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Home > Tributes and Remembrances > Pakistan: Selected Tributes to Madeeha Gauhar

Pakistan: Selected Tributes to Madeeha Gauhar

26 April 2018

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[posted below are selected reports and tributes to Madeeha Gauhar who passed away in Pakistan on 25 April 2018]

Daily Times, April 26, 2018

Rest in Peace Madeeha Gauhar!

by Marvi Sirmed

Madeeha Gauhar’s passing is not just the end of what will probably be considered the golden age of Pakistani theatre, it is a great loss for progressive, pro-peace voices in this country. Above all, it is a personal loss for her family, friends and admirers.

My first introduction to her was through TV. This was followed by a landmark protest demonstration at Chairing Cross on February 12, 1983 which was organised Women’s Action Forum (WAF) activists to protest against the notorious Qanun-e-Shahadat – one of the many laws introduced as part of Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation program. Madeeha Aapa, as she was called by us, the young members of Ajoka Theatre, was at the forefront of the demonstration. For this she was beaten and arrested. She had recently returned after completing her studies abroad, and I was a kid who had just accompanied her mother to the demonstration.

It was in 1986, when I was in High School that I heard of Ajoka Theatre, which she had co-founded with other theatre maestros like Salman Shahid and Shahid Nadeem (who she later married) a couple of years earlier. Despite regularly performing in the plays under our school’s dramatic club, I could not even think of being part of a theatre company like Ajoka, owing to the conservative family background that I come from. However, in 1997, once I personally met Madeeha Aapa immediately after my marriage, my family background couldn’t deter me.She was very close to my father-in-law, who remained a fatherly figure to her till her last breath. I have no qualms in saying she took care of him much more passionately than his own sons – being the passionate person that she was.

As a struggling couple, we were looking for a small place to start our life when Madeeha Aapa offered us a room in the Ajoka Theatre office for meagre rent. On our first day in her office and my home, she saw me arranging things while leading the rehearsal of Ajoka’s on-going play. It was one of Ajoka’s most famous plays, Kala Menda Bhais, which was being staged at the historic Goethe Institute of Lahore.

Just when she found out that one of her actresses was missing from rehearsal, she looked at me. I then found myself on the stage of Goethe Institute performing in that missing actor’s role. This was the beginning of an enriching part of my life as a theatre actress. This was gift to me from Madeeha Aapa, a gift that I relishedfor every single moment. For me it is an immense honour to have performed with legends like Zehra Sehgal and Uzra Butt and of performing in front of international theatre personalities like Usha Ganguly, Naseeruddin Shah and Jane Fonda.

She so consistently persuaded me to join the Ajoka Theatre as permanent member that I had to shun my hesitation and took to acting full on. The hesitation was not because I didn’t want to do it, but because my father had a very negative view of theatre actors, especially women. But Madeeha Aapa encouraged me to make my decision and go about convincing my father later. I remain grateful for her encouragement to this very day.

She had a knack for collecting the rarest and most beautiful pieces of art for her home. Every little corner of her home displayed a unique piece that she had collected from different corners of South Asia and Europe. Just like the progressive ideals that she was so committed to, cleanliness was a virtue that she followed strictly, sometimes causing those of us around her much exasperation! She would not let anyone enter her home with shoes on. Upon which, Sirmed would often tease her saying, “Madeeha Aapa your home sometimes feels like a mosque”. She would look at him dryly before bursting into laughter.

Our last meeting was at her home on the day of Asma Jahangir’s funeral when – she, Shahid Nadeem, Sirmed, Yameema Mitha and I – were all sitting and reminiscing about the moments that we had created together. Despite being devastated about losing Asma, she sounded as strong as ever for her commitment to these ideals. When her cat entered the room, Madeeha Aapa asked Shahid sahib to feed her. When he threw something towards the cat, MadeehaAapa protested in that good old Madeeha tone,” I told you to feed her, but did I tell you to ruin the carpet?”

She had started Ajoka Theatre during a time of extreme oppression. The way Jaloos, the inaugural play of Ajoka Theatre, was staged bears witness to that era’s repressed atmosphere. She had been unable to find any auditorium where the play could be staged. Finally, the performance had to be held at her illustrious mother’s home on the lawn. Even then,military choppers continued to hover over the lawn throughout the play’s duration.

Despite being trained and educated in theatre studies in the Western tradition, Madeeha Aapa made it a point to incorporate indigenous culture and theatre traditions of Nautanki and Bhand to her plays. She directed an untold number of plays in Punjabi, Siraiki, and Urdu and made it a point to showcase the Pakistani theatre tradition on the international stage. Because of her and Shahid sahib’s joint efforts, Ajoka has become Pakistan’s identity in the international theatre scene.

Madeeha Aapa did not just teach me how to act on stage but also how to throw your voice all the way to the last row of the hall, how to use every muscle of my face to express a plethora of human emotions and how to occupy the entire stage while performing solo and never letting a moment pass without variations in voice and movements of body. She taught me many important lessons. In many of her resistance plays, she used black and white colours for costumes to depict the harsh contrasts of the times and social classes. In one of the plays where I had to play the role of a woman who had murdered her husband after years of abuse, she told me what kind of clothes I must try. When I came on the day of full dress rehearsal, I was wearing a monotone black shirt with round neck, only to be castigated by her and being ousted from the rehearsal. She later told me to always be cognizant of the nature of the costume, which should never reveal more than necessary. “Remember Marvi, you are not the entertainment, the work you do is entertainment”, she had said.

Off the stage when we were not rehearsing, she was a bubbly child. Despite her toughresistance against oppressive regimes – be they military or civilian – she never lost her ability to laugh and make small talk. “I am in Islamabad, lets have a quick gossip session” used to be her usual phone call whenever she visited. It was very easy to make her laugh, smile and suddenly go soft even when she was in the angriest of moods. She liked good food and I used to cook well in those days.

Although I used to wear a Sari before we met, it was she whotaught me how to wear it in a comfortable way which allowed me to do my daily chores. Her penchant for shopping and her restless, exploratory nature used to put her in trouble with Shahid sahib whenever we were travelling. She would often be late for her flights because of her shopping trips.

Right now, it is difficult for me to believe that I will never be reminded by her to say happy birthday to my father in law, who she loved deeply. It is impossible Madeeha Apa, to internalise the fact that I will never get a phone call from you inviting me for another gossip session or to watch a play or to perform in one of Ajoka’s plays. Ajoka won’t be the same without you. I won’t be the same without you. Rest in peace Madeeha Aapa, I know the heavens are lucky to have you right now.

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(via Facebook)

Statement by Women’s Action Forum Lahore

[26 April 2019]








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Human Rights Commission of Pakistan

Press release

HRCP remembers human rights defender Madeeha Gauhar

Lahore, 26 April 2018. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) mourns the loss of Madeeha Gauhar, consummate actor, playwright, director and human rights defender. Ms Gauhar, who passed away in Lahore at the age of 61 after a protracted illness, was an unflinching advocate of women’s rights, of progressive, secular values, and of peace between Pakistan and India.

As an early practitioner of social and street theater during the 1980s, under General Zia-ul-Haq’s repressive military regime, Madeeha Gauhar’s commitment to human rights fed the plays she adapted and directed for Ajoka Theatre. She did not balk at tackling themes that were as unpopular with the conservative establishment as they were a sign of troubled times—running the gamut from honor killings and dictatorship to religious hypocrisy and political corruption.

In 2010, when the Pakistan National Council of the Arts initially refused Ajoka permission to stage its satirical play Burqavaganza, HRCP’s co-founder, the late Asma Jahangir, offered the theater company the use of the Dorab Patel Auditorium. Subsequently, the play was performed at HRCP, following one of its annual general meetings some years later.

HRCP extends its condolences to Madeeha Gauhar’s family and friends and salutes another iconic human rights defender.

Dr Mehdi Hasan


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Hindustan Times, April 25, 2018

Pakistani theatre activist and peace campaigner Madeeha Gauhar dies aged 61

The actor, director and activist was also a tireless campaigner for peace with India.

Imtiaz Ahmad
Hindustan Times, Islamabad

Madeeha Gauhar was well-known for her commitment to theatre for social change and was also one of Pakistan’s leading women’s rights activists.

Madeeha Gauhar, an icon of independent theatre in Pakistan and a tireless campaigner for peace with India, died at her hometown of Lahore on Wednesday after a three-year battle with cancer. She was 61.

The actor, director and activist was well-known for her commitment to theatre for social change and was also one of Pakistan’s leading women’s rights activists. She founded Ajoka Theatre in 1984 with her husband, playwright Shahid Nadeem, after studying theatre in the UK and China.

Gauhar frequently collaborated with Indian artists and staged a number of plays at theatre festivals in Indian cities.

Ajoka Theatre’s plays are often based on social and human rights issues, such as female literacy, honour killings, oppression of women and religious extremism. While this endeared Gauhar to the liberals, she and her plays were often the target of the ire of Pakistan’s hardliners.

Burqavaganza, a satirical play that Gauhar described as “a love story in the times when society is grappling with issues such as extremism, intolerance and terrorism”, was banned by Pakistani authorities in 2010. The play used the burqa as a metaphor for political and social cover-ups but angered leaders of the right-wing Jamaat-e-Islami.

Other plays by Ajoka Theatre dared to take on subjects that most Pakistani playwrights would stay away from, such as Mera Rang De Basanti Chola that took a closer look at Bhagat Singh’s role in the independence movement and Dara, based on the life of Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan who was imprisoned and executed by his younger brother Aurangzeb.

Toba Tek Singh, Aik Thi Nani, Bulha, Letters to Uncle Sam, Hotel Mohenjodaro and Lo Phir Basant Ayee are among Ajoka Theatre’s memorable plays.

The group performed across the world, including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Iran, Egypt, the US and the UK. It also staged productions in backyards and open spaces in poor neighbourhoods to raise awareness about key issues.

Gauhar was the first Pakistani to receive the prestigious Prince Claus Award for her leadership of Ajoka, which was praised by organisers of the Dutch prize for withstanding “pressures from the political and religious establishment, and (remaining) committed to the cause of theatre for social change”. She was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.

Gauhar, the elder sister of actor Faryal Gauhar, is survived by her husband Shahid Nadeem and two sons, Sarang and Nirvaan.

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Hindustan Times, April 25, 2018

Madeeha Gauhar (1956-2018): Brave girl of troubled subcontinent who played across borders

As the news of her passing away — after a three-year battle with cancer — spread, the sense of loss was felt by theatre activists on both the sides

Nirupama Dutt
Hindustan Times, Chandigarh

Madeeha Gauhar never hesitated in picking up subjects that would rattle the military-mullah nexus, as she called it.
Madeeha Gauhar never hesitated in picking up subjects that would rattle the military-mullah nexus, as she called it.(HT File)

Theatre for Lahore-based Madeeha Gauhar was dissent, crusade and togetherness as the theme demanded, and her commitment to socially and politically relevant subjects was complete.

Along with her playwright husband Shahid Nadeem, she never hesitated in picking up subjects that would rattle the military-mullah nexus as she called it. The two were also not afraid of paying the price for their cause, be it jail for Madeeha, banning of a play or sacking from a government job for Shahid.

As the news of her passing away — after a three-year battle with cancer — spread, the sense of loss was felt by theatre activists on both the sides. Remembering her, Chandigarh-based theatre director Neelam Maan Singh said, “She was a very brave woman, from the themes she enacted to fighting her own illness. Just the last December, she was here to watch a rehearsal of my play ‘Dark Borders’, making a detour from Amritsar.”

She added that the value of her theatre could be appreciated greater in retrospect as theatre people in India too were engaged in finding ways of combating divisive forces. “Madeeha always laid emphasis on the shared heritage of the people of the subcontinent,” she said.

Kewal Dhaliwal, chairperson of Punjab Sangeet Natak Akademi based in Amritsar, said, “When she brought ‘Bullah’ to India in 2004, we welcomed it as ‘taaza hava da Bulla’ (a whiff of fresh air). Later I was to collaborate with her in so many productions and one of the most memorable ones was ‘Border Border’, the outcome of a workshop with children from Pakistan and India.”

He recalled that in December, when she visited this side of the border last time, it was to discuss a festival of Partition plays. Dhaliwal’s most poignant memory was when she wept in the new Partition Museum in Amritsar, saying, “Why did 10 lakh people have to die? Why couldn’t the parting, if at all, be without violence?”

After completing her masters in English literature in Lahore, Madeeha went onto obtain another master’s degree in theatre sciences in London. She set up the Ajoka Theatre group along with her husband Shahid in 1984. She took the plays of Ajoka to India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and several European countries. She was the first Pakistani artiste to be awarded the prestigious Prince Claus award of the Netherlands. Her prominent plays, besides ‘Bullah’, include ‘Toba Tek Singh’, ‘Dara Shikoh’, ‘Mera Rang De Basanti Chola’, ‘Letters to Uncle Sam’ and ‘Lo Phir Basant Aayi’. Her play against the purdah system, ‘Burkavaganza’, was banned in Pakistan.

Two very relevant cross-border plays by Madeeha are ‘Aik thi Nani’ and ‘Dukh Dariya’. In the former, she brought together two sisters of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) on stage after 50 years. They were Zohra Sehgal and Uzra Butt, the latter having been the leading lady of Prithvi Theatres before the Partition. The second play, ‘Dukh Dariya’, was based on the real-life story of a woman, Shehnaz Parveen of Mirpur, who jumped into the river as she was tormented for not bearing a child. She was rescued in India and jailed. Raped by two jail wardens, she bore a child. The irony arose when Pakistan agreed to take the woman but not her child. Such Mantoesque stories would inspire plays from Madeeha.

Madeeha is survived by her husband, two sons Sarang and Nirvaan, besides so many friends, colleagues and admirers.

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The Indian Express

‘She was a movement, not an individual’

Pakistani theatre director Madeeha Gauhar, who built cultural bridges with India, passes away in Lahore

Written by Dipanita Nath , Parul | Updated: April 26, 2018

I have won the respect of the people of Pakistan and the hearts of the people in India,” Madeeha Gauhar was fond of saying. On Wednesday, the feisty theatre director from Lahore passed away following years of battling cancer. She was 61.

Gauhar set up Ajoka Theatre in 1984 after she was lathicharged and jailed during a protest led by lawyer Asma Jahangir against General Zia- ul-Haq’s government. Ajoka’s first play was Jaloos, written by an Indian legend and radical, Badal Sircar. The venue was the lawn of Gauhar’s mother’s house in Lahore Cantonment, under the nose of the army. Intelligence officials soon caught on, but Ajoka managed to survive several run-ins with governments while taking theatre to the streets, public spaces and auditoriums.

The choice of plays revealed Gauhar’s concerns. Her best-known productions — most of which were written or adapted by her husband and human rights activist Shahid Nadeem — included Bulha about the Sufi saint Bulleh Shah, Kaun Hai Yeh Gustakh about the life of Saadat Hasan Manto, Mera Rang De Basanti Chola on Bhagat Singh, Dukh Darya on Kashmiri families divided by the border, Toba Tek Singh based on a Manto story of the same name which dealt with the Partition, and Hotel Mohenjodaro about religious fundamentalists taking over Pakistan and grinding liberal values to dust. These have been been staged in various parts of India such as Amritsar and Chandigarh, as well as at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav organised by the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi.

‘ A scene from her play Anni Mai Da Supna

“She was a very brave theatre maker because she had fought all kinds of odds, performing in difficult times, developing news style of writing on current issues, finding new forms and grammar. She worked with all kinds of concerns. She was a very energetic activist,” says Anuradha Kapur, former Director, NSD.

One of Ajoka’s greatest contributions was “Theatre for Peace”, a project to bring India and Pakistan closer by increasing collaborations between theatre groups of the two countries. “She was our link with Pakistan and I feel that it has snapped. I have been to Lahore four times, thanks to Madeeha. I had also invited her group to Chandigarh, where I did a workshop with them. We have all heard of the legendary warmth and hospitality of Pakistanis and it manifested in the way Madeeha and her husband welcomed us. I am hurting so deeply since I heard of her death. She was a movement, not an individual,” says Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, theatre director from Chandigarh.

Gauhar was a regular to Amritsar; Kewal Dhaliwal, theatre actor, director and founder of Manch Rang Manch, says they would joke that Amritsar started missing Gauhar if she didn’t visit the city once in two months. For more than 20 years, Dhaliwal worked with members of Ajoka, workshopping with them in acting and technical aspects of the stage. Dhaliwal says that his last conversation with Gauhar, a few days ago, was about a theatre festival marking 70 years of the Partition, to be held in Chandigarh and Lahore. “I told her that she was a strong woman and she needed to get well soon, so that we could work towards the festival. Now, I will have to do it on my own. I will dedicate the festival to Madeeha,” he says.

Gauhar’s relationship with Indian directors was nourished over decades. Theatre actor and director Sahib Singh of Adakar Manch in Mohali was associated with her for 15 years and had travelled to Pakistan often to stage his plays and would invite Ajoka to stage its productions in Amritsar and Chandigarh. Singh’s theatre group was instrumental in organising the five-day ‘Humsaya Theatre For Peace Festival’ in Chandigarh in 2016, which featured plays by Ajoka. “I feel she was responsible for the impactful cultural exchange between Indian and Pakistani theatre,” says Singh, who acted as a Pakistani in Ajoka’s Anni Mai Da Supna, a production based on the Partition, and as Banda Singh Bahadur in Bulha.

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A newspaper report on Madeeha Gauhar from 1983


The above articles from The media are reproduced here for educational and non commercial use