How many women wear their feminism on their sleeve in Pakistan? And how many women artists express their political opinions? How many of these women artists let those opinions creep into their work and performances unabashedly?
Not many. Pakistan and South Asia, in general, have little space for a Jane Fonda or Meryl Streep. Actors who express political opinions – especially those with a leftist (unpopular) slant – are unwelcome in South Asia. Madeeha Gauhar was an exception.
The first time I saw Madeeha Gauhar was in 2010. The American Consulate had organised a get-together on MM Alam Road and Madeeha was there in a sea-green saree and a matching stone necklace – and stole my heart. Later, I saw a photograph of her in a newspaper and realised: this is Madeeha Gauhar!
I truly met Madeeha for the first time in November last year. I went to interview the Delhi-based author Pran Neville, who later introduced me to Madeeha over a lunch at the Faiz International Mela. Madeeha was wearing a turquoise shalwar kameez that was embellished with orange flowers embroidered on the front. She had matching turquoise and orange earrings and a necklace. She sat across the table and slowly ate her biryani while talking to people across the table – about the history of Lahore, Partition and today’s insidious politics.
The next day I went to fetch Pran Neville for the airport and he was discussing something with Madeeha on the phone. She was on the speaker-phone. The problem at hand was a hilarious one. Someone had sent “azarband” (drawstrings) to her relatives in Delhi but there were dozens of them and they were too heavy. She asked him firmly to “drop them.” What surprised me was that she was fluent in Punjabi despite it not being her mother tongue.
Neville called her his “local guardian.”
She apparently extended this hospitality to many of her Indian friends. On her reference this week, held at Lahore’s Alhamra Arts Council, almost a dozen Indians came by, and they used the same phrase for her.
I first started watching the Ajoka plays in September last year. The first play that I saw was Manto – a play originally presented on Manto’s 100th birthday, complete with the Shakespearean soliloquies and ghosts, but excruciatingly long and depressing. Or maybe, being in journalism during the 100th birth celebration, I was over-exposed to the harsh realities of Manto’s brief life.
Ajoka, famously developed after the street theatre tradition in the Subcontinent, didn’t rely on lavish sets or attire. Instead, characterisation and dialogues pushed the plot forward.
Madeeha broke the overcast and obscenity-riddled entertainment landscape of the Zia era with Ajoka’s spirited plays
In November, Ajoka presented a play called Inteezar (wait). The play focused on those sentenced to death unfairly and their families. The play had many compelling scenes and dialogues. The characters inside the jail attempted to make their lives bearable by reading, painting, and singing. They also shared their stories of injustice – how they were wrongly accused but convicted despite lack of evidence. This was a gripping commentary on the cruelty of capital punishment, presented in a country that is obsessed with the death penalty.
There was hardly anything Madeeha did without her feminist mystique and neither does Ajoka.
Inteezar focused on one female convict who was suffering from an emotional disorder but incarcerated nevertheless. The women relatives of the inmates would visit and wait for the body of their loved ones. And the lawyer fighting against this recent onslaught of hangings in Pakistan was also a woman – probably inspired by lawyer Sarah Belal.
I went to Madeeha crying after the play and she hugged me.
In February this year, Ajoka presented Charing Cross, a play named after the famous cross-section overlooking the Punjab Assembly on Lahore’s Mall Road.
The play captured Lahore’s dynamic political history through protests, the lives of women characters, including a lady of the night’s life story and the romantic struggles of a young couple. There is a chameleon-like young man Shahbaz who changes his political affiliation every few years and is at an advantage in every regime.
The play documented historical events, politics and characters who frequent Lahore but are invisible – beggars, drug addicts, cleaners, prostitutes, young lovers and visitors. And of course, the play documented how the city was now deteriorating due to the new infrastructure.
Ajoka has its own distinct aesthetics that are steeped in the indigenous culture of the Subcontinent. The music, dance, poetry, and even the language is local. And therefore it has its own constituency- a group of people that support it, watch it and admire it. It can easily forgo activism for more romantic, easily palatable and commercially viable themes. But it doesn’t. Ajoka remains a theatre of resistance and a parallel to mainstream entertainment in Pakistan. It continues to engage with uncomfortable themes like misogyny, rising religious extremism, corruption and injustice. And of course, Ajoka has carved a niche for itself abroad too, particularly in India where the audience understands the same language and relates with similar themes.
Ajoka is a friend of the endangered Punjabi language as well. Many of the plays like Bullah and Dara were in Punjabi, while almost every play has characters who communicate in Punjabi alone. These colloquial dialogues often resonate deeply with the crowd and invite the loudest applause and laughter. The deepest human suffering, most sentimental of life situations and comic escapades – everything becomes more moving once uttered in Punjabi. Again, this was a conscious effort on Madeeha’s part.
In January this year, I attended the 34th anniversary of Ajoka. A small video at the start of the program showed Ajoka and Madeeha over the decades. Ajoka embodied Madeeha’s sensibilities and vice verse. The two were one in almost every way.
Activists, academics, and writers paid their tributes. So many of these mid-career professionals said they had performed with Ajoka in their student days.
Many of them took too much time, but they probably felt this might be their last chance to remind Madeeha what they owed her. And sadly it was.
In South Asia, stardom is in film and television. Most actors seek training in theatre and then “progress’ to the screen. It takes courage and conviction to not succumb to that pressure and Madeeha was never short of those two things.
But theater has an immediate connection with the viewers. A live performance is engaging and impactful. Her plays are free and attract many young students. I have met so many Sindhi and Baloch students from various parts of the country, enjoying Lahore’s famed cultural scene, which is incomplete without Ajoka.
Madeeha broke the overcast and obscenity-riddled entertainment landscape of the Zia era with Ajoka’s spirited plays. Similarly, she resisted the monotony of everyday life by donning vibrant saris, ethnic designs and matching jewelry. Just like she resisted television stardom for theatre, she also battled the lazy glamour of designers’ goods for culture.
She didn’t allow middle age to sabotage her aesthetics or activism. She never migrated to the “grey area.” And she didn’t let her illness defeat her into a life of solitude. She attended public events till January and to most of us, it was obvious that she was very ill after that – otherwise she would never miss an Ajoka play while being in town.
Madeeha’s life was short. In today’s world, people her age can expect to become centenarians. However, this was a life that she lived to the fullest. She created a family, a theatre group that became a lifeline for thousands of artists and art-lovers, garnered friendships that overcame the “great divide” and presented her passion for theater on a global stage. But if there is one stage that will always be incomplete without her and that’s the one in Lahore’s Alhamra Arts Council – where she was always present before a performance and reprimanded those whose cell-phones rang during the performance.
The writer is based in Lahore. She tweets as @ammarawrites and her work is available on www.ammaraahmad.com