in the form of a highly empathetic play, Anni Mae Da Sufna; and ending on high note with Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh, which was based on accounts related by Manto.
On the first day of the festival, a documentary, titled Becoming Bhagat Singh, was screened. The documentary is directed by Nirvaan Nadeem, who is Gauhar’s son and currently heads Ajoka. The documentary takes the viewers to places that stirred the revolutionary in Bhagat Singh — places like Jallianwala Bagh and the Bradlaugh Hall. One learns that Singh inherited the spirit of resistance from his father and paternal uncle who had also stood against the empire’s oppressive agendas.
The comments by various historians included in the documentary shed light on Singh’s psyche and his determination to uproot the colonial system with the force of violence. Though some seemed to differ, others agreed with his violent proclivity. Overall, everyone consented that his acts of aggression should not be associated with terrorism as he targetted only the despotic rulers.
The screening was followed by a performance of the play, Mera Rang De Basanti Chola. While the title of the play is symbolic of spring season and hope, it manifests the character of Bhagat Singh who envisioned the liberation of colonial India. The play highlights Singh’s political struggle and his sacrifice.
The play opens in the post-Partition Pakistan, with the assassination of Nawab Muhammad Ahmad Kasuri near the Shadman Roundabout where Bhagat Singh was hanged in 1931. The story is narrated through the accounts of an old, retired jail janitor who befriends Singh during his time in prison. The janitor also helps to find the files about Kasuri, and then it is revealed that Kasuri had a role in Singh’s hanging. When no magistrate from Lahore was willing to supervise the hanging of Singh and his two comrades, Kasuri agreed to oversee the proceedings and sign on the ignominious black warrant.
The play shows how Bhagat Singh was so feared by the colonists that they decided to execute him 11 hours ahead of the scheduled time.
he festival saw an unexpected schedule change. A session with guests from India, which was supposed to take place on the third (last) day of the festival, was preponed to the second day. As a result, a lot of people missed it. The reason cited by the organisers was slot allocation issues.
Those who were fortunate enough to attend the session said that the panellists included Prof Sajida Vandal, Asghar Nadeem Syed, Justice Nasira Iqbal (retired) and Prof Shaista Sonu Sirajuddin. Besides paying tributes to Madeeha, the panellists discussed several themes with regard to the performing arts. Besides, they spoke of building cultural bridges between the two neighbouring countries.
The second day’s events included a performance of Anni Mae Da Sufna. The play, directed by the late Gauhar, is a tale of separation, love and yearning that transcends geographical boundaries. Rangu Chacha, who has recently converted to Islam, is in Lahore while his family is based in India; Mai Janki, a blind, old woman in India is constantly longing to be at her motherland, Prem Nagar, which is on the Pakistani side.
Rangu Chacha, so named because of his profession of dyeing clothes, was separated from his Hindu family during the great exodus in 1947. But he gave up his religious identity and adopted Islam apparently to ensure his survival.
Both characters, unable to cross the border, venture out in their minds to their desired places where no manmade rules or laws exist. The play highlights the effects of Partition.
The language of most of the plays performed during the course of the festival was Punjabi. Only the one on Manto was in Urdu.
The final day’s highlight remained the enchanting dance performance by Zareen Panna. The night ended with the play, Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh.
Speaking to the audience at the close of the festival, playwright Shahid Mehmood Nadeem, who is also the CEO of Ajoka Theatre, said that the Madeeha Gauhar Theatre Festival had begun with the stories about one hero of Lahore, Bhagat Singh, and ended on stories about another hero, Saadat Hasan Manto.
Later, Nirvaan Nadeem told TNS about his vision to “expand the festival with the support of sponsors. We’ll be looking out for potential sponsors to add more seminars and workshops along with the performances of plays in our repertoire.” The idea is, obviously, to spread the message of Ajoka’s founder across the world.
The writer has done BS Hons in English literature from the University of the Punjab