Madeeha Gauhar – Pakistan

Linked with The Ajoka Theatre.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

She says: “By starting Ajoka Theatre during the strictest period of martial law, Madeeha Gauhar created an outlet for human rights activism at a time when other avenues had been blocked”.

She says also: “Some of the other prominent street and stage plays by Ajoka include Kala Qanoon which revolves around the Hudood Ordinance; Kala Meda Bhes which deals with a real-life incident in Sindh where a woman was exchanged for an ox and Dukhini which portrays the practice of women trafficking by deceiving Bangladeshi women living in rural areas to come to Pakistan” … (full text).

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Madeeha Gauhar - Pakistan rogne redim 70p.jpg.

Madeeha Gauhar – Pakistan

She works for the Ajoka Theatre.

If alternative theatre is today a vibrant form of political expression in Pakistan, a large share of the credit goes to Ajoka Theatre and its founder, Madeeha Gauhar, a trained theatre director and human rights activist. Led by Madeeha for over 20 years, Ajoka has been, and continues to be, an integral part of the struggle for a secular, democratic, humane, just, and egalitarian Pakistan.

Madeeha, a lecturer at a girl’s college and an activist for women’s rights, decided to start Ajoka at a time when all avenues for political expression were blocked in Pakistan. The group was born in 1983, during the repressive military regime of Zia-ul-Haq, and began modestly, operating out of the homes of its members and with money raised from personal contributions and donations by activist supporters and audiences.

Soon, it built up a reputation for taking up bold and topical themes – the rights of women, for instance, being steadily eroded by the actions of the military regime; the plight of bonded labour in a highly feudal society; minorities, who were also facing an assault on their rights; and religious intolerance, which was gaining official patronage through the regime’s Islamisation policy. In alliance with women’s groups, Ajoka has played an active role in putting women’s rights on the political agenda.

Since strict censorship was in force during martial law, Madeeha and her band of theatre workers had to live with the fear of arrest, and worse.

Madeeha had to give up her lecturer’s job because her theatre activism was intolerable to the regime. She was also briefly jailed for demonstrating, along with other women activists, against a discriminatory Law of Evidence being planned by the regime. For many years, Ajoka could not set up an office for fear of harassment by orthodox groups.

Madeeha’s husband, also a political theatre activist and playwright, was jailed by a military court for carrying out trade union activities at the state-owned national television company.

Ajoka has survived difficult beginnings to become one of Pakistan’s foremost theatre groups. The group, which makes a conscious effort to include people from diverse social backgrounds among its members, has over 40 original plays and adaptations to its credit. Its plays have been performed, sometimes in translation, by other theatre groups in India and Pakistan. She has revived traditional theatre and blended it with modern elements, and uses a variety of forms, from the proscenium to street theatre.

Many other theatre groups have come up, thanks to Ajoka, which holds theatre training workshops for community groups and cultural activists all over Pakistan. It has also ventured into the electronic media, setting up Ajoka Productions to make TV serials and documentary films, and has established the Ajoka Children’s Theatre.

Although sociopolitical conditions have changed since Madeeha started her work in alternative theatre, discrimination and intolerance have not disappeared from the scene. Using theatre to promote peace between Pakistan and its neighbour India is today a theme close to Madeeha’s heart. Ajoka has participated in cultural exchanges between the two countries, whose relations have been strained for more than half-a-century.

In March 2004, Ajoka Theatre organised the first ever India-Pakistan Women’s Theatre Festival in its homebase, Lahore.

Running an alternative theatre group in Pakistan is not easy, even today. There are continuing tensions over surveillance by the security forces, and since it is often dependent on hiring halls and government-owned premises for its productions, Ajoka still has to deal with attempts at censorship. Its director has been harassed by orthodox groups who have filed cases against her for defaming Pakistan and/or Islam.

But for Madeeha and Ajoka, activist theatre is hardly song and dance.

And she says: “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”. (full text).

Madeeha attended the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Lahore, after which she went to Kinnaird College, obtaining her B.A. from there. While she was still at Kinnaird, the Najmuddin Dramatic Society at the College, of which she was the president, nurtured Madeeha’s prowess as a sensitive actress. Later, as Secretary of the Government College Dramatic Society, she was involved with an anti-establishment play, which caused much furore. Her first chance of acting in a television serial came at the age of seventeen. The play was called Zanjeer, (Chains), and was written by Dr. Anwar Sajjad. She had the opportunity of acting opposite the famous Qavi Khan, who was in his early thirties then. (full text).

Using theatre to promote peace between Pakistan and its neighbour India is today a theme close to Gauhar’s heart. Ajoka has participated in cultural exchanges between the two countries, whose relations have been strained for more than half-a-century. In March 2004, Ajoka Theatre organised the first ever India-Pakistan Women’s Theatre Festival in its home base, Lahore. (full text).

Madeeha is saddened by the fact that besides Ajoka there are not many other theatre groups emerging in Pakistan, especially since the possibilities for artistic expression is much greater now. “The environment is very encouraging. Motivation and freedom is a prerogative of an artist. Our collaboration with the government has been very successful. We have done two plays, Bullah and Bala King with the Arts Council. We can change the trend if the government pays the expenses of productions, provides facilities and pays actors.” (full text).

Finally she says: “Changes in India have a direct impact on Pakistan. Like it is in India, double-meaning songs have emerged on the music scene. However, the bright side is that Sufism too has surfaced in contrast. Internationally famed Pakistan groups like Junoon of Siyoney fame have returned to the rich legacy of sufi poetry. Sufi poetry is being appreciated. Indian singer Hans Raj Hans’s Sufi-gayaki has caught on in India. Sukhwinder Singh’s scores are a hot favourite in music circles here and in Pakistan. The bigotry, fundamentalism and mullah-culture have jointly suppressed Sufism to negate the feelings of tolerance, secularism, peace, humanity which Sufis preach to elevate themselves. It is time that the Amritsar-Lahore bus service be started to join the twin cities of two Punjabs”. (full text).


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