DIWAN SINGH BAJELI
Madeeha Gauhar, the theatre artiste from Pakistan, says now younger artistes are creating an art form to espouse the cause of democracy and secularism.
As an adolescent she aspired to be a stage and television actress in a male-dominated society which considered acting by women un-Islamic. This was not the only hurdle. "When I started acting it was General Zia ul Haq's military dictatorship. All forms of artistic expressions were subjected to rigorous censorship. Dance recitals by women were banned," says Madeeha Gauhar who pursued her artistic ambition in such a social milieu with determination. She was in the Capital recently to present her "Dukh Dariya" at the just-concluded Bharat Rang Mahotsav at Shri Ram Centre. A champion of new theatre movement in Pakistan, hers is a powerful voice for peace and amity between the people of South Asia and creative collaboration of artistes of the region who share glorious cultural heritage.Born in 1956, Gauhar is an M.A. in English literature and obtained her Masters in Theatre Studies at the University of London. After coming back to Lahore, she along with like-minded artistes notably Salman Shahid founded the first significant theatre group named Ajoka (Today) in 1983 which is carrying forward the oral storytelling tradition of the Bhands and Nautanki that flourished in what is now Pakistani province of Punjab. As director of plays, her theatre reflects the aesthetic, moral, social and political reality of modern Pakistan. Despite her training in theatrical art abroad, she uses indigenous elements blending them with modern techniques, imbuing with contemporary sensibility. "Doing theatre under a repressive regime is very hard and to get a venue for enactment is harder still. Ajoka's inaugural play was `Jaloos' by Badal Sircar, an Indian playwright, which was performed in a private lawn in Lahore in defiance of the strict censorship laws of martial law reign," she says. Over the years she has created several memorable productions.
Rewarding experienceA frequent visitor to India, she feels that interaction between Indian and Pakistani theatre practitioners is always a rewarding experience. She enjoys popularity with the Indian audiences who admire her works and feel remarkable immediacy. She has worked with the late Safdar Hashmi, apart from working with Anuradha Kapoor, Rati Bartholomew and Kamla Bhasi. Whenever the productions feature at any Indian theatre festivals, they invariably evoke tremendous response from the audience.Honoured with the prestigious Tamgha-i-Imtiaz, women's liberation is another social concern which she reveals through her works. Her latest production of "Dukh Dariya" has three women oriented strands that converge into an image that projects suffering of women from time immemorial. "Dukh Dariya" is not a river in physical sense but a metaphor of the eternal suffering of women in all ages. How the audience in Pakistan reacted to the narrative element that deals with the tragic story of Sita abandoned by Ram? "It stirred them emotionally. In fact, the audiences in both the countries watched the play with similar emotional intensity. Before presenting this play at Bharat Rang Mahotsav, it was already staged at Dehra Dun and after Delhi it will be shown in Jaipur." She was recently invited to direct her play on women's rights at the Los Angeles International Art Festival.Aware of the challenges to the development of a truly modern Pakistani theatre, she says that the forces of conservatism always tried to silence the voices of dissent and against the social status quo. Before Partition in the 1930s the Indian People's Theatre Association had its branches in Lahore and Karachi which contributed to the growth of modern theatre. But after Partition this movement came to an end and with the banning of Pakistani Communist Party in the 1950s the progressive forces in the arts felt totally isolated and defeated. "Today there is no IPTA movement in Pakistan but younger artistes are creating an art form to espouse the cause of democracy and secularism," says Gauhar.Talking about the present scenario in Pakistan for the growth of theatrical art, she says, "There is no censorship on theatrical presentations. The Arts Council provides us with auditorium to perform but there is no state subsidy nor the corporate sector is interested in theatre. There is no tradition of buying of tickets. Norwegian embassy grants some funds for doing theatre for education. Pakistani theatre has survived even in the most trying times. Now that there is better creative environment, freedom of expression and committed younger theatre workers the modern meaningful Pakistani theatre is bound to thrive."